The Next Step in Project Management: How to Form Six Sigma Project Teams

James Lewis

In previous columns I discussed a number of aspects of project management, including project initiation, how project management is defined and how to plan. Now I will discuss how to form a Six Sigma project team. And, since I am not an expert in Six Sigma itself, I have asked a colleague of mine to help with this. Let me begin by introducing Tom Ostasiewski, who is a registered engineer, PMP® and a Six Sigma Black Belt. Tom and I worked together when we both lived in Roanoke, Virginia. Now Tom lives in Norfolk, Virginia, and is a consultant with Clark Nexsen Architecture and Engineering firm.

Here is Tom’s advice for establishing a Six Sigma project team.

Determining the Scope of the Six Sigma Project

First the Six Sigma project is scoped—not so big as to require 20 people as a Six Sigma project team to represent all aspects; not so small as to have little impact—this is a tough balancing act. The Champion, Master Black Belt—sometimes the Black Belt—and sometimes the steering committee or leadership team are involved in this. Six Sigma leadership typically wants to shoot for big goals, huge scopes—dramatic impact. The Champion and Master Black Belt typically will pare this down to what is achievable based on their experience. Somewhere in the middle there is a scope that will work, and the commitment of upper management that it will be done. This is usually written in a formal charter and signed off by upper management and the Six Sigma leadership.

Composing the Six Sigma Project Team

Once the scope is determined, the Six Sigma project team composition should represent those positions that either have a direct impact on the process or are direct beneficiaries of the process. Sometimes you involve actual customers, but typically not (they’re represented elsewhere). These Six Sigma project team members have full-time day jobs, and a boss that may or may not be part of the Six Sigma leadership team—she may be several layers down. They can expect to spend about one to four hours per week, every week—depending upon the Six Sigma project—the Black Belt leading them and receiving the level of support at all levels (and the projected benefit).

A good sized Six Sigma project team for a typical well scoped Six Sigma project will have no more than about 12 people on it. Ideally there would be about five to eight people who are a short drive to the site of the process or meeting location. Video and phone do work, but require much more effort on the front end gaining support of managers, building rapport with the Six Sigma project team, etc. It is helpful if the initial meetings can be done face-to-face, but this is not always possible.

The individuals are selected based on several factors. Their level of influence in the process—will others follow them? Their true knowledge of the inner workings of the process—do they do this every day? In other words, we want people who do the work, not their managers! Based on my experience, personality can play a significant role. If you get a Six Sigma project team of introverted, highly technical people, they all will know the right and wrong ways to do things, but not work as a team without a lot of effort from the leader. The opposite can be true with a Six Sigma project team of extroverts—a lot of talking, action, etc., but hard to get into the weeds and find the issues. Balance is ideal in this area if it can be had. The one thing that can kill the Six Sigma project team, but won’t necessarily make it a success, is the level of support from each team member’s direct supervisor. If the supervisors are on board, you can have a great team member with minimal effort. If they don’t buy in to the Six Sigma project or the Six Sigma effort as a whole, that team member will focus on their day job, and not the project. An individual discussion with each direct supervisor of the Six Sigma project team members is something I’ve found very useful. You can see if there’s support or not, and adjust accordingly (or at least let the Champion and Master Black Belt know of the issue if the team is rigid).

In building the Six Sigma project team, it is important to consider using some "members" as consultants. Not every meeting or every discussion needs every person you might talk to. In a manufacturing project, Accounting or Purchasing may need to be consulted. But they may not need to be at every meeting. Those who are regular members of the Six Sigma project team should be those who have a very active, direct impact, as well as frequent interaction with the process. It could be five different departments, or only one. I’ve led Six Sigma projects where once we started mapping the process, we adjusted the team dramatically—both adding and deleting members—based on what the process actually is (as opposed to what we thought it was). The Six Sigma project team can and should change during the project. You’ll see this most often near the end when it comes time for deployment.

Ensuring that Six Sigma Project Team Members Get Participation Recognition
If at all possible, there should be some formal recognition of Six Sigma project team members’ participation (not just results). This is added work for them, for which they typically don’t get paid (at least in the near term). A huge struggle is to shift this attitude toward a "…this is a career enhancer for me…my boss picked me…I’m moving up…" one. Not a "…who has spare time to work on this management thing…" This starts at the top, and when done right, provides many willing and very able Six Sigma project team members.

It’s about people and leadership. Skill fits in there somewhere too, but they are not the first priority.