Communication Solutions for a Co-Located Six Sigma Project Team

My previous column focused on communication with a remote located Six Sigma project team. Many would assume that co-located teams are easy to work with and require less effort for a project manager to manage. They would be wrong. A co-located team, while easier to pull together for meetings, still has its challenges.

Common Project Management Issues

The first challenge a Six Sigma project manager faces with a co-located team is existing relationships and perceptions. These people have likely worked together or alongside each other for some time, and have established perceptions of each other. Relationships that have been forged, for better or worse, can either greatly benefit your Six Sigma project or cause more work for you as the project manager.

The second challenge with a team that faces each other frequently is non-verbal communication. One or two Six Sigma team members who aren’t fully onboard can dramatically impact the rest of the team. Most importantly, the project manager has this impact! If you’re not positive, energetic, or professional in your personal interactions with the team, individually and as a group, the team senses these things and reacts. It’s very difficult to expect high energy, high output, and high quality from your team when your energy level is low, you’re doing only what it takes to get by, and you’re showing that you’re not all that concerned with the Six Sigma project. Whether or not you truly are these things, or just perceived to be, the impact is the same. Unfortunately, perception is what the team takes away from interactions like these ones. This impact can be heavily muted when you’re remote and only on the phone. When you’re in person, the impact is dramatic.

Potential Solutions

With a new team that will be in the same location, the first step is to understand the existing dynamics among the members. Getting to know everyone if you don’t already will go a long way toward this goal. Be very observant of who seems to take the lead, voice his or her opinion, sit quietly, doodle, etc. Who is highly energetic and who is less energetic? What does the team member do in his or her "day-job"? What does that person like to do at work? At home? What is the team member’s situation, i.e., overwhelmed with work-life conflicts? You don’t have to be a psychiatrist, but getting to know your team members personally without being their priest or doctor can yield great benefits to your Six Sigma project.

Putting this knowledge to use is another topic altogether. Once you have a good understanding of your team members, how do you make positive use of that information? First, never manipulate someone based on what you think you know! Second, try to have each person fill a role that best suits his or her likes, style, motivation, etc. If a team member likes flexibility, freedom, and is creative, have that person help lead brainstorming sessions or similar tasks. Putting the team member in front of a spreadsheet entering data would probably not go well. Others are perfectly suited to that and love it!

We discussed non-verbal communication above as a potential issue with co-located Six Sigma project teams. It can also be an asset. There are three things to be aware of that with practice, can help your interactions become wildly successful:

  1. Understand the difference between perception and reality when it comes to your impact on others. This seems simple, but it’s not. You may think you’re funny, outgoing and comfortable. Others may see you as a jerk. How others see you in your daily work is their reality. Ask for feedback regularly, especially after a team meeting, presentation, and the like. Don’t ask your best friend — ask the person you think may not like or respect you. Someone who is direct. Put your pride aside and listen to that person. Then, later, decide if you need to adjust something in your actions that would alter these perceptions for the better.
  2. Understand the non-verbal cues of others. Do you watch for visible signs of boredom? Of dislike for what is going on? For acceptance or denial? There are hundreds of books on the topic and they vary in their approach and content. However, being in tune with what others are telling you with their bodies can give you the advantage of adjusting your message on the fly. Doing so can reel in a wayward team member without direct confrontation.
  3. Understand the non-verbal signals you’re sending. Everything from grooming to how you dress, stand, sit, gesture, what you bring to the meeting, where you sit or stand, your eye contact, etc. — it all conveys a message. The more aware you are of your own non-verbal signals, the more you can tailor them to the need of the moment. Again, numerous books on the subject can help.

Here are four tactical tips that can boost the communication among the team and with management:

  1. Schedule a "Kick-Off Meeting" that is separate from your normal working sessions. This time should be spent setting the tone for the Six Sigma project, expectations for interaction, welcoming new people to the team if they don’t know each other, etc. It should also involve some general discussion about approach to meetings (for instance whether they are on time and what agenda they should follow), quality control, etc. In other words, establish you and the team as the leader of the meeting, and do it with a personal touch. Holding the meeting over a meal is a great way to start off if you can make it happen.
  2. From the last column (this is a familiar one) — reach out to each team member to get to know the person. If you already know this team member well, you’re ahead of the game. If not, go ahead and talk awhile about non-work things. This will foster open communication, at least with you if not team-wide.
  3. Furthermore from the last column, but with a different twist — in person, discuss the project and its needs with each team member’s boss; have the discussion about the value of the team member, the value of the project, etc. This should be a very positive discussion, and should sell that manager on you, your project and the team. Prepare for this meeting like you would for a job interview. This gathering should boost communication between the team member and his or her boss, providing you with a very committed team member.
  4. Keep your sponsor VERY well informed every step of the way — after each meeting, talk about the team members, progress made, obstacles the team members are facing, etc.

Summary and Action Going Forward

In conclusion, when it comes to communication among Six Sigma project teams, the project manager has a key role. How he or she handles this role will have a huge impact on the success of the project. By paying attention to individual team members, and continuing education in the area of non-verbal communication, Six Sigma project success becomes much more likely. It also becomes more enjoyable to be a part of a well performing, properly communicating team.