For many Black Belts, the biggest challenge is not learning the data tools – it is learning the managerial skills needed to run an effective team. And one of the most difficult of skills is dealing with commitment conflicts that team members face.

By John Kessler

For many Black Belts, the biggest challenge of their new position is not learning the data tools – it is learning the managerial skills needed to run an effective team. And one of the most difficult of the managerial skills is dealing with commitment conflicts that team members face. Here is a parable based on a number of real-life exchanges with Black Belts.

Getting the Project Team Together

Just a few weeks into his first project, Victor, a Black Belt candidate, realized that his biggest difficulty was going to be getting all the team members in the same meeting at the same time.

His team was supposed to design and launch a new standard budget spreadsheet that all managers would be required to use. The team had been given a four-month window to complete its work prior to the next round of annual budgeting.

At the first team meeting, everyone had sounded enthusiastic because they had all struggled with aligning corporate and departmental budget categories and figures. But since then, the problem of attendance at meetings had been spotty and not everyone completed their assignments on time. The biggest offender was Heather, an assistant controller, who actually came to the last meeting but did not bring an update on research she was supposed to be doing on existing budget codes and classifications.

Victor wanted his project to be a success because his company had instituted a new policy that Six Sigma experience was going to be taken into consideration in all hiring and promotion decisions. At the moment, all he could see was a spectacular failure.

Talking with Project’s Master Black Belt

Unsure of what to do, Victor went to talk to his coach, a Master Black Belt named Enrico who had led more than a dozen projects during the last few years.

“Let’s take this a step at a time,” advised Enrico. “The first thing you need to remember is that your job is to support your team members. The second thing is that no one on your team is the master of their own schedules. Like everyone else on the team, Heather’s time is governed mostly by decisions her boss has made.

“The first step when you run into problems like these,” said Enrico, “is to talk to the person directly and find out what’s going on in their lives. Is this a short-term problem? Or have they been overcommitted by their manager? If it’s short-term, then your job is to ask how you can support Heather to get the work done on time – maybe there’s someone else on the team who can help. If it’s longer term, then we’ll come up with a different strategy. Go talk to Heather and then come back and we’ll discuss what to do next.”

A few days later, Victor reported back. “I had a good conversation with Heather,” he told Enrico. “She felt bad because she knew she wasn’t fulfilling her commitments to the team. I found out she is under a lot of time pressure, so it’s understandable. We put our heads together and figured out a way to get her current assignment done soon. But that hasn’t really solved the problem, so I think we’re going to fall behind again.”

Seeking Project Support from Managers

“This kind of problem is really common,” said Enrico. “It’s easy for managers to lose track of how much time they’ve actually committed for their employees. Who’s the sponsor of this team? And who is Heather’s manager?”

“The sponsor is Jake Henry, the senior VP of finance,” replied Victor. “But Heather’s boss is really Muriel Hastings, who reports to Jake.”

“Well, you definitely have to talk to Jake because he’s the sponsor,” Enrico said. “But you don’t want Muriel to think you’re going over her head. So I’d suggest you try to arrange a joint meeting with both of them. Tell them you’re having trouble with resource scheduling, you’re concerned about meeting your commitments, and you want to get their input and advice.”

Victor realized this was the right thing to do, but still he was bit nervous. “I’ve never dealt with a senior VP before,” he told Enrico. “And Muriel’s not my boss, so I really don’t know her either. And she’s definitely higher than me in the company food chain!”

“You’re right,” Enrico agreed. “And I don’t mean to add to your stress, but the fact is that the higher managers pay close attention to how well Black Belts deal with problems like these. If you show them that you’re business-like and professional, that will certainly help your career here.”

“How do I do that?” Victor asked.

“First thing, you’ve got to come prepared. And you’ve got to be organized,” Enrico replied. “You don’t want them to think you’re wasting their time.”

Dealing with Senior Management

Enrico gave Victor more specific instructions. “Review the project charter, which Jake definitely had to sign off on,” he said. “You want to remind them what you were asked to do and why people thought it was important at the time. Next, remind them why Heather was chosen for the project – exactly what background, skills, knowledge, or whatever she contributes to the mix – and what level of commitment was agreed to up front. Then explain how her inability to fully contribute is hurting the project. Show them the project plans you’ve put together, what tasks have fallen behind schedule, and how that’s affecting the overall project.”

At that point, advised Enrico, the ball is really in their court. “Don’t make demands of them,” he told Victor. “Your position is that you’re caught in this resource crunch, are concerned about finishing the project, and you want to do what’s best for the business.”

“I’m not sure I know what that means,” said Victor.

“Basically, it means you can’t go in demanding that they free up Heather’s time,” Enrico answered. “You’ve got to be open to different outcomes. For example, maybe the project isn’t as high a priority as it used to be, so they may want to keep Heather on the team but extend the timeline. Or if Heather is needed for her other work, there may be someone else with the same expertise who can take her place on the team. If there’s no one else who can take Heather’s place and the project is important, then they’ll see that they have to make accommodations to get her other work done.”

A Solution and Management Support

A few days later, Victor ran into Samantha, the corporate Champion, in the hallway. “How did your meeting with Jake and Muriel go?” asked Samantha.

Victor was surprised she knew about it. “Um, it went great,” he managed to answer. “It turned out that Heather’s first priority was finishing a project that should be done in two weeks. After that, Muriel agreed to shift the next project onto another person in the department so Heather can continue on the team. Both Muriel and Jake agreed we could shift the project deadline back a month, so that will work out great.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” said Samantha. “Enrico filled me in on the situation yesterday. I just want you to know that if it hadn’t worked out, I’d have expected you to come to me next. It’s my job to make sure that our Lean Six Sigma projects are properly supported – or to make adjustments is our business priorities shift. Anyway, Enrico was very complimentary of how you dealt with this.”

Summary of Advice for Black Belts

To recap, a Black Belt who is getting caught up in a resource pinch can benefit from this advice:

  • Adopt the attitude that a Black Belt’s job is to support team members in any way they can.
  • Never trap a team member between project demands and the demands of their regular job.
  • Talk to the team member first to find out what is going on.
  • If it is a short-term problem, ask the person what others on the team can do to help them get the task done on time. Someone else may be able to do the footwork and use the time-strapped member more as an advisor.
  • If the problem is long term, talk to the project sponsor (and/or the person’s manager) and lay out the problem.
    • Come to the meeting prepared. Be able to talk about the purpose and goal of the project, the timeline provided for the project, and how the inability of the affected team member to fully participate is hindering the team’s progress.
    • Never, ever make demands of the sponsor/manager. Remember that the goal is to do what is best for the business as whole, not for the project per se. The driving questions are: “Is this project still important to the organization? If so, what accommodations can be made to ensure that the team has appropriate resources?”
  • Remember that Master Black Belts and Champions are there to help. Do not be afraid to ask for their advice or even intervention. In particular, if a Black Belt is unable to resolve the problem directly with the time-strapped person or the project sponsor/manager, the Black Belt should go to the division or corporate Champion. The Champion’s job is to help sustain the project by removing barriers and making sure that Lean Six Sigma efforts are supported at the corporate level.

About the Author: John Kessler is a senior consultant with George Group in Dallas, Texas, USA. He is a certified Master Black Belt who specializes in teaching and implementing DMAIC and DFLSS methods. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author