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What Is a Bad Six Sigma Project?

written by: Heidi Wiesenfelder • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 6/19/2013

Even particularly challenging Six Sigma DMAIC projects usually benefit a company in the end. But some Black Belts end up with a project that can only be described as a bad Six Sigma project. Learn about some types of bad DMAIC projects and what you can do should you find yourself working on one.

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    Misuse of Six Sigma

    Six Sigma DMAIC is a powerful methodology for confirming process performance problems, uncovering the root causes of those problems, and implementing sustainable solutions. It is best used as part of an overall Six Sigma strategy that includes clarifying core processes, establishing the critical few business priorities, and chartering DMAIC projects based on identified process problems tied to those priorities.

    Many Six Sigma projects are properly selected and executed, leading to substantial improvements in financial performance, customer satisfaction, and/or employee satisfaction. On occasion, however, business leaders either misunderstand the proper use of DMAIC projects or try to accomplish their own agendas under the cover of a Six Sigma project.

    Should you find yourself in a situation where you are tasked with managing or supporting a project that fits in one of those categories, be prepared to push back on leadership and help them understand why a DMAIC project is not the right approach.

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    Why Some Projects Are Bad

    Many Six Sigma projects seem to present challenges, but in most cases the project team can effectively work through obstacles using the DMAIC tools and methodology to accomplish the project goals. But in some situations, DMAIC is just the wrong approach to a business problem, and when that is the case proceeding with a project can worsen the situation rather than fixing it, or at best delay a proper solution.

    Signs that a project is a bad Six Sigma project include:

    • The project sponsor or Six Sigma director cannot clearly state the problem that the project was chartered to solve.
    • There is no way to obtain sufficient data to evaluate process performance and/or customer satisfaction.
    • The solution to a problem is already clear, but leaders are hesitant to implement it for political or similar reasons. Thus they charter a DMAIC project to essentially put the burden on someone else.
    • The selected project is not aligned with a critical-few business priority.
    • The process or organization is undergoing such dramatic changes that a DMAIC project would not be effective.

    In some cases one of the problems listed above will only become apparent once a project is already underway. Sometimes the project scope or objective can be tweaked to make it a good fit for a DMAIC project, but in other cases a DMAIC project is simply not appropriate and is not going to be effective. It is then the project leader’s responsibility to inform the project sponsor or Six Sigma director that the project cannot or should not be continued, rather than going through the motions.

    In some environments this can be a difficult thing to do, as employees are rewarded for successfully seeing through a Six Sigma project and the Green Belt or Black Belt involved may be relying on successful project completion to count toward certification. Thus a successful Six Sigma initiative should from the outset incorporate a procedure for dealing with projects that are rightly discontinued and whose cessation impacts individual employees.

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    Detail, Reason By Reason

    No clarity on problem statement:

    Trying to lead a DMAIC project without a clear problem statement is like trying to hit a bullseye when no one has even led you to the archery range and shown you where the targets are. If you have been assigned a project and are unable to get your Six Sigma leader or the project sponsor to clearly state the problem to be solved, you should immediately raise a red flag.

    There are several reasons that leaders might charter a DMAIC project in the absence of a clear problem statement. In some cases, they know what the problem is but simply haven’t taken the time to clearly define it and are expecting you to do so as you develop the project charter in the Define phase. This is fine, as long as you are convinced that they know what the problem is and can give you enough information for you to follow through with the charter and the project. In other cases though, the inability of business leaders to provide a Black Belt with a clear problem statement is a sign that DMAIC may not be the appropriate course of action.

    It may be a case of a leader wanting to make a specific business change and using a DMAIC project to "prove" that it is the right thing to do. (See "Solution in search of a problem" below.)

    Or it may simply be a sign that leaders are not really clear what is wrong with a process or even which process is in need of performance improvement. In this case you as the project manager or other stakeholder should let the leaders know that you need more information from them in order to understand the project you're being asked to lead or even to confirm that DMAIC is the proper approach. In many cases a simple discussion will give you the details you need to move forward, but in others you will come to the realization that proceeding in the absence of a clear process problem to address would surely lead to a bad DMAIC project.

    Insufficient data:

    Six Sigma and the DMAIC methodology are highly data driven, and each phase of DMAIC requires data to substantiate assumptions about how the process is performing, what is causing poor performance, and how to counteract the root causes. In most cases a project is not chartered unless it is clear that sufficient data exists to assess process performance. Even then, once the project progresses and the problem is further understood, a project team may find that it is simply not possible to obtain enough data on the relevant process factors to conduct an effective DMAIC project. This may be because that part of the process doesn't cycle frequently enough, because data has not been gathered for a long enough time, or because data has not been gathered at all.

    Regardless of when the discovery is made, a realization that insufficient data exists requires a formal discussion of whether the project can be adequately completed using the DMAIC methodology. In some cases the project scope or objective can be altered or a workaround can be developed to measure process performance in an indirect way. In other cases the project team may have to face the unfortunate decision that the DMAIC process cannot proceed.

    Solution in search of a problem:

    Particularly in organizations that are new to Six Sigma or have not fully embraced the philosophy, Six Sigma projects are sometimes chartered not to clarify a performance problem and uncover root causes, but instead to put a solution in place that leaders have already selected.

    Some cases fall into the "Duh!" or "Just Do It" category, meaning that if the solution is obvious then DMAIC is completely unnecessary. Leaders should just implement the solution and use process management techniques to ensure it is sustainable. In other cases, however, such a project may be more of a political move, with a business leader attempting to push his favored process change under the guise of a systematic DMAIC project. In these cases it may quickly become apparent to the project leader that the solution is a "just do it." But more often the project team gets the project underway only to find that either a problem doesn't really exist or that the sponsor or business leader is only interested in supporting his own solution, not a thorough DMAIC project.

    In this situation it is critical that the Black Belt and other savvy project participants address this problem either directly with the sponsor or leader or, if necessary, indirectly with that individual's superior or with a high-level Six Sigma leader. It does the company no good to devote extensive resources to a DMAIC project when either a simple project management approach is called for or a leader is putting his assumptions and wishes above empirical evidence.

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    Not one of the critical few:

    One of the simplest ways in which a company can have a bad Six Sigma project is to focus on processes that are not aligned with the agreed-upon critical-few performance objectives. By using a thorough business process management system that incorporates a project selection and prioritization procedure, leaders can ensure that chartered Six Sigma projects are an effective use of resources. In addition to the importance of focusing on high-priority projects, leaders should also be aware that buy-in will be much greater for DMAIC projects when they are focused on a problem that is widely seen as having major impact on customers, employees, and/or the bottom line.

    Widespread changes:

    One of the most frustrating things for a Six Sigma project leader is trying to conduct an effective DMAIC project when the organizational landscape is continually changing. A certain amount of change is expected in any dynamic organization, but changes substantial enough to dramatically alter the process being improved and/or the roles of key stakeholders can leave a project team struggling to continually adapt to the new reality.

    In most cases when major organization changes are planned, Six Sigma resources would be better spent focusing on other process areas until the process in question is stabilized, and then Six Sigma and DMAIC principles can be used to maximize process performance and customer satisfaction. Depending on the circumstances, it may be possible to conduct a series of DMAIC projects in phases timed with the process changes or organizational shifts. However, this can take extensive planning and since timetables for both DMAIC projects and organizational changes are subject to major shifts, it can be risky.

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    Other Factors

    Sometimes a Six Sigma project becomes a bad project not because it was inherently a bad fit for DMAIC, but because circumstances through the life of the project ultimately make it impossible to conduct and complete it effectively.

    Watch out for these warning signs of Six Sigma projects that are going bad or have the potential to do so:

    • The project sponsor or process owner regularly skips project meetings or fails to meet his project-related commitments.
    • The process owner convinces higher-ups that she fully supports Six Sigma and wants your help improving processes in her area, but continually resists your efforts to understand and improve process performance. She may even keep tinkering with the process on her own throughout the project despite your reminders that the DMAIC protocol requires a systematic approach.
    • Your Six Sigma leader, process owner or process sponsor keeps changing the project scope or phase deliverables after the fact and reneging on previous approval of what has been completed.
    • An unexpected change in business leadership, structure, or processes renders your project moot or would require massive changes to project scope and objectives for it to remain tenable.

    Many of these examples represent political issues that can be especially difficult to overcome, particularly when it means challenging your boss or other business leaders. In such a situation, remember the tenets of the Six Sigma philosophy and use data and critical thinking to help make your case for halting or repurposing a project. Your comments will be best received if you frame them in terms of what is best for the business and customers, and in relation to the outcomes that leaders intend to achieve.