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How to Effectively Manage Six Sigma Initiatives

A Six Sigma initiative is a continuous series of projects — managing projects of various sizes and shapes cascading together predictably to create an unending stream of breakthrough improvements in business performance. These improvements occur one project at a time, and each project is an encapsulated world of Six Sigma activity unto itself.

The Six Sigma manager’s toolkit is therefore a set of tools for managing projects and helping people perform. These tools are inspired by leadership, enabled by infrastructure, tailored to the Six Sigma methodology, and implemented with the help of technology.

Some of these tools are relatively straightforward, such as tools to help you manage project deliverables and tools to help you remember how to follow DMAIC or DFSS. Others are more involved, such as tools for tracking and communicating critical business indicators and for helping you manage cost and schedule.

Involve all the right people in your Six Sigma initiative

Everyone is accountable for utilizing resources effectively, removing obstacles, solidifying decisions, and ultimately delivering results. This accountability begins with executive managers, who need the summary information that helps them understand what’s on track and where they need to provide help.

Likewise, financial executives need to know how projects contribute to the profit and loss (P&L) of business units. Projects can and should have huge financial benefits, so the finance managers and P&L owners want to maintain close touch with their activities and results.

Six Sigma Champions are in the catbird seat and must have a direct line of sight on people and projects; they must constantly know the pulse of all Six Sigma activity. Because Black Belts lead the most-difficult, most-complex projects with the largest impact and return to the business, they must closely track and manage projects, as well as understand all the methods and tools of Six Sigma process improvement.

Functional managers are also important. They must have immediate access to information about people and project staffing and any changes so they can be properly supportive. Six Sigma teams typically involve a variety of participants from functional departments such as engineering, finance, human resources, production, IT, and more, so involving the functional managers closely helps ensure projects are staffed with the right talent.

A project can stretch resources, so the functional manager must be actively involved to juggle the tasks of keeping the core functions of the business running while providing support to the Six Sigma team efforts.

And don’t forget suppliers and customers; they’re part of the value stream and have a direct role to play. Capture the voice of the customer (VOC) and involve the customer in defining value. Similarly, engage suppliers and partners because you must flow requirements to them and you depend on value from them.

Be in charge of your Six Sigma toolkit

Because the constituencies served in a Six Sigma initiative are such a diverse lot, you use a broad set of management tools.

  • Communication and leadership: Use both formal and informal tools — company intranet sites; Facebook pages and other social media; video messaging; and even letters, memos, and reports — for communication and leadership. And don’t forget the most important leadership tool: face-to-face communication, including individuals, workgroups, and large assemblies.

  • Change management: Change is scary, and people need help. Change management methods and tools enable people to understand the whys and hows of what’s different, why they should care, what’s in it for them, and how to move forward.

  • Project management: Six Sigma projects require project management just like other projects do. The Six Sigma project management portfolio includes everything from the capture of ideas to project assignments, staffing, budgets, and performance. More advanced management tools include multi-project and cross-project portfolio management across a shared enterprise environment.

  • Process intelligence (PI): Process intelligence is having the ability to track process activities and access process information in order to know progress and performance. Dashboards and andons are examples of PI tools, which also include tables, plots, charts, and other signals of process performance. Combining these tools with budgets, schedules, resources, and business-impact information creates comprehensive pictures of project and program status, progress, and trends.

  • Knowledge management tools: Six Sigma initiatives generate lots of information, some of it structured (such as information in databases) and much of it unstructured. Knowledge management is the discipline and set of collaboration tools that grant individuals and teams ready information through structured access to various data repositories. By having access to the right knowledge at the right time, managers and practitioners can expedite their returns on improvement investment.

  • Learning tools: Beyond traditional training, learning tools provide direct, just-in-time, and lower-cost training to individuals, teams, and companies. These tools are critical enablers for the job of training large numbers of people in the concepts, ways, and methods of Six Sigma.

In addition to these program and project management tools, the information technology professionals apply enterprise integration and service management technologies to help tie together and share information. A Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) implemented across an enterprise service bus (ESB) helps you readily move data and information between and among all these management tools — and also between transaction systems, including customer management, accounting, design, shop-floor, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

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