Guidelines to help your project succeed

One of the most frequent questions I get from Black Belts and Green Belts I train is about the characteristics of a good Six Sigma project, particularly a first project. Define, measure, analyze, improve, control (DMAIC) is a procedure that is useful for certain types of projects and terrible for others.  What makes a good DMAIC project?

I have asserted before that defining Six Sigma itself is important. I said then that I have come to view Six Sigma as a general technique that uses a number of tools, some of them statistical, to solve important problems. It’s not a continuous improvement technique—contrary to what some say—but it’s a way to approach major gaps between where you are now and where you want to get to. Understanding the difference between systems, strategies, and tools, we know that DMAIC isn’t an optimal method for managing a process on a daily basis, strategic planning and policy deploymentcustomer quality assurance, or supplier quality assurance. However, it is a science-based method of problem-solving, so a Black Belt could easily use what they know to address problems in any of these areas.

The first and most important characteristic about a Six Sigma project is that it has a large enough effect for the business to care about. The effect may be to improve profit or safety, preserve the business market position, or anything else that the business deems important. (Sometimes I tell Black Belts in a company new to Six Sigma to ask the CEO what’s the most annoying issue they have to deal with, and then take that on as a project—strangely those projects usually succeed.) This implies a functioning strategic plan and policy deployment system so that those selecting projects can actually know what to work on to accomplish the company’s strategic objectives.

When people don’t know the company’s strategic objectives, because they are secret and are in a folder locked in the CEO’s desk drawer, it’s a bad start to project selection. In the absence of a strong link to the business plan, any project is going to encounter problems. As part of your business case for the project, this linkage to the business plan answers the question, “Why are we working on this rather than using our time and resources to work on something else?” In the absence of alignment with the plan, you run the risk of:

  • Having resources allocated to the team pulled off when “something more important” comes along
  • Making slow progress because team members are always dealing with the crisis of the day rather than the project mission
  • Generating a low return on your training investment, causing managers to question the value of what you can do for the company
  • Accomplishing the mission, but having no one who cares

The project also needs to be focused and with a clearly-defined mission. DMAIC is too simplistic a method to be of much help in managing a complicated project with many objectives involving a lot of stakeholders, say a new capital equipment purchase. (Of course, it’s useful for solving problems that come up during such projects.). It’s really most useful when you want to improve your process or product performance on one critical metric, while keeping the others the same. Optimizing and balancing the trade-offs for a number of outputs is more of a product and process design function, and would best be handled by something like design for Six Sigma (DFSS), even on existing processes. In good DFSS implementations, there are additional tools to gather market requirements, rank product characteristics, generate alternative concepts, and develop suppliers who are able to provide the inputs to the new process. All of this requires additional training over what a DMAIC Black Belt would usually get, and so is beyond the scope of a DMAIC project.

Also beware of “mission creep,” when that nice simple mission you start off with gets “just one thing” added to it, and then another and so on, until in addition to improving the scrap rate for your process, you have to solve world hunger and the banking crisis—with no additional resources, of course.

Personally, I’m not too concerned about the time a project will take (some people say to target a project for eight months). I consulted at a location where their biggest problem only happened in the summer, so any investigations or experiments had to wait until then, and changes to the process would need another year to test out. In other situations, particularly in service industries that haven’t been examined as a process before, something as simple drawing a flow chart might show the solution to the problem, so they only need a few weeks to get a solution set up and tested.  The key is the linkage to the business plan and its timing, not a particular time span.

Six Sigma Black Belt and Green Belt projects are almost always team-based, so the problem being worked on should be one that is best addressed by a team. Teams cost a lot of money, so you need to be sure that the benefits outweigh the costs. Teams aren’t needed for tasks that an individual or a couple of people can do, nor are they good at high mental thought. They are good when the problem and its solution involve or affect a number of departments, and require analyses and critique from different disciplines. Under those circumstances, when run well, teams can come up with superior solutions than individuals.

The support and commitment of managers in the areas affected by the project is another important consideration, particularly in businesses without an existing Six Sigma infrastructure.  Managers who will be affected by the team’s decisions but don’t support the DMAIC approach can torpedo a project faster than a U-boat. In considering a project for selection, the Champion or Black Belt should be asking for a commitment from these managers, perhaps even in writing, that the resources will be available for the team, that the DMAIC process will be followed, and that the team’s decisions will be respected. This can be difficult sometimes. If the team is solving a problem that has been around for a while, the solution is likely to be something quite different from business-as-usual, which can be challenging for some people. If affected managers are going to second-guess a team that has spent months studying the problem and its potential solutions, it’s best to go somewhere else for everyone’s sanity.


DMAIC is a process that is powerful when applied to certain types of projects. These projects are characterized by being important and aligned with the business plan, focused on closing a clearly defined gap, using a team-based approach, and requiring resource and noninterference commitments from affected managers.

While some people advocate that the first project for a Black Belt or a Green Belt be an easy one, I personally don’t think this is a good idea. I would rather have the project flow from business needs and provide mentoring support to maximize the probability of success. If trained well and supported, the new project leader should be able to do just fine, and we avoid associating the advanced problem-solving techniques used in DMAIC with easily achieved projects.

Using these guidelines should help you select good projects that people want to see succeed, which in turn will help those working on the projects thrive in their work. In today’s economy, this can mean the difference between profiting and perishing.