Don't derail your Six Sigma initiatives by picking the wrong project

Feb. 26, 2013
Get your process-efficiency project back on track with change management.

In brief:

  • It is cheaper and easier to keep projects on track by applying proven, structured sponsorship, project management, and change management processes.
  • When projects derail it requires a deep understanding of the tools of the trade, when to apply them, and how to apply them.
  • If the project is worth salvaging, turn your attention to change management.

Why do so many Six Sigma initiatives fail? Picking the wrong project is often the cause, so first evaluate the business case for the change. Make sure there are meaningful gains in the implementation.

Back on track

Make sure the project is worth it. Review the charter. Does the charter clearly state the vision for the project? A charter should include the business objectives, benefits, risks, scope, team, approach, significant milestones, and reporting structure. Read through the change definition. What are we changing? Why are we changing? What happens if we do not change? If there is no change definition, create one that answers these questions.

Some may refer to this as the problem statement. What is the problem? How do we know it is a problem? How will we know the problem is solved? There should be a clear line of sight between the desired behavior change and organizational goals. Do not be surprised to find that there is no alignment with business objectives or clear change definition. This is often a problem in lean/Six Sigma projects.

Motorola University cites a lack of alignment to a clear organizational strategy and failure to link projects to bottom-line impact as two of the top six reasons Six Sigma projects fail. Given this knowledge, your first step is to test if the case for change has been made and the vision has captured the imagination and support of the people impacted by the change. Has a clear, concise business case been made? If not, can one be made? In “Leading Change” John Kotter states that, if you can’t describe your vision to someone in five minutes and gain interest, then your work is not complete. Is this a sound project worth getting back on track? If it isn’t, abandon the project or reevaluate the value of the project. Change management cannot rescue a bad project.

Minimize resistance

If the project is worth salvaging, we turn our attention to change management. Applying a structured change management approach, even late, will still impact success. However, you will have to adapt the structured process to the unique characteristics of your change.

When you have sponsorship, project management, and change management aligned and pulling together from the beginning, you have the luxury of following well-researched, proven structured approaches. In my previous article, I laid out a set of processes, activities, and deliverables aligned with the DMAIC stage gates. Following this structured approach will minimize the natural resistance to change by consistently assessing resistance and dynamically applying proven processes and tools to mitigate it.

When starting late, employee resistance will be greater. It has been allowed to grow, to fester like an infection. The challenge of starting late requires a customized or tailored application of selective change management tools and processes based on the nature of the resistance. If you rush to rigorously and urgently apply a structured change management approach, there is a risk that the effort becomes isolated from the project work. It may be perceived as backtracking and adding little value in an urgent situation. You will have to adapt the process to apply only those tools that address the most likely causes of resistance with the most heavily impacted groups.

The first error most change efforts make is not establishing a common sense of urgency. Kotter states the first step in a successful change is to establish a sense of urgency, a burning platform. Successful change requires that individuals impacted by the change understand the business need for the change and the risk of not changing. In Prosci’s 2012 Best Practices in Change Management Benchmarking Report, the top reason people resist change is they did not know the business reason for the change or the consequences of not changing.

This business case for change must come from the leader, the sponsor of the change. People want to hear the business reasons for the change and the risk of not changing from the leader of the organization — the sponsor. Find out the leadership sponsor’s role in communicating why the change is taking place and the risk of not changing. How often and through what vehicles has the message been communicated? Can people impacted by the change describe the case for change and the risk of not changing?

Determine the reasons

Meet with the project leaders and executive sponsors to understand the business case for change and the criteria for success. Define the metrics that measure success. How will the behavior changes be measured? What data do you need to determine the impact on business objectives as defined through the A3, scorecards, or other methods?

In your interviews about the business case for change, also review all forms of sponsor communication. How many meeting have the sponsors attended? What printed material has been distributed? How many times have the impacted groups heard the business reasons for the change directly from the sponsor? If it isn’t five to seven times in a variety of ways, including face to face in a group setting, then you are likely to find that managers and employees alike cannot describe why the change is necessary. People listen for different information each time they hear a message. With a change, people often listen for the personal implications the first few times they hear the message before they really hear the business reasons for the change. Consider how often people hear and see things in movies the second and third time that they missed the first time. It is human nature.

After meeting with the sponsor, meet with the group managers and people most impacted by the change. Ask them to share their understanding of the need for change. Focus on the top 20% of people impacted by the change.

Be sure to interview the managers of these groups individually, as well as in their groups. The managers are the most influential communicators in overcoming resistance. Without them, resistance management will fail.

You may consider some electronic surveys; however, face-to-face surveys should be conducted with the sponsors and the most critical areas. Ask people why they are resisting. Apply the 5 whys in getting to the root cause of the resistance. There are often sources of resistance that have little to do with desire or willingness to change. Issues that create resistance include tools, policies, fear, lack of input, personalities, history of change, and project management.

If administering a survey, seek out information on project completion status, training efficacy, role change clarity, sponsorship communications on the business need and manager communications on the individual impact. But do not overdo it. At this point you simply want to know if people understand the business reason for the change and, if they are resisting the change, why.

The objective is clarity on why the change is necessary. Ambiguity or a lack of understanding will make it difficult to identify and mitigate resistance. A common and clear understanding of the problem and the solution is vital to effective resistance management.

By assessing the sponsors and identifying the sources of resistance, the odds are you will have diagnosed the problem. Most projects that are failing due to a lack of effective change management suffer from a lack of awareness of the case for change. This stems from either a lack of alignment with business objectives or a lack of effective sponsorship.

Engaged sponsors has found that lean and Six Sigma projects fail most often due to insufficient sponsorship from senior executives.

Focus your attention on helping sponsors build awareness of the need for change with the most critical or most heavily impacted group managers and people. This can be achieved by following a variation on these steps based on what you find as you go through them.

  1. clarify the business objectives
  2. assess and support the sponsors
  3. identify the cause of resistance in the most heavily impacted groups
  4. execute a communications plan that engages the sponsors and managers in communicating the business need
  5. execute on a plan to overcome the primary causes of resistance.
Bill Wilder, M.Ed., is the founder and director of the Life Cycle Institute at Life Cycle Engineering. He has more than 20 years of experience helping organizations through change management and learning. Email him at [email protected].

It is the managers who will have the most impact on individual support for the changes. An individual may understand the business reasons for the change, but, if the boss does not support the change, the individual is not likely to support it. People want to hear from the manager, not the change agent. The change agent’s role is to support the manager with communications support and resistance management techniques.

Change happens in the gemba, where the value is created. That’s where managers and change agents need to be spending their time — with the people, helping them to overcome their natural resistance to change and communicating the sources of this resistance back to the project team. Often their concerns are legitimate concerns that will impact the success of the project.

It is cheaper and easier to keep projects on track by applying proven, structured sponsorship, project management, and change management processes. When projects derail it requires a deep understanding of the tools of the trade, when to apply them, and how to apply them. Rarely is there a playbook or user manual that will address the specific derailing or failure you may encounter.

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