"My Six Sigma Leadership Changed—Now What?"

Jeff Cole

The other day I drove by a local company and it brought up some sad memories. In their heyday they had implemented Six Sigma, broke even on their investment in record time and had a 4x ROI the first year with just a handful of projects. They took pride in having implemented Six Sigma the way it was intended to be done. Over the past several years, the company went through multiple leadership changes. What they were currently doing, although still labeled "Six Sigma," bore no resemblance to what Six Sigma should be. There were several diehard Master Black Belts and Six Sigma leaders still practicing it the correct way in their own limited areas, but the company overall had regressed. And they’re not alone. In a 2006 study, the Aberdeen Group found that less than 16 percent of those companies indicating they had Six Sigma efforts were actually executing them the way Six Sigma was designed to be executed.1 This is a Six Sigma leadership issue, and leadership is bound to change at some point. So, what do we do if it happens in the middle of a Six Sigma project?

A Few Tips for Handling Six Sigma Sponsor Changes

  • Keep your finger on the pulse of the organization so you have some advance notice. Better to be proactive and prepared with a nimble response to the change.
  • In an earlier article we discussed the use of Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) in running a DMAIC project. Think through several leadership "disaster" scenarios and know how you will respond and who you would involve in those actions.
  • Early on in your project when you are having your private meetings with a Sponsor, have this kind of talk: "In a small percentage of Six Sigma projects, Sponsors or Champions leave mid-project for a variety of reasons, and that has caused projects to crash and burn. If you see you may be leaving, can I get a heads-up warning and can we do the following before you leave…"
  • Preferably a smooth handoff between Sponsors would involve a meeting with several people: you, your current and new Sponsors and your Master Black Belt or Champion. Discussion would center around Six Sigma project status, Sponsor access and tasks, how to work together and how to maintain traction and momentum on the project during the transition. Try to coordinate this with any other projects this leader will be sponsoring. Has the corporate or divisional VP of Six Sigma had a chance to onboard the new Sponsor? It’s one thing for us to be swift and nimble, quite another to be a cowboy and hose up a coordinated effort we didn’t know about.
  • If there is a lag between the old Six Sigma leadership leaving and the new leader arriving, stay on task to the extent possible. Try to identify an interim Sponsor. Focus on making progress where required Sponsor feedback or intervention is minimal. Seek advice from your Master Black Belt on how other Six Sigma projects are proceeding. If you are the Master Black Belt, see how other Master Black Belts in your company have successfully handled similar transitions. Step up and act as Sponsor-in-absentia if that is acceptable where you work. Escalate the issue to the divisional or corporate Six Sigma office and ask for a standard process to be put in place for Sponsor transitions.
  • Work your network to understand as much about the new Sponsor as you can. Did they have Six Sigma where he or she is coming from? How does it differ from your effort? Have they been a Sponsor before? What do they think of the effort? What major issues will this Sponsor be facing in their new job?
  • If the incoming Sponsor is neutral or negative toward Six Sigma, identify some of the Sponsor’s peer influencers who are positive toward Six Sigma and leverage them in your communications. Understand how (or if) the Sponsor’s boss will cascade communications/responsibilities about Six Sigma to the new leader—will this be in their performance objectives? Will Six Sigma be the way we do business or is Six Sigma optional?

Stay in the game long enough and this situation is bound to happen to you. Be prepared and you’ll be successful! If you’ve experienced such a change and survived I’d love to have you share your additional tips via the comments feature below.

1. "The Lean Six Sigma Benchmark Report," September, 2006, The Aberdeen Group.