The Way to Fail

How to unsuccessfully charter projects and miss expectations

by T.M. Kubiak

Several months ago, I received a call from a lean Six Sigma leader with a large multinational organization who was concerned the company was having great difficulty completing projects.

Senior management at the organization, which had about 150 active projects and many more in the pipeline, was becoming impatient with the lack of results.

A few projects had been completed, but not enough to satisfy management expectations. Significant resources were being invested in this strategic initiative with little or no results to show.

At the end of the conversation, I agreed to review the organization’s lean Six Sigma initiative and supporting processes, and then we could determine next steps.

Sizing things up

Upon arriving at the organization’s headquarters, I received a warm greeting and was quickly ushered into a nice conference room where I met the lean Six Sigma leader’s direct reports. They were mostly Master Black Belts (MBB) who supported different aspects of the organization. I soon began asking general questions to get a feel for the size and scope of the deployment:

  • How were Black Belt (BB) candidates selected?
  • How were team members and subject matter experts (SME) selected?
  • How were projects selected?
  • How were projects assigned?
  • How were projects reviewed and by whom?
  • What were the organization’s strategies?
  • Could I review the project charters?
  • Could I attend any meetings or project reviews going on during my visit?

A lively discussion ensued as everyone wanted to answer the consultant’s questions to demonstrate his or her proficiency in lean Six Sigma.

The staff took each of my questions to heart and provided me with answers like a recruit would answer a drill sergeant. I was assured that BB candidates were rigorously selected and only the best of the best were nominated. However, a defined process was not evident.

I learned that the team leader—who was often the BB—was the person who identified team members and SMEs. This individual identified representative positions (for example, a manufacturing engineer) for team members’ spots and, if known, individuals by name for SMEs. In some instances, the level of support to the team—in terms of the percentage of time contributed per week—was specified.

In general, projects were selected after debate and a majority vote by participants in the project selection meeting. These participants, however, were ad hoc and constantly changing. Some were even substitutes for substitutes.

Projects were assigned to BBs based on perceived availability. No attempt was made to reconcile specific BBs to specific projects based on skills or other criteria. MBBs and the project’s sponsor or champion reviewed projects.

I was provided one Excel file of charters for projects—both active and in the pipeline—and a second one with the organization’s strategies. I also learned that several team meetings and project reviews were scheduled in the coming days. This necessitated changing my travel schedule, but it is always worth watching the organization in action.

Back at the hotel

Later that day, I reviewed the project charters and strategies on my own. The project charter file was sequenced according to the order in which the charters had been received.

It was apparent that no attempt had been made to analyze them. Analyze is actually a strong word to use. Simple sorting of the files is usually all that are required to provide significant insight. From this, certain things became clear about the projects:

  • 15% lacked a sponsor.
  • 23% lacked a meaningful business case.
  • 31% lacked a problem statement.
  • 72% had a meaningless goal statement.
  • 65% lacked well-bounded project scopes.
  • Most did not include even a high-level project plan or an expected project duration.
  • 18% did not identify team members, but many did identify SMEs.
  • 8% could be considered linked to the organization’s strategies without stretching the concept of linking.

In addition, each BB had at least five active projects, and the percentages exceed 100% because some project charters contained multiple problems. Also, the percentages applied similarly to active and pipeline projects.

Interpreting the data

A high-level, rather superficial review of the project charter file revealed some astonishing issues:

  • Some projects didn’t have sponsors. The fact that such projects existed indicated not just a fundamental flaw in the selection process, but also brought into question management’s overall commitment, leadership and engagement in this strategic initiative.
  • Projects were seemingly batched by assigning a certain number to a given BB. Bits and pieces of projects were being worked on and, consequently, the organization had many projects that were works in process.
  • Business cases failed to identify estimated cost savings and link individual projects to the organization’s strategies. You have to wonder how a project could be assigned resources without such information.
  • The problem statement didn’t identify the pain the problem is causing. Again, how can a project be justified if you cannot point to the pain?
  • Goals statements were missing baseline and target information, identification of the metric that will be improved and by when. When such information is missing or meaningless, projects have no defined stopping criteria. Remember: specific, measureable, achievable, relevant and timely (SMART) goals.
  • Projects lacked well-bounded scopes and tended to wander aimlessly. They seemed to be never ending and were always changing direction.
  • There were no project plans, which are necessary to understand resource requirements, including human capital and funding, and potential relationships with other projects.
  • Team members weren’t analyzed to identify the drain projects might place on specific functional groups in the organization. When this is known, projects can be scheduled appropriately.
    After analyzing projects, it was discovered that many repeatedly identified the same SMEs. Again, this scenario could place an excessive drain on some individuals and, in extreme cases, may prohibit them from completing their daily work.

The preceding list contains realistic and highly probable consequences. A few hours of simple analysis would have provided the organization with this information.

Watching the meetings

As noted earlier, I was able to observe three tollgate reviews and learned the following:

  • At the first one, the sponsor had sent a substitute who, unfortunately, did not feel empowered to make a pass-or-fail decision, probably because the substitute did not receive sponsor training. Consequently, no tollgate outcome was determined at the meeting. Also, the team leader, unaware the sponsor would not be attending, was not able to cancel the meeting earlier.
  • At the second one, the sponsor did not ask any sponsor-appropriate questions for the analysis tollgate review. Instead, he decided to revisit the scope and goal of the project, and he actually wanted to increase the scope and add a goal. The BB was dumbfounded, yet received no support from the attending MBB.
  • The third tollgate review appeared well coordinated. The sponsor was prepared and asked the appropriate questions. The BB’s presentation was clear, precise and professional.
    I remembered this project from my earlier review of the project charters because it was one of the few linked to strategies. The project easily passed the tollgate from the improve phase to the control phase.

In addition, I attended several team meetings and noticed the team leaders took attendance.

In general, at least 25% of the team members did not even show up at the meeting. About half of those who did had not completed their assigned work on time. Those who didn’t attend didn’t notify the team leader in advance. Expectedly, the effectiveness of these meetings was seriously diminished.

After attending this disappointing group of meetings, I asked a few BBs about attendance. They said they were not required to keep attendance and assignment completion records, but it was a "cover your backside" maneuver. A cursory review of several of their records indicated that my observations were business as usual and not anomalous behavior.

Debriefing the leader

Due to the sensitive nature of my discoveries, I met with the lean Six Sigma leader later in the week. He was astonished at my findings and admitted he had no idea about the state of the project charters or level of team participation.

Given his role as the implementation leader, this admission was concerning. I had expected at least some level of awareness.

After the initial presentation of the findings, we cycled back through and discussed each one in detail, along with the interpretation and impact on the implementation of the lean Six Sigma initiative. The leader agreed with them and understood the need for immediate action.

This discussion also yielded some insight into the current state of affairs. At the outset, senior management wanted projects started immediately. Subsequently, numerous projects were identified and launched.

Later, a few MBBs and BBs where hired, creating a loose lean Six Sigma organizational structure without the benefit of a leader.

Last, a leader was hired who was not a lean Six Sigma professional because the organization decided to promote an existing manager from within. The organization was built from the bottom up.

The path forward

During the next several months, the lean Six Sigma leader and I worked closely to convince senior management of the need to suspend many projects and charters. This was a hard-fought victory.

We incurred significant resistance that appeared to be more rooted in the culture of the organization than in good management practices.

Apparently, it was perceived as a corporate sin to terminate or suspend projects. Perhaps it was viewed as a personal failure rather than management duty to act on current knowledge and information.

Also, we developed plans to:

  • Review project charters and related training to ensure it was appropriate.
  • Reduce the number of projects assigned to BBs.
  • Implement a rigorous project selection and prioritization process.
  • Implement a rigorous BB selection process.
  • Establish a "no sponsor, no project" rule.
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities, with an emphasis on MBBs coaching BBs.
  • Review sponsor training to ensure it is appropriate and delivered to all project sponsors before they can accept responsibility for a project.
  • Integrate team member participation and performance into the performance appraisal process of team members.
  • Hold functional managers of team members responsible for ensuring their employees support the project teams to which they are assigned.
  • Institute a series of hierarchal reviews so various levels of management have the opportunity periodically to observe project progress.

The list is only representative of the plans moving forward, and it should be obvious that several are long term. Now, projects are beginning to move through the tollgate process more quickly and many with better-than-expected results.

It would seem that proper planning suffered because this organization’s leadership desired fast results. Consequently, poor planning along with poor execution leads to poor results. It also leads the organization to restart its lean Six Sigma strategic initiative.

T.M. Kubiak is founder and president of Performance Improvement Solutions, an independent consulting organization in Weddington, NC. He is coauthor of The Certified Six Sigma Black Belt Handbook (ASQ Quality Press, 2009) and author of The Certified Six Sigma Master Black Belt Handbook (ASQ Quality Press, 2012). Kubiak, a senior member of ASQ, serves on many ASQ boards and committees, and is a past chair of ASQ’s Publication Management Board.

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