Managing Change in Your Six Sigma Project Team

We’ve all experienced change in our Six Sigma project teams. Whether it is due to downsizing, changing priorities within an area of the company, or some other reason, your team members are likely to change beyond your control. This can be extremely disruptive if not accounted for, planned and managed properly. However, done right, change can instead prove to be a benefit to the Six Sigma project!

These changes can generally be lumped into three categories: Loss, Addition and Burnout. In this column, we’ll discuss each of these phenomena and how you might manage each one toward positive results.


In this first case, and probably the most common, one of your Six Sigma project team members is no longer on your team. Either the team member left the company, the department or is just being "unassigned". Regardless of the reasons, you now have tasks with no owner. You also have a team that was working together, knew each other and counted on each other as the work got done. Both of these areas need your attention quickly:

First, what was the newly departed Six Sigma project team member actually doing? If there is a transition period, you’re fortunate. Find out in detail where the member is with his or her work with the mindset of transitioning it to someone else quickly. This may require you to get "down in the weeds" to help ensure a smooth transition. If there is no transition period, you should involve a couple of your other well rounded Six Sigma project team members to help you pick up the pieces. Amongst yourselves, determine the status of the tasks the person was handling, get the documentation together, and identify any gaps.

Second, and probably concurrently with the first task, you need to identify whether the remaining Six Sigma project team can take up the slack, or if you need a new team member. Ideally, you conduct a team meeting, explain the departure and provide an overview of the items that need to be picked up by others. Note that you shouldn’t automatically claim all the work for yourself. Find out if your remaining Six Sigma project team members can take it on, and spread it around. If you do determine you need to replace the person and that is a viable option within your company, work with the Project Champion and department managers to fill the need.

At this point, you’ve identified what needs to be done, and who will do it. Your task now should be to monitor the new assignments very closely (not micromanagement — monitoring). At the first sign of trouble, gather the team and make sure everyone is still committed to what they agreed to take on. Do remember that you’ve just changed the personality of your Six Sigma project team. If you were a "performing" team, you may have taken a step or two back to "storming", where team members are scrambling to figure out their new roles and responsibilities. Stay in touch with them and make sure you support them in their time of "loss".


The addition of a new Six Sigma project team member may be just as challenging as the loss of one. You clearly and convincingly negotiated for added personnel and now you have it. Now what? First, you’ll be sure to get them their specific tasks, schedule, etc. The human side also needs specific attention. Be sure to fully integrate the person into the "team" environment. Make sure they are introduced formally in the next Six Sigma project team meeting. Ensure the entire team understands the reason for the addition and the specific tasks they will perform. Watch carefully for the "clique" mentality that can exclude the new person (e.g. jargon the team uses but the newcomer doesn’t know, separate work sessions, etc.). Even paying attention to the interactions during your team meetings can provide clues to their full integration.

As with the loss of a Six Sigma project team member, the addition of one can also set your team’s personality back a little. Be sure to follow up with the team members individually as well as asking as a group "how are we doing?"


Even if your team members are not being changed out physically, emotionally they can disconnect. For instance, have you heard the term "Retired on the job"? Teams that are working on long Six Sigma projects, or long periods of time between major milestones can experience this same change. It shows itself in slowly developing ways, so often it is hard to notice. You may notice more team members missing more meetings. Deadlines seem to get missed more frequently and/or the reasons given for it are less plausible. You can also pick up on this via the local gossip mill — what are people saying about your project?

So if you’re picking up on the signs that your Six Sigma project team needs a booster shot, how do you do it? You could have senior management come into your meetings and deliver a pep talk about how important the Six Sigma project is, etc. It is good to have that support all along regardless. However, to really boost your team’s performance, as project manager you’ll have to engage personally:

First of all, do you have reasonably spaced milestones that you can celebrate? The DMAIC model gives you at least five on a given Six Sigma project. Going six months with no reason to recognize the team is entirely too long. Weekly gets old though. You’ll have to find a way to break down your Six Sigma project into reasonable chunks and celebrate the achievement of each of them. Think "work breakdown structure" and evaluate yours in this light.

Second, do you have team members who really don’t need to be as involved as you initially thought? If they don’t think it’s important to be there, they may not have "important" work to be doing on the Six Sigma project at that time. Let them take a break while those that do need to be involved do their work. Bring the others in as needed. Everyone would appreciate that, and devote more energy to the project when they are really needed.

Third, is there true accountability? What happens when they miss a meeting, a deadline, or the quality of the work is poor? How involved is management and your Six Sigma Project Champion? We want to stress positive motivation, and being part of a successful Six Sigma project is very motivating. We can also balance this with some honest accountability for results. Make sure you have Champion and management support, and make your expectations in this area clear with your team. We all want to know what is expected of us, the rewards for doing it, and the consequences for not doing it. Deliver this in the right manner (and follow through with it), and you’ll win devoted Six Sigma project team members quickly.

Moving Forward

We’ve discussed the three major ways your project team can change as your Six Sigma project progresses. You should now be looking at your project and team and identifying how you would handle the above situations should they occur. In all likelihood, one of them will happen at some point. With this in mind, how will you handle the addition, loss, or disengagement of your team members? Are some at more risk than others? Is the impact of losing one of your team members higher than the rest? It is time to take stock of your team, its status, and begin thinking about how you might handle these situations.