I’m often asked what are the keys to success in executing a lean Six Sigma (LSS) project. One of the key elements I believe that’s consistent in projects leading to highly impactful financial results (the ultimate measure of success for most business leaders) is having an engaged champion.
What is an engaged champion?
An engaged champion is someone who is passionate about solving a problem; someone who is constantly focused on finding a better way; someone who is rarely satisfied with the status quo; someone who has the stamina to sustain the improvement after the team has disbanded; someone who is “pulling” you into getting a project started and completed instead of you pulling them into getting a project done; someone who knows it’s their project not yours; someone who’s focused on the critical few instead of the trivial many; someone who knows it can’t all be done and is OK with that; and someone who drives you to a higher level of performance than you could have reached solely on your own.
In some ways this describes a business superhero, and, as you might expect, they are a rare find in any organization. From my experience working with champions for more than 15 years I’d say at most 15-20% of champions fit this description. It’s kind of a sad statistic, but my thought is that this number will get higher as champions begin to learn the power of LSS.
The challenge is helping a champion see the potential of an opportunity to improve without overcomplicating it with all the LSS jargon, something I personally believe adds very little value to the process, and creates more confusion than clarity. Much of this initial “framing” of a project can be a challenge for project facilitators, but by asking the right questions it’s easy to hit the ground running with a project in just a few hours at most.
This process is something we describe as a champion interview. Like any interview there are questions and answers, but the goal of this interview is not in securing a job; it’s all about securing the 5 key elements needed to get a project started. The goal of a champion interview is to understand the answers to the following questions:
- What’s the problem?
- How are we going to measure the problem before and after improvements?
- How much better could we or do we need to be?
- What’s the business case?
- Who matters the most to successfully solving the problem?
You could simply ask these five questions to your champion, but I often find these questions are too direct and don’t always lead to clear answers essential for framing a project. Instead, I suggest using questions that are in a more natural business language that will get you to the answers with a much richer volume of background info that leads to a higher success rate.
Q1: Tell me about the problem you want to attack.
In basic terms, you’re trying to understand what the issue is that the champion wants to fix. Typically, all problems tend to fall into one of two categories-getting better (quality problem) or getting faster (efficiency problem). Keep in mind cost is just a symptom of a problem and not a problem in and of itself. If a champion begins with, “xyz process is costing us too much money” ask them what they believe is driving the costs, which will likely be a quality or efficiency issue.
Before moving on to the next question make sure you fully understand the issue by telling the champion your perspective on the problem (i.e. “So it sounds like the problem is xyz? Am I stating this correctly?”).
Q2: Why do you want to fix this problem?
This will assess the level of passion from the champion for the project. Champions with passion for a problem tend to lead to a higher probability of success. Passion is hard, if not impossible, to quantify, but there are some tell-tale signs to look for in assessing the passion level of the champion.
When we talk about something we’re passionate about you can see it and hear it in how we talk about the subject and how we move our body. Think about it. What are you passionate about? What happens to you when you talk about it? Your eyes open wide, your voice probably gets louder, you might move your hands a lot, and in most cases you can talk forever about the topic. Keep these in mind when you’re observing the champion talking about the problem.
The other giveaway to how passionate a champion is about a problem is how easy they are to meet with to discuss the problem. If you have to schedule several meetings to talk to the champion they are likely working on other things that are more important. Champions spend time working on what matters most to them. If you can’t get the time from them the problem probably isn’t all that important to them.
Q3: Why does the problem matter to the business?
This will begin to establish a business case for the project and start the process of turning the problem into dollars. Business drivers typically fall into one of two categories-reducing costs and / or increasing revenue.
Q4: How will we know when the problem is solved? How will we know when we have succeeded?
These questions will lead to identifying metrics that can be used to measure the problem, and also establishing goals for those metrics.
Q5: Who else should I talk to about this problem?
It is rare that a champion has all the answers and knows in great detail all the ins-and-outs of the process so this will help link you to others who do have that knowledge, and also get the permission of the champion to talk to them without them feeling like you’ve gone around them to discuss a problem without their input.
Q6: Who knows the most about the problem? Who matters most to succeeding in solving this problem?
This is another way of asking who should be on the team. There are two types of people who should be on the team-subject matter experts and influencers. Subject matter experts are those who know most about the process and are critical in performing key steps in the process that lead to success. Influencers are informal leaders working within the process that others go to when they have questions, need advice, etc. They are the “go-to-guy / gal” everyone counts on when a question needs an answer.
With the answers to these questions in hand you will be ready to hit the ground running with your project, or you could walk away with answers that make a case not to do the project (i.e. no business case)-both are legitimate outcomes. All interviews don’t end in a project team being formed and that’s a good thing because some problems should not be solved.