Six Sigma Project Scoping—The Project Manager's Biggest Mistake

Scoping a Six Sigma project can be one of the most daunting tasks a project manager can take on. It is also one of the most important. Typically, we’re given an area that needs to improve and a goal roughly indicating by how much. But where do you start? Where do you end? How do you ensure added features or issues aren’t tacked on to your Six Sigma project? How do you ensure you deliver precisely what was agreed upon? Proper project scope definition and management are the keys to your success!

Boil the Ocean All at Once or One Gallon at a Time?

There is a strong desire for dramatic, positive, visible/measureable results from your Six Sigma project. These are the ones that get the attention, praise, etc. and the sponsors and managers of these projects are seeking the same high praise for a job well done. There’s also the pressure to "get started already!" and not take the time to ensure a clear, achievable project scope. The danger in always shooting for the stars is that most times, the scope is too large and the project gets bogged down. Breaking the large goal or scope that is ultimately desired into smaller Six Sigma projects can have tremendous benefits. For example, the projects:
  1. Get done!
  2. Get done quickly.
  3. Provide the team with fast, relevant feedback on performance.
  4. Provide multiple opportunities for the project manager and team to excel.
  5. Provide valuable skill development in Program Management.
It is very important to still secure management buy-in on the project(s) (charter sign-off), and to make certain that the team sees the big picture. Some team members may chafe at the small size of the immediate Six Sigma project scope, but when they see how it relates to the larger program, they can more easily get and stay on board.

Are Your Six Sigma Goals SMART?

The "SMART" goals approach is not new, and not unique to Six Sigma. But so many people fail to set goals properly that it is worth mentioning again. Even if you personally follow this rule closely, I’m sure you know of many other Six Sigma projects that haven’t. Ensure that your goals are:
  • Specific—In absolute terms, what will you achieve?
    • Bad: "Improve customer service…"
    • Good: "Increase service agreement customer retention…"
  • Measurable—What metric will be used to indicate success? Is it sustainable?
    • Bad: "…by monitoring our service department revenue…"
    • Good: "…using our existing customer database tracking new/repeat/lost accounts…"
  • Attainable—Can you realistically do this? Has anyone else even come close?
    • Bad: "…by 400 percent in six months…" (unless you were horrible at this in the first place)
    • Good: "…by decreasing lost accounts by 18%..."
  • Reasonable—Can this team do this? Does it have the authority/reach to accomplish it?
    • Bad: The team is small, isolated and comprised only of in-office clerks.
    • Good: The team includes management, sales, office, technical and the support of senior leadership.
  • Time-Bound—The goal will be achieved in a specific amount of time.
    • Bad: No consideration given to timeframe to achieve goal.
    • Good: "…within 12 months of implementing solutions from this Six Sigma project…"

All goals set as a part of the Six Sigma project should follow this guide. The small, interim ones that the team decides it must accomplish (ie. complete the As-Is Process Map by a specific date), or the large ones that govern the project as described above are all important to properly set.

Six Sigma Project Scope: Set It Once or Set It as a Continual Process?

Another issue that crops up on Six Sigma projects is a failure to consciously and continually manage the scope of the project. Many practitioners will set the scope of the project, get management buy in and forget about it. Since Six Sigma is generally a creative process (ie. the end product or solution is not known at the beginning), the scope may and frequently does change as the project progresses. The project manager must constantly monitor and refine the scope of work as new information comes to light. The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) addresses this as "progressive elaboration" and "change management" and is a key element to finishing the project, and to completing the right, approved (and re-approved) scope of work.

In conclusion, it is the project manager’s responsibility to ensure the project is scoped properly, that SMART goals are set, tracked and achieved, and to practice sound scope management. Six Sigma projects are full of technical tools and team efforts. Making sure that these are focused on the right things via Six Sigma project scope management and goal setting are the keys to making the best of these great efforts!