Four Factors for Getting the Right Project Under Your "Belt"

Robert Lopez

Too often new Black Belts go after huge organizational issues/problems and have at best mediocre success, writes Robert Lopez in this month's Tales from a Master Black Belt. Here are the four essential factors to make sure you don't bite off more than you can chew.

So you want to be a Six Sigma Black Belt and are trying to figure out how to get started? I have been asked this question many times by others outside the process improvement industry. My typical response is, "It depends".

It depends on where you are and where your organization’s culture is with process improvement using the Six Sigma methodology. For this article, let’s assume your organization has supported the Six Sigma methodology but has not mandated or declared it as an enterprise strategy for process improvement. Organizations that have mandated the use of the Six Sigma methodology (top down approach) will have training and mentoring programs in place and project identification is likely driven by leadership. If your organization has not, it has likely taken a bottoms up approach. You will have to network to find out how to receive training and mentoring.

In any organization, finding the right project is important; however, in bottoms up organizations it is critical. The right project really depends on your Six Sigma experience. I am going to focus on selecting your first and second project. Once you get a couple (ideally a few) projects under your "belt", you will have a good idea about selecting the right projects for you and your organization. Too many times I have seen new Black Belts go after huge organization (company or business unit) issues/problems and have at best mediocre success. Why? They are too complex for an inexperienced Black Belt and they are not providing the necessary resource to effectively identify and address an issue’s root cause(s). It is no different than having a new mechanic just out of a manufacturer’s training program being assigned to perform complex transmission diagnosis and repair.

Process complexity and resource commitment are clear factors that need to be look at, but they are not the most significant. I think organizational impact is the most significant factor that needs to be considered. Face it, if your project is not impactful enough to get your leadership’s attention, it will limit the extent to which your project is considered successful. The last key factor I look at is how much control "management" has over the process being addressed. There are other factors, but I think these are the most important.

Let’s go into more detail for each of these four factors (impact, complexity, control and resources).

Factor #1: Impact

When looking at this factor, you need to understand what gets attention in your organization. I found monetary value gets attention, however, not always. Finding a project that you can quantify the financial (revenue or expense) impact really helps in getting leaders’ attention. Don’t get lost in raw dollars (or your currency), as sometimes it is important to use percentages or other references that leaders can relate to. The challenge I face regularly is quantifying qualitative benefits. The classic is putting a monetary value to an improvement in customer satisfaction or loyalty at a project level. Most of the time leaders intuitively know the monetary value of qualitative benefits. Understand your organization, its leaders and use what gets their attention.

Factors #2 & #3: Complexity and Control

Process complexity and your area’s control over the process go hand in hand. I look at each of these using Six Sigma’s foundational formula:

Also referred to as a process, outputs are a function of a process’ input. From a complexity perspective, how measurable is the output and how many measurable key inputs are there? For example, customer satisfaction may have many inputs that may or may not be easily measured. On the other hand, call hold time in a call center may only have inputs that are easy to measure.

When looking at the inputs, I also look at how much of the inputs can directly be controlled by the organization. In the service industry, a key input to customer satisfaction is the customer feeling that they have been treated empathetically by a company representative. But measuring and controlling empathy can be as difficult as describing the color red to someone who has never seen color before. In this example it is easier to measure and control inputs like call type, number of representatives taking calls and call volumes throughout the day/shift. Management has more control or influence over these inputs, therefore very likely being able to affect the output.

Factor #4: Resources

We find in our organization Black Belts getting time and resources to work on their projects is always a challenge. If your organization has taken a top down approach for deploying Six Sigma, resources should be less of an issue, as Black Belts in these organizations are usually full time and leaders are more involved and engaged with driving Six Sigma projects. Either way, you as a Black Belt need to ask yourself, "Am I willing to go above and beyond to complete my project" (work on it when my day job is over)? This is critical when you are not getting the necessary time or resources to work on your project.

I hope you found the information helpful and that it provides some direction for identifying a good Six Sigma project. A key factor with anyone’s success is being passionate about what they are doing. If you are reading this column, you are likely passionate about process improvement. Don’t underestimate its value, as it will be extremely influential with your Six Sigma success. If you ever have any questions or doubts about a project, find a Master Black Belt to help you. That is why we do what we do.