Tools and methodology will only get a person so far. Experience gained from the practical implementation of Six Sigma solutions is priceless. A list of tips, tools and suggestions for Six Sigma practitioners can help avoid many project pitfalls.
By Simon Bodie
Tools and methodology will only get a person so far. Experience gained from the practical implementation of Six Sigma solutions is priceless. A list of tips, tools and suggestions for Six Sigma practitioners can help avoid many pitfalls of project management.
Some fundamental points for project success are:
- Planning project work well.
- Determining the exact scope of the work and the required/desired outcomes.
- Developing a proper fact-based understanding of the problem.
- Leveraging creative tools to develop the highest quality imaginative ideas.
- Leveraging selection tools and decision making tools to identify the most appropriate solutions.
- Managing stakeholders well, involving them and planning their involvement.
- Planning and executing implementation with great care.
- Ensuring that benefits are calculated and extracted.
- Handing over a complete sustainable finished product to the business.
These issues can be better managed when using a proven methodology like Six Sigma.
Planning project work well: Projects with a relatively short timeframe (e.g., three months) require a disciplined approach to planning. Just measuring a problem properly or testing a solution properly may require considerable time given that many have weekly, monthly, quarterly, annual peaks and troughs in volumes or experience. Or there may be other types of seasonal variations.
- Develop a conceptual plan for the whole project within the first week.
- In the conceptual plan, identify milestones or key events.
- Schedule future key meetings with stakeholders based upon that conceptual plan.
- Arrange these key meetings for the whole project as early as possible (e.g., within the first two weeks).
- Develop a detailed plan for the first phase within the first week.
- Avoid overcomplicating the plan. In many cases it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.
- By considering the tools to be used (brainstorming, affinity diagrams, etc), more accurate timeframe estimates will be possible.
- Try to imagine/estimate/guess the type of outputs that will be produced from each event. (For example, about 100 ideas from brainstorming will probably take about 15 minutes to plot into an affinity diagram.) This helps in estimating timeframes.
- Arrange all workshops and meetings for the first phase immediately or as soon as possible.
- Plan, in as much detail as practical, the subsequent phases and make sure the detailed and conceptual plan align.
- Do not put the plan in a bottom drawer, it is for daily use.
- Block out the time on a written schedule for all events, including thinking time. Avoid being driven by other people’s agendas (e.g., block out a day for planning the next phase).
Determining the exact scope of the work and the required/desired outcomes: The scope of a project will without doubt change as the team leader or team members develop a better understanding of the problem. However, it is important that once there is a basic understanding of the problem and it has been discussed with the project sponsor, the scope should be locked in. Then that scope should only be changed with sponsor agreement and after carefully considering the pros and cons of the decision. Consider these steps:
- Create a working scope document from Day 1.
- Try to get a basic understanding of the problem as soon as possible.
- Think about the scope that would give the greatest benefit for the effort required.
- Make sure the project scope is practical. There are plenty of small initiatives that can have massive impact on business performance. Try to identify these.
- Consider who would be the best sponsor for such an initiative.
- Discuss this with a current project sponsor. Enlist their help to find the right sponsor if necessary.
- Use a simple in-scope/out-of-scope table.
- Pay particular attention to out-of-scope items.
- Make sure the scope is communicated to all key stakeholders.
Developing a proper fact-based understanding of the problem: Obviously if project leaders do not understand the problems properly, they will be unable to fix them. The most common mistakes in this area are:
- Relying on “folk law” as the basis of understanding the problem.
- Being an intellectual snob, that is, thinking the cause of the problem is obvious.
- Taking bosses’ or sponsors’ or other key persons’ interpretation of the problem as fact.
To avoid making these mistakes, adhere to the DMAIC roadmap. A strength of DMAIC is that it produces a fact-based understanding of problems.
Points 4 and 5
Leveraging creative tools to develop the highest quality imaginative ideas, and leveraging selection tools and decision-making tools to identify the most appropriate solutions: Once the problem is properly understood, the next job is to find a good solution. The most common mistakes made in this area are:
- Jumping on the first idea as the optimal solution.
- Accepting “folk law” ideas as viable solutions.
- Thinking that the solution to the problem is obvious and not exerting any effort to identify alternatives.
- Taking your bosses’ or sponsors’ or other key persons’ ideas for solutions as the best ones.
Avoid making these mistakes by:
- Adhering to the DMAIC roadmap – another strength of the DMAIC methodology is in the development and selection of ideas.
- Leveraging the toolkit for idea generation and idea selection tools.
- Avoiding silent brainstorming.
- Using a warm up “non-work” brainstorm prior to generating ideas in work-focused brainstorms.
- Applying brainstorming rules rigorously – especially the “no judgment” rule.
- Inviting cross sections of people to the brainstorm session, including “wild card” invitees.
- Reviewing and using lateral thinking techniques (as developed by Edward de Bono).
- Exploring ideas known to be wrong to see where they may lead.
- Considering ideas that at first glance appear opposed to logic.
- Planting random words into brainstorming session.
- Suggesting the opposite of the last suggestion in a brainstorming session.
- Using decision-making tools like nominal group technique to quickly reduce the options.
- Trusting the idea generation and selection process.
Managing stakeholders well, involving them and planning their involvement: A project’s stakeholder group will play a significant role in the success or failure of the project. Failure to manage the stakeholder group properly is the No. 1 non-technical cause of project failure. Common mistakes include:
- Failing to identify a significant key stakeholder(s).
- Underestimating the power and influence of a stakeholder(s).
- Failing to identify a negative stakeholder(s).
- Failing to develop a proper management plan for stakeholders.
- Ignoring stakeholder issues.
- Doing whatever stakeholders want.
Avoid these mistakes by:
- Taking stakeholder management very seriously.
- Involving others to help identify stakeholders.
- Making stakeholder identification part of every meeting.
- Encouraging the project team to be frank about the nature of stakeholders.
- Treating stakeholders with respect, but not being driven by them.
- Developing individual management plans for key stakeholders that represent any type of risk or opportunity.
Planning and executing implementation with great care: The implementation of change is often the most poorly managed phase of any project. This is clearly the most important phase as it is the phase where ideas come to life and the benefits start to be realized. Failure to implement an idea properly makes all prior work appear futile. It is irrelevant how good an idea is if it is not implemented properly.
Common mistakes here are:
- Attempting to implement fanciful solutions that cannot or do not work in the real world.
- Poor planning (e.g., failing to take into account that to train 1,000 call center staff might take many months and cost millions of dollars).
- Failing to understand the magnitude of the task.
- Avoiding consideration of details.
Avoid these mistakes by:
- Planning thoroughly and in great detail.
- Involving supervisors and line staff in the planning.
- Testing implementation methods and tools prior to implementation.
- Involving training, human resources and business leaders in support of the implementation.
Ensuring that benefits are calculated and extracted: Understanding the benefits of a project improvement is extremely important. Apart from the obvious importance to the company’s financial performance, benefits also can be a powerful tool to use in stakeholder management. Understanding benefits can be difficult, extracting those benefits can be even more difficult. If the benefits of an improvement cannot be identified, then one can only conclude that the change being proposed is not an improvement at all. Therefore do not implement it.
It is worth remembering that it is impossible to have an improvement that does not have a financial benefit.
Common mistakes in this area include:
- Being unwilling to make estimates.
- Being unwilling to take on the hard tasks (manual counts, grunt work, etc.) that are required to gather the required statistics.
- Being unable to find the information required.
- Being unwilling to facilitate, encourage, coerce others to assist in these efforts.
- Calculating theoretical benefits but not having agreement about benefit extraction.
- Accepting stakeholders’ politically drive explanations regarding why a particular benefit is not achievable.
Avoid these mistakes by:
- Making estimates early. This is a good way of encouraging involvement and feedback. (It is interesting how enthusiastic people get about proving someone wrong.)
- Building time into the project plan to gather benefits information and to calculate benefits.
- Building time into the project plan to plan benefit extraction.
- Building milestones into the plan where benefit estimates will be updated – and keep to it.
- Attaching confidence levels (or ranges) to estimates (e.g., $100k per annum, +/- $60k).
- Making sure the sponsor and other key stakeholders know the level of confidence in all estimates.
- Working closely with stakeholders to develop benefit extraction plans.
- Challenging stakeholders when explanations do not make sense.
- Being creative about how benefits are accessed.
- Spending time identifying who has the information the project requires.
- Being prepared to manually take samples, gather information, etc.
Handing over a complete sustainable finished product to the business: In order to close the project, the project team will need to have a finished product that can be sustained by the business without the special intervention of the project manager or project team.
Common mistakes here include:
- Handing over an incomplete product because the project budget has run out.
- Letting the project timeline slip, and therefore not allowing sufficient time for this part of the project.
- Not agreeing on how to execute the handover to the business.
- Failing to recognize the tasks involved.
Avoid these mistakes by:
- Following the Six Sigma DMAIC methodology for the Control phase.
- Ensuring the project meets its deadlines.
- Building into the plan sufficient time for this phase.
- Working closely with the managers and supervisors of the areas impacted by the project.
About the Author: Simon Bodie is currently head of quality and Six Sigma at Citigroup in Australia. He is a Black Belt and president of the Six Sigma Council in Australia. A quality practitioner for 20 years, Mr. Bodie has used Six Sigma to deliver significant financial benefits in the manufacturing, financial service, energy and insurance industries. He can be reached at [email protected].