Organizing for Successful Six Sigma Process Change

Jeff Cole

How is Six Sigma organized in your business? What are the reporting structures? Many firms struggle with the varied choices:

  • Centralized: All Master Black Belts (MBBs) and Black Belts (BBs) directly report into a corporate staff organization and are deployed as consultants to parts of the business needing help
  • De-Centralized: MBBs and BBs directly report to the management of the various business units
  • Mixture: BBs directly report to the businesses with dotted-line reporting/support to a corporate Six Sigma department
  • Specialist: Only use BBs from within the organization who intimately understand its processes — more efficient in the short term
  • Generalist: Use the BB role as a developmental experience and view the BB as a journeyman generalist helping all organizations — broadens the experience base of their high potential candidates with longer term benefits

To be honest, different corporate cultures respond in different ways and there are stacks of success and failure stories for all the choices above. So, how should you organize?

Stephen Covey’s second habit of highly effective people is "Begin with the end in mind." For a moment, look beyond the technical and knowledge issues and view the Black Belt as an agent of change. Ultimately they are either fixing broken processes or implementing new processes. Either way, there comes a point where they must engage the people in the organization to stop doing things the old way and start doing them the new way. On a grander scale, the entire Six Sigma effort may be driving a new way of thinking and cultural change in your firm.

In his landmark book, Managing at the Speed of Change, author Daryl Conner describes three organizational sponsorship structures each with their own strengths and risks. I’ve used these throughout my career and share them with you as a way of organizing to improve your odds of Six Sigma project success.

The three structures shown below are Linear, Triangular, and Square. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Linear Structure: In this structure, the Black Belt (BB) reports directly to the project Sponsor (S) and the process users (change targets) (T) — who must change how they do things — report directly to the BB. In deploying a Six Sigma process change, the BB acts as the change agent and the Sponsor legitimizes the process change. This structure has the greatest chance of success as people tend to do what their direct boss asks them to do. Success equals the process change being executed on time, on budget, and with no collateral damage to other processes. This lends strength to the argument for using BB personnel indigenous to the organization.

Triangular Structure: Many Black Belts in a staff support situation find themselves in the triangular structure where they report to the same person (S) as the process users who must change (T). According to Conner, 80 percent of the time this structure doesn’t produce optimal results. Targets (T) are being asked to change and they don’t report to the person doing the asking (BB). The only way this works well is if the Sponsor does his or her job properly in engaging the targets and communicating/legitimizing the change. Simply delegating the whole effort to the BB significantly raises the risk of failure. Strong Sponsor/Belt working relationships can make this structure work.

Square Structure: This structure has the greatest chance of being dysfunctional. Targets (T) are being asked to change by a BB. Not only don’t they report to that BB, but they also don’t report to that BB’s Sponsor (S1) either. This is akin to you going into another business unit where you work and telling them to change. They haven’t heard of you, and maybe they don’t know your boss either! The first place they (T) look for validation is their boss (S2) to see if they have to do what you are requesting. The key to making this structure work is by having both Sponsors work closely together with the BB. Sponsor 2 (S2) has the bulk of the responsibility before, during and after the change to ensure the process users (T) engage in the change. A very strong three-way working relationship between both Sponsors and the BB is crucial to avoid failure with this configuration.


That said, all three configurations can work in various organizations if managed properly. Some structures are trickier to manage than others. Pick the right structure to best accomplish your goals. Ask yourself why you are organized the way you are. What are you trying to optimize? Are you organizing to optimize project success or some other factor? Consider the human behavioral impacts in making your choice. This is a large piece in the puzzle of orchestrating a tight and effective Six Sigma effort.