Six Sigma Project Team Building: The Project Manager’s Role

This column builds upon the topics covered in the April 2009 article on Six Sigma Team Building. Once the scope of work for your project is reasonably defined, it is time to determine who will work on it with you. Note that you cannot complete a Six Sigma project by yourself! It takes the input of others to actually identify the root cause, determine solutions and implement them. Having the right people work with you can reap huge rewards. Having the wrong ones assigned can ensure failure. Here we’ll discuss some of the things to consider now that you have to build your Six Sigma team.

The first consideration is what role the project manager will have on this Six Sigma project. Are you the primary creator of the Six Sigma team? Do you determine who works on your project and who does not? Are you their manager outside of this project? In short, what level of influence do you have to get the right people on this project? You may be in a position of "you get what you’re given" with regard to resources. Either way presents its own challenges, and of course we all want full control of our resources. Unfortunately, it seldom works out that way.

You Pick the Six Sigma Team:

Most people think this is ideal. You can pick your favorite people, the highest qualified, the easiest to work with, etc. However with this right comes the responsibility to select the proper resources for the project at the time of the need. This requires that you know them as individuals—their experience, knowledge, personality, etc. It also requires that you only pull in the "expert" in an area when they’re needed. That way others that need them can also benefit from their expertise. You also have the responsibility to select those who will contribute to a well rounded team. If everyone agreed with you all the time, you wouldn’t need them (and they wouldn’t need you). You can develop a great Six Sigma team under this role. But it is very hard work to get it right and to keep it that way!

The Six Sigma Team is Picked for You:

Quite the opposite of the situation above, but just as much work, is the case where you’re handed a team and expected to deliver great results. You still need to gain an understanding of the individuals, their strengths, weaknesses, areas of expertise, availability, etc. You also need to identify any gaps in the team. For example, did the person who gave you the team know you need someone with that special technical skill? Close those gaps quickly! Get to know these new people that will determine your level of success. Identify any areas that need further development (either individually or amongst the team as a whole) and discuss them with your sponsor/manager. Having the team picked for you is not ever an excuse—only another unknown that you need to turn into a known. You may learn that this is a great group of individuals and they form into a highly performing Six Sigma team.

Whichever type of organization you find yourself in, some actions remain the same on your part. The success of your Six Sigma project will depend largely on your ability to lead the team. Understand that the stages of teamwork are universal and work through them with your team (forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning). Use your best interpersonal skills, communicate the vision for the Six Sigma project (yes, even those that aren’t all that "visionary" or exciting). Make the expectations clear—both of the work required and the rewards for doing it. These all contribute to building the Six Sigma team into a cohesive unit.

There are also some things that bear further consideration regarding each SIx Sigma team member. These are Experience, Knowledge, Availability, Personality and Location. For each team member, please consider these areas:

Experience: Is the team member experienced in the area this Six Sigma project is working on? Have they been there long? Have they worked on other Six Sigma projects? Have they worked elsewhere that would impact their role on the team? (Think about the potential team member that was on several successful Six Sigma projects at another company before working at yours…what great benefit!) This may be the most important area to consider when working with your team.

Knowledge: Does this team member understand the types of tools you may be using on this Six Sigma project? Do they know any of the math skills or other tools you may be using on the project? Have you considered language as a barrier with them? Do they understand business to the extent that they can be an advocate for you and the project with the team? While you are likely to be the one actually using the more specialized tools, the more your team members are comfortable with the language of them, the easier job you’ll have.

Availability: Unfortunately, the best person for the task may already be struggling to get their day job done and have a life outside of work. Are they available to you? Not just because their boss said so, but find out how true it is. You’ll need to know if you have an issue here, whether you can fix it with this individual or not—at least you can work around it if need be. You’re also going to want to document your understanding of their availability when you develop your schedule. That way, if your resources get pulled from your Six Sigma project, you can clearly communicate the impact.

Personality: Without studying psychology, you should be able to tell pretty quickly if the team member is of the right mind set to work on this Six Sigma project. "Personality" comes with many definitions and labels and we won’t delve into that here. But understanding their general disposition can help you help the project and team succeed. Failure to consider interpersonal differences in a new team will likely result in delays at best, and failure at worst. Suggested reading in this area includes People Styles at Work by Robert and Dorothy Bolton. It provides a great starting point.

Location: Over the past 10-15 years, the idea that all team meetings must be in person has been challenged greatly. There is still high value in face-to-face interaction (in person, not video). However, after a relationship is started amongst team members, the use of video, phone, Web and other technologies can make a team much more efficient. Where your Six Sigma project team members are located is becoming much less of a concern. It still must be managed though. If your Six Sigma project focuses on a specific physical issue (location, process, department, etc.), it is common sense that the team must understand the physical conditions. Once the team is formed and the effort is under way, remote meetings and work can take place. Be prepared for a very different project experience with all remote team members versus ones you see and see each other daily. The relationships are different, and need to be managed accordingly. With the rise of technology such as Wikis, blogs, Web-hosted tools, Twitter, etc. a younger team member may be very comfortable never seeing the rest of the team, and perform as an individual very well. The more senior team members may not understand (or want to understand) the latest gadget or software and want to look eye-to-eye to get things done. Be aware of these differences and help the team be flexible with the "way" they do their work, while focusing on the "results" of the work.

In conclusion, your team is comprised of individuals that need to be treated as such. It is the Six Sigma project manager’s job to select and develop the right people for the project. To do this, you must consider the talents, skills, experience and personality of the individuals. Balancing these with the goals of the Six Sigma project, and aligning the team to meet those goals is a great challenge! It is one that can yield extraordinary results, benefiting the organization, the team members and the project manager.