Applying Lean Six Sigma Methodology Where do I Start?

Often customers want to know, where shall I start using Lean Six Sigma?  How can I go from my current level to Six Sigma?  The answer is simple.  It requires the organization to listen to their customers, document what they are hearing, and prioritize the major themes they hear from customers.  Six Sigma doesn’t have to be complicated, organization-wide or address every problem the organization has at the on-set.  Begin simply by asking these questions:

Where is the biggest pain? Start here!  Pain can be further described as follows:

Customers are complaining.

Cost is substantial / problematic.

Known problems are easily described.

Previous improvement efforts have failed to achieve the desired impact.

Next, the organization must ask itself - Where are our most talented resources?

Lean Six Sigma spreads when people see with their own eyes the success it can allow teams to achieve.  Therefore, picking projects that have the highest likelihood for success becomes critical during the early stages of Lean Six Sigma implementation.  Ask where do we have the best:



Effective teams that work well together

Image of business partners hands on top of each other symbolizing companionship and unity

Analytical resources who are interested in working with innovative teams.

Even terrific teams can fail if their leadership does not support the effort, or if the effort doesn’t address one of the key leadership priorities/initiatives.   Have you set your team up for success?

In which Agency/Organization is the top leadership willing to try Six Sigma?

  • Effective teams who work well together and are supported by strong leaders should be the first ones selected for a Lean Six Sigma project.
  • These types of teams will ensure early wins so as to convince others of the benefit of the Lean Six Sigma approach.
  • See this Wall Street Journal article,, “Why Companies should hire teams not individuals”, Sydney Finkelstein, October 29th 2017. Business Section.  Journal Reports: Leadership.

Go where the energy is highest!

Finally, in order to complete the project in a short period of time, ask this: Where do you have significant data already that would lead to effective project selection?  When new data must be gathered to start a project, it requires experienced, skilled analytical people who have probably used Lean Six Sigma before.  Wait until your organization has some experience, or use external resources to accomplish this data collection exercise first before you undertake an initiative in this area.  Otherwise, ask yourself, “Where do we have either:

Scorecards, Dashboards or Metrics that are available and utilized.

A team works together to pull up a growth arrow
Male hand drawing Project flow chart on transparent wipe board.

How do I Define a Good Lean Six Sigma Project?

Six Sigma process improvement efforts are accomplished project by project. All successful projects require structure – a team, a leader and a sponsor/champion.  If projects are not defined up-front, teams have difficulty scoping the opportunity and attacking it.  Champions have difficulty supporting the effort.  In order to define a project – start with these questions:

  1. Is this project central to the organization’s goals and objectives?
  2. Who is the customer or customer segment who will most directly benefit from the project’s execution? Will the customer feel differently if the goals outlined in a project charter are achieved?  A customer can be an internal (to the organization) one - the external customer is not always the right one for your project.
  3. Will the executives responsible for this project and the resources dedicated to its completion feel accountable for its success?
  4. What is the project scope and can this project scope be executed in 4-6 months?
  5. Will this project deliver quantifiable results?
  6. If data that describes the problem is not readily available, will it be available to be gathered within the first 1-2 months of the project?
  7. Is there an identified process owner who will take over the improvements implemented in the project and own the ongoing control plan documented during the control phase?
  8. Are the appropriate team members/resources available to ensure this project is successful?

Why Do Six Sigma Projects or Project Teams Fail?

Unfortunately, the annals of history include thousands of projects that either failed, were stopped or never achieved their full potential.  Why is this the case?  There are several reasons that are sure to lead to project failure.  These include:

  • Lack of defined project scope or project scope is too great. Experienced Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belts or Black Belts can assist leaders in avoiding this by spending time defining a scope that can be executed in 4 months, given the current team’s availability.
  • No results-orientation or ownership for implementing solutions. Stakeholder objectives and involvement must be identified and documented using a project chartering effort which creates support and fleshes out potential barriers to success.
  • No pulsing mechanism is used to gather team on a weekly basis. This is a project requirement and must be enforced by the project leader and encouraged by the project champions and sponsors.
  • No pulsing mechanism is used by the champions/sponsors to find out project status: Lack of leadership involvement in updates can result in projects which crawl towards the finish line, many of which fall short of reaching it.
  • Risk assessment not used to identify risk factors to be managed. A proper risk assessment should be conducted in both the project chartering and the improve phase to ensure team has thought through most likely and impactful risks and has an abatement plan to address these.
  • Early project findings (typically discovered in measure phase) identify issues that the leadership team is unprepared to address. Sometimes projects identify uncomplimentary customer perspectives.  This situation can necessitate a response that the organization is unwilling to support.  The lean six sigma team should not be penalized for this situation but rather encouraged through effective leadership which gives political support to the project effort or selects another opportunity for the team to address.
  • Organizational priorities change and sufficient time cannot be allocated to the project effort. The organization must be honest about its priorities and if these no longer include the Lean Six Sigma project, the team should be released or reassigned.
  • Project leaders views themselves as facilitators who are not responsible for implementation. This responsibility should be set during the project chartering phase when the champion and the project leader/team discuss the role of the team.  There are project efforts which do not require implementation, but these are rare and are likely focused on providing the data to support future projects.  More likely, the team will be responsible for all phases of the project and transition ownership to the process owner during the control phase.
  • Team has hidden agendas which are not discovered or addressed during project evolution. Every project team will go through the forming, storming, norming, and performing phases of team work (See Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 Model re: stages of group development).  During the forming and storming phases, these issues should be raised, conflict addressed, and norms determined so that the team can be most effective moving forward.  Practiced teaming skills are a significant requirement of Lean Six Sigma projects and facilitating teams is one of the most critical skillsets of a project leader.
  • Team not given enough time to be successful. The longer a team works together, the more successful they can be. High-energy, achieving teams have learned the value of conflict resolution, team norms and project team charters.  They effectively use ground rules to encourage honest dialogue and supportive team behavior.  The more quickly a newly-formed team can move through the stages of team evolution, the more swiftly they will be capable of driving project results.

Six Sigma Project and Project Team Success Factors

Teams that utilize the following success factors have a much higher likelihood of success:

  1. Defined data-driven methodology used to approach problem
  2. Clear project structure with project leader, project team and involved project sponsor
  1. Right-size, no more than 8 people
  2. Extended expertise pulled in only as required, not permanent part of core team
  3. Able to have honest discussion
  4. Feel ownership for results
  1. Results oriented, experienced barrier-buster
  2. Analytically minded with working knowledge of Lean Six Sigma tools, techniques and methodology
  3. Has change-management expertise and proven track record at influencing others
  4. Good Communicator, both orally and using written communication
  5. Effective presenter
  6. Sponsor/Champion has confidence in and supports the project leader
  1. Within team – weekly meetings preferred format, with monthly face-to-face meetings
  2. To Sponsor – biweekly update
  3. To Executive Team interested in results – Monthly update with more frequent written project update(s) sent via email 

Key Six Sigma Roles and Responsibilities:

  • Project leader who is well versed and experienced in lean tools and techniques and is able to apply these to affect both short and long-term opportunities
  • Effective Kaizen leader with expertise in preparing teams to conduct Kaizen events/workshops
  • Teacher who works with teams of people to learn and apply lean tools that identify value and waste and work to eliminate anything that prohibits process flow
  • Lean Sensei’s can also be Green and Black Belts
  • Typically owns the area in which the project resides
  • Is not a full-time project leader, but rather leads a project within their area of expertise
  • Applies 20-40% of time to the project (depending upon the project) execution
  • Selects a project that is narrow enough in scope to be done within the time they are available to devote to project
  • Trained in Six Sigma Tools, Techniques and Project Methodology. Training format often involves a session comprising of 2-3 days of training followed by applied project work.  Generally 2-4 sessions are required to complete Green Belt Training for a total of 8-10 days.
  • Leads a project team focused on a particular area of opportunity
  • Works closely with a project sponsor to ensure team is effective
  • Leads Project, Reports out to Leadership team and is an effective change agent
  • Is not required to be an expert in the project area
  • Applies 80-100% of time to a project or multiple projects.
  • Selects or is assigned to a project or multiple projects and executes them simultaneously
  • Depending upon project scope, Black Belts can complete a project in 4-6 mths
  • Trained in Six Sigma Tools, Techniques and Project Methodology. Training format often involves a session comprising of 4-5 days of training followed by applied project work.  Generally 3-4 sessions are required to complete Black Belt Training for a total of 16-20 days.  Tools and change management/leadership techniques that are advanced beyond those taught in Green Belt Training are core content in Black Belt Training. 
  • Works closely with a Six Sigma Champion and/or a Master Black Belt to execute projects and report out to leadership team
  • Can be called on to assist customers/suppliers on key organizational initiatives
  • Helps set strategic direction by:
  1. working with leadership team to select appropriate projects
  2. training and mentoring Black/Green Belts and
  3. developing pulsing mechanisms to monitor progress
  • Leads Large Mega-Projects, reports out to Leadership team and is an effective change agent
  • Coaches Black and Green Belts
  • Trains others in Six Sigma Tools, Techniques & Methodology
  • 100% dedicated to advancing results from Lean Six Sigma Projects within the Organization
  • Can be called on to assist customers/suppliers on key corporate initiatives
  • Trained in Six Sigma Tools, Techniques and Project Methodology. Training format often involves completing advanced, subject-specific sessions after successfully completing Black Belt Training. 

Qualities of Effective Project Leaders: Black or Green Belt or Lean Sensei

  • Leader – sets vision and relentlessly pursues results to achieve this
  • Effective team facilitator – knows how to lead teams to achieve the highest potential outcome
  • Analytical – enjoys analyzing data and searching for root causes to problems
  • Action Oriented – will not let barriers slow them down
  • Creative – always searching for new ways to do things
  • Change Oriented – Has experience driving new procedures/processes/ideas
  • Influential – Can influence others or figure out and implement influence strategies in order to accomplish change
  • Excellent Communicator – Verbal and Written
  • Proactive – Does not wait for a problem to surface, rather thinks through consequences ahead of time
  • Organized – Effective at organizing their time and prioritizing action required
  • Critical Skillset prior to training
  • Strong math/problem solving educational background
  • Comfortable creating and making presentations
  • Comfortable with Excel and Powerpoint Software

Roles, Responsibilities and Criteria of Project Sponsors

  • Owns the area in which the project resides
  • Accountable for project results and ongoing continuous improvement after the initial project is complete
  • Typically, responsible for many of the team members on the project team
  • Holds frequent (biweekly at a minimum) pulsing sessions with project leaders and teams
  • Assists teams to remove barriers
  • Encourages Team
  • Criterion of a Great Sponsor
  • Sees Six Sigma as an opportunity to improve his/her area of responsibility
  • Advocate for Change
  • Becomes and stays involved
  • Listens actively
  • Visibly holds self, along with team, accountable to deliver results
  • Exhibits outstanding communication skills – written and verbal

Roles, Responsibilities and Criterion of Project Champions

  • “Points the laser beam of focus” - Selects and sponsors ‘doable’, significant projects
  • Provides infrastructure, support and resources as required to complete the project
  • Holds regular pulsing sessions with project leaders and teams
  • Assists teams to remove barriers
  • When raised up to the Champion
  • When not raised up – but obviously impeding progress
  • Uses performance goals to ensure business leaders are on board
  • Reports to and updates executives and strategic stakeholders on progress
  • Criteria of a Great Champion
  • Sets the vision for the use of Lean Six Sigma to enable organizational priorities
  • Takes a laser-beam approach to apply resources strategically
  • Becomes and stays involved
  • Listens actively
  • Visibly holds project leaders accountable to deliver results
  • Exhibits outstanding communication skills – written and verbal
  • Takes ownership of project success with peers and executives