Properly Planning a Six Sigma Project

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "Plans are nothing; planning is everything." Certainly he wasn’t talking about Six Sigma projects, but this little statement applies 100 percent to our process improvement efforts. The act of properly planning a project virtually ensures success because it is a continual team effort of evaluation, organization and communication. The teams that do these things well with the focus on end results generally produce successful Six Sigma project outcomes.

Group Effort

Many project managers make the key mistake of trying to plan a Six Sigma project alone. Sometimes they may even ask some other individuals for advice or use a template from another project. But most likely, the planning effort is a solitary pursuit. This is potentially the leading cause of Six Sigma project failure.

Proper planning of any Six Sigma project is a team effort. It takes extensive preparation, facilitation, leadership, organization and a solid knowledge of what the plan actually does for the project. All these things allow the project manager to lead the team in creating an initial plan that is realistic, has buy-in, considers all aspects of the project and team, and allows all involved to "be on the same page" — literally and figuratively.

Here are a couple of tips to help ensure your group effort gets off the ground:

  1. Ensure your scope of work is well documented.
  2. Utilize a written Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) for planning and communication.
  3. Consider all planning aspects such as communication, quality control, reviews, reporting, etc.
  4. Conduct as much of the planning as you can in person. If you can’t, at least be sure the whole team is involved.
  5. Involve management in the planning, not just at the end of it.

Continuous Effort

There are many people who think that once a plan is created, it’s placed in a binder and everyone just uses it (or it collects dust). The Six Sigma project plan should be used as a tool like any other Six Sigma tool. The difference is that the plan is used continuously throughout the project.

The project plan should be revisited by the team at least at each major milestone. The team should consider lessons learned, scope changes, changes to the WBS, changes to stakeholders, etc. All these things may impact the plan to some extent, and those changes to the plan need to be put into place.

Role of Project Manager

The project manager is ultimately responsible for Six Sigma project planning and the project plan. He or she is the one who has to ensure the planning effort considers all aspects of the project, all stakeholders, risks, and deliverables. The project manager leads the efforts and is careful to not overly influence the team’s effort but to guide it along the path.

Project Management Body of Knowledge

The Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fourth Edition details the individual components of project planning. In particular, Chapter 3.4 breaks down the planning process into well defined areas such as "Define Scope," "Define Activities," and "Sequence Activities" that can guide you as you prepare your plan. PMI maintains globally recognized standards for project management, and as a Six Sigma project manager, it would be a smart move to become familiar with PMI’s language and standards. You’ll see the difference in your Six Sigma project success very quickly.

Focus on End Results

The continual planning effort that is invested by the team should focus on the end result. What steps must be taken to achieve this end result? What must be done to ensure quality work? Generally, if the team can’t directly tie a deliverable or activity to the end result that the project is set up to achieve, it shouldn’t be in the plan. Many times a Six Sigma project will invest in various tests, tools, techniques, and meetings that do not directly relate to the project deliverables. It is understood that since the ultimate outcome (i.e., the solution to the problem or the improvement) is unknown, using the shotgun approach to a Six Sigma project (e.g., using a bunch of tools because you can) is not proper planning.


In conclusion, it’s hard to step back from the technical matters at hand, the excitement of jumping in to all those tools you now have at your disposal, and fixing things. But a well planned Six Sigma project will deliver the proper results with the least investment and typically the most effective team. Everyone will be part of the planning process, so they’re bought in to why they’re performing certain tasks. They’ll be confident that there is a path and that it’s being followed; they’ll also be confident that their activity is focused on the ultimate outcome. To re-quote Eisenhower, "Planning is everything."