No-Nonsense Project Management

Seven Communication Solutions for a Remote Six Sigma Project Team

Thomas S. Ostasiewski, PE, PMP
Posted: 04/15/2010


Being a project manager on a large Six Sigma project typically means your team will be in numerous locations. Sometimes even smaller Six Sigma projects require remote resources. This presents unique challenges for the project manager! With the global economy spreading Six Sigma efforts world-wide, and having fewer and widely dispersed resources with which to complete your project, you have a great opportunity in your hands! How you lead this effort will be the difference between success and mediocrity (or failure).

Common Project Management Issues

It is widely known that communication issues are the leading cause of conflict, delay, poor quality and even failure of just about any type of project. With a dispersed team, communication becomes even more critical than with a co-located team. Depending upon the source, studies have found that between 60 percent and 80 percent of all communication between people is non-verbal; the rest is via text or spoken words. Let’s assume for discussion that half of our Six Sigma project communication is non-verbal. With your remote team, you’re losing half of the meaning, intent and facts that need to occur!

Let’s add to the pile interpersonal issues. The past ten years or so have seen a lot of focus on the interpersonal side of project management. However, many Six Sigma Belts are highly skilled at using Six Sigma tools and have had little training (or innate ability) in the interpersonal communication skills required to lead projects. Generally those that are best at diving into the details of an issue, analyzing data, spotting patterns, and using sophisticated Six Sigma analysis tools are not naturally the social butterflies who can bring strangers together and have everyone get along naturally. People are just different this way. But when you have a remote team, these interpersonal communication skills become even more critical because you don’t see these people daily. You have only your Six Sigma project meetings at the beginning. This lack of a relationship can be tough to get around without a lot of extra effort on the part of the project manager. An e-mail taken the wrong way, an answer to a question delivered with a little "tone", or stopping discussion to stay on-schedule, etc., can have a magnified effect on your Six Sigma team. And you may not even know it happened.

Technology can be a wonderful thing. And it can be a curse. When leading a Six Sigma project with a remote team, there is a strong push to use technology to "bring the team together". Once relationships have formed and the team is generally working together, these things work great and can save a ton of money and time. But used too early with people that don’t know each other at all can cause much more trouble, lost time and money than it’s worth. That’s assuming the technology is working perfectly, you have access to it, and it is high quality video and application sharing. Many times a conference call number is the extent of the resources available. Who hasn’t checked e-mail while on a conference call? Guess what the team is doing while on your call.

With a remote Six Sigma project team, you also have to contend with the issue of loyalty. This ties in closely with the interpersonal topic above, but warrants a separate discussion. Most people will address what someone brings to them in person over other items. It is hard to put off that person who took the time to come to your desk and ask you for something. In addition, you know the people in your office, and there is a sense of loyalty to them — they’re in your division, office, profit center, boss’ reach, etc. Here you come from "out there somewhere" and are asking for effort on their part. Given two demands on their time, they are likely to pick the one closest to them.

The final issue with being a project manager with a remote team is the higher visibility it brings. Now not only your office sees the project, but every other office where team members are located also does. This is great if the project is a wild success. It’s not so great when there are issues on the project — and there are always some issues. You just have a much wider audience to see how you handle them.

Seven Remote Six Sigma Project Communication Boosters

Ok, now that we’ve discussed many of the things that are different and somewhat more challenging with a remote Six Sigma team, let’s discuss some solutions to these issues. As a project manager, consider the following:

  1. Push very hard for an initial face-to-face meeting for the entire team. This is likely to bring great resistance from above. But done right, the return-on-investment is very high. Be sure to make this a working session, not just a "meeting", and include a dinner at the end of the day. This gives you a chance to get to know your team personally, and for them to get to know each other. This whole day is a critical event, and it requires excellent planning and facilitation.
  2. Personally reach out to each member — get to know them, find out what their interests are, what they like about their work, what else they’re working on, etc. The initial meeting is a starting place for this, but the effort continues. Be sure to remember what they tell you and follow up with them as appropriate (i.e. a child’s upcoming birthday party).
  3. Let the team get to know you — be a "person". It is very easy to stick to business, get things done, and move on to the next task. Take time to actually talk to your team members if they join a call early. Call them individually to ask about their work on the Six Sigma project, or ask for any advice they may have for you. These calls can usually include some "personal" discussion. Be sure to be honest and not come across as fake. The more they know about you and you about them, the easier things will be when stressful times come.
  4. Get as many in-person events as you can afford, especially early, when major milestones are occurring, or when there are serious issues or conflicts. Ask your sponsor about the budget for these and if he/she would support these.
  5. When you can’t meet in person, use video conferencing. The little web-cams on desktops are usually not adequate. If you can get high quality equipment, do it.
  6. Discuss the project and its needs with the remote team members’ boss — have the discussion about the value of the team member, the value of the project, etc. This should be a very positive discussion, and should sell that manager on you, your project and the team. Prepare for this meeting like you would for a job interview.
  7. Keep your sponsor VERY well informed every step of the way (after each meeting, talk about the team members, progress made, obstacles the team members are facing, etc.).


Stakeholders

A funny thing about dispersed Six Sigma project teams is that they add stakeholders to your project — and you don’t know who they are! They could be the team members’ supervisors, their other project’s project managers (matrix organizations), their peers, their direct reports…the list goes on. Find out who these people are and what they think of the project and this team member’s involvement in it. Since you’re not there with them to hear the gossip, you have to dig a little harder to understand the other forces tugging at your team member on a daily basis.

Summary/Action

So, we’ve talked about the problems that come with a dispersed Six Sigma team, and some things you can do to avoid or minimize many of them. Essentially, the project manager has to work harder to build a true "team" and maintain it. You have to expect more obstacles and less visibility into the health of the team, and overcome these. The rewards can be very high when done right. Visibility across the company (all those remote team members have bosses that are interested in your success) can be a risk, but can come with great reward! Using the above ideas should help you see what’s coming, overcome the obstacles and reap the rewards of a successful remote Six Sigma project team.

Thomas S. Ostasiewski, PE, PMP
Posted: 04/15/2010

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