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How to Find the Ideal Lean Six Sigma Project

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It’s a common dilemma. Folks who are new to Lean Six Sigma (LSS) often struggle with finding a good project where they can apply LSS. But to make matters worse, it’s rarely their fault. The wrong projects are often selected for them by someone who should’ve known better. 

Lean Six Sigma Training Isn't One-Size-Fits-All

This challenge typically comes from four types of situations:

  1. Pre-Training Selection: Before starting a formal LSS training class, the instructor asks students ahead of time to bring a project they can work during their training. But this is like the age-old challenge of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”. This seems like a setup for failure because how can a student find the right project if they haven’t learned LSS yet to know what would be an ideal project?
  2. Post-Training Selection: A student just completed a formal LSS training class and is anxious to find any opportunity to apply LSS. Just as someone who learns how to use a hammer and suddenly treats everything like a nail, how can they be confident they’re finding the right project opportunity that is ideal for applying LSS?
  3. Low Priority Project Assignment: A student new to LSS is assigned a low-priority project so that they can work the project in their spare time to not interfere with their other responsibilities. These projects are rarely successful. As a low priority, they tend to get delayed, canceled, or yield very little results. So why bother doing it?
  4. No Real-World Opportunity: A student new to LSS doesn’t have a job where they can apply LSS to a real-world project. Many training organizations use fictitious projects for the students to work; although this may be helpful to apply some LSS tools, they lack the real-world application of leading a team, influencing executives, running a pilot, and balancing the often chaotic challenges that real projects encounter.

The majority of new LSS students face one or more of the above situations. What can they do to prevent or overcome them? Here are a few suggestions that can help.

Find a LSS Mentor

There’s no better way to learn LSS than to learn by the direct guidance of a LSS expert. Typically, this may be a Master Black Belt (MBB), but very often a seasoned Black Belt (BB) can also help in these situations. The key is finding someone you trust who is passionate about LSS and about making you successful in it – someone who can be direct and honest with you, even about your mistakes. Having someone like that is far more valuable than any training you can get from a book, video, classroom, or any other impersonal source.

Nearly all other professional certifications and licenses (like doctors, electricians, carpenters, accountants, etc.) typically require a person learn under the direct supervision of an expert in the same field. Why should we hold LSS to a lesser standard?  Even though LSS certifications typically don’t require it, excluding that expert-level guidance often leads to the unskilled and under-qualified LSS student being thrown into the fray of a LSS project that may be at higher risk for failure. Some may argue it’s for that very reason that new LSS students should start on a small-scale or low priority project. But those kinds of projects rarely lead to meaningful success – so what kind of skills and experience can be gained when the odds of success are minimal at best?

Acquire Executive Sponsorship

No LSS project can ever succeed without sponsorship. A friend of mine often says “You can be dead right, but still dead.” That is, it doesn’t matter how great your analysis and solution are, if you can’t get adequate sponsorship, then it will almost surely fail. In other words, it’s not enough to right – you have to influence the decision makers to believe you are right.

What is a sponsor?  A sponsor is a key decision maker in the business area you’re targeting.  Typically, it will be an executive who either makes the decisions directly or has strong influence over those who do. The best way to find a project is to connect with that kind of person. If he doesn’t know anything about LSS, then don’t worry – don’t explain it to him! The last thing a sponsor wants to hear is how you got some special training and are hoping to use him as a guinea pig to test your training knowledge in his business area. 

So how do you engage your sponsor? Avoid any LSS lingo if she is not already aware of it. Instead, find out what’s important to her and how you want to devote time to help make her successful. What key metrics are used in her business area? What are her goals she’s required to meet? What are key pain points she’s feeling in her business area? If she had one wish to solve any problem in her business area, what would it be? Take all that information to heart and don’t be afraid to demonstrate your confidence to help her meet her goals or get her wish. If you’re feeling so bold, feel free to be specific on how you can help her, such as setting a goal for yourself to help her attain at least half of her goal.

I had one such experience where I was pitching to an executive the idea of starting a LSS program. I asked what her goals were for the new year; she said it was to improve one of her metrics by $10 million.  I said I would make it my goal to get half of that just using LSS with two other trainees (in an organization having thousands of people). I had no idea how I would do it, but I was so confident that we could use LSS to be successful that I wasn’t afraid to put my neck on the line. A short time later we had a couple projects that we could prove would save over $55 million! Needless to say, she was a strong believer in LSS from that point forward. Granted, not everyone will have the same success, but don’t be afraid to be confident in using LSS to find the right opportunities that can achieve big results.

To learn more about influencing others including sponsors, check out a free video on the Analysis of Behavior and Cognition (ABC) model that illustrates how people think and how we can use various arguments to persuade them. As well, you can learn more about managing change and understanding the value of sponsorship through the free video on the Change Acceleration Process (CAP) model.

Use a CTQ Drilldown

Believe it or not, I’ve encountered sponsors who weren’t even aware of what their goals should be. In cases like these or in any instance where you want to understand more about what’s important to your sponsor, a CTQ Drilldown can be essential. A critical to quality (CTQ) drilldown is a tool that illustrates a hierarchy of what is most important to the business (satisfying the ultimate customer) down to the lowest level process-based metrics. Although most people would argue that the customer who pays for your products or services is your ultimate customer, the truth is that the ultimate customer is the business owner (such as shareholders in a corporation).

Why is that so? The reason is because every business must make money to survive – even non-profit businesses. It doesn’t matter how altruistic the business is, if they aren’t at least earning enough to offset their costs, then they are losing money and cannot stay in business very long. Does that mean we ignore the paying customers? Of course not! But operating a business requires a delicate balance between those customers paying enough to offset the direct and indirect costs for the products or services they’re purchasing. If we were to hold those paying customers to a higher regard than our ultimate customer (the owners), then why wouldn’t we just offer our products or services for free? Wouldn’t that satisfy them even more? But we don’t do that because it would not appease the ultimate customer, whom we should ultimately try to satisfy. Much more could be said about the CTQ Drilldown, but to learn more about it you can check out a free video explaining it plus download a free file of the CTQ drilldown.

How do you use the CTQ Drilldown for finding projects? First, build the drilldown correctly at level 3 for your organization (or at least for the department or business area where your sponsor works). Next, you can compare the existing metrics and processes in that business area to see how they align through the drilldown. Any metric that does not align through the Financial Performance CTQ should probably be considered a lower priority compared to those metrics that do. Then you can focus on those financially-based metrics to explore what gaps may exist. For example, are the financially-based metrics being correctly measured and tracked? Is the sponsor unwittingly focusing on a low priority metric? If so, then how can you modify those metrics (or create a new one, if possible) to find their financial impact?

When exploring this, it would help to understand how your business metrics are measured financially. To learn more about it, you can check out a free video on measuring financial benefits that can help you qualify your metrics into four basic categories: 1) Direct/Tangible, 2) Indirect/Tangible, 3) Direct/Intangible, and 4) Indirect/Intangible.

Finding and Prioritizing Projects with an IPO-FAT Tool

Another helpful way to find potentially hidden project opportunities is to gather a team of experts and run through an IPO-FAT tool. This tool helps a team of subject matter experts to identify everything in their business area that runs through their Input > Process > Output (IPO) model and explore them from three different perspectives: flow, accuracy, and timeliness (FAT). By using this approach, it allows the team to target their thinking and brainstorming into specific areas that may reveal hidden opportunities they weren't aware of.

A team of experts that works through this tool tend to get very energized in finding all possible opportunities to improve the business. Once all potential ideas are identified, the tool also guides the team on an ideal way to prioritize those opportunities. It also helps them understand if the projects will likely be using tools that are more oriented toward Lean, Six Sigma, or a combination of the two. To learn how to use this tool, check out this free video about the IPO-FAT tool where you can also download a free template to use with your team.

What if you don’t have a real-world job to work a project?

This is a tough spot. Hiring managers often require LSS experience, but how can you gain LSS experience if you don’t already have a job to apply LSS? There’s no easy answer to this, but at the same time, all hope is not lost. LSS doesn’t just work in businesses where you’re employed – it can work in any area of life where you have a repeatable, measurable problem where you need to find a solution.

The best way to find these kinds of opportunities is to look for existing businesses that will let you apply LSS – even if that means you don’t get paid. Some great examples would be to work for a church, a school, or other non-profit organizations that often look for volunteers. If they have public access to their operations, then you can just sit and observe to see if any potential opportunities stand out. If you find any, then try to do a preliminary assessment on the financial impact to the business if you were to fix the problem (and be sure to annualize the values). Then find the sponsor (the owner or key manager you can talk to about your findings) and share the pre-work you did. Avoid some of the LSS lingo, unless that helps you sell yourself to them. If they don’t let you try your ideas, then keep moving on to other sources until someone is willing to give you a chance. Once you find one and use it, be sure to apply extra rigor to your methods so that you can use that experience as a successful example in your next job interview.

Common Sense is Your Best Tool

You don’t have to wait until you’re in the middle of a project to know if it’s ideal or not. You can use some LSS upfront to even find what should be the ideal project that can help you be most successful and continue to develop the LSS skills and experience you want. Not all of the tools mentioned above will work for everyone, and there are more that can be used to help find the right project. LSS is based on a lot of common sense, so use your common sense to guide you into finding the right project that will help develop your skills and build your experience to be a more qualified expert in Lean Six Sigma.

About StatStuff

StatStuff is the only FREE source for complete Lean Six Sigma training. It is highly endorsed as quality Lean Six Sigma training from leaders at top companies like Apple, eBay, Pepsico, Bank of America, Dell, Sprint, BP, etc. Many other training organizations offer similar LSS training content for $2,000 - $7,000 and their training lasts 40 to 200 hours long. StatStuff’s free online training content is less than 28 hours – plus StatStuff offers Beginner and Intermediate training paths that can be completed in far less time. Many companies, training organizations, and universities are using StatStuff for their training curriculum. And why shouldn't they? There’s no risk, it’s less time, less money, and what better way is there to teach Lean Six Sigma than to apply Lean Six Sigma to their own training plan?

Matt Hansen

Matt is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt who has led and consulted on hundreds of process improvement initiatives for 20 years across several industries such as Government (Dept. of Defense), Insurance, Telecommunications, and Transportation.  He has developed and led an enterprise Lean Six Sigma Training and Mentoring Program as well as a one-day crash course on "Dangerous Analytics" using the most critical Lean and Six Sigma tools and concepts. The savings from the projects he has led well exceed $100 Million.

For more details about Matt's experience, you can check out his profile and connect with him on LinkedIn.  If you'd like to use Matt for consulting or speaking engagements, please contact him here.


  • Comment Link Matt Hansen May 28, 2015 posted by Matt Hansen

    Thanks for the feedback, Wesley - I'm glad you liked the article!

    Your MBB should be able to define criteria for a project; there's no formal req'ts on that. However, in general a BB project can take 3 to 6 months, but I've seen them go longer & shorter. Generally, the key is to have enough complexity in it to qualify as a BB project, where it is usually involving a team of folks from different areas, a sponsor & champion to gain buy-in, a good set of metrics & statistical tools, and of course, a successfully implemented solution with proven results.

    Unfortunately, what I describe above is not always possible for folks who may not be working in a company supporting LSS. That's why the cert program I'm building in StatStuff won't require a formal BB project, but demonstration of the tools. So if you can't find any opportunities in your workplace, then you may need to look at other areas where you can volunteer to run the project (like at a church, or another non-profit organization, etc.). Most folks won't turn down free help in finding ways to save/make money.

  • Comment Link Wesley Tam May 26, 2015 posted by Wesley Tam


    Great article. It appears that I may be facing what you are describing in the article. I completed my Lean and SSGB certifications and I just completed my SSBB final exam (quite difficult). I am about to meet my MBB to do my project before I can acquire my SSBB certification. I have learned tremendously in Otifas program. The practical exercises were very powerful for me. Yes, I am searching for a project to complete my certification. I found some samples from iSixSigma website. They look pretty good. I have to look through some more before I meet my MBB to discuss my project.

    What do you think the length of the project should be? What do you consider are really the criteria for a BB project? I would like to have a 2nd opinion so that i know I am on the right track.

    Any input is appreciated. Thank you for your support.

  • Comment Link Matt Hansen Dec 23, 2014 posted by Matt Hansen

    Thanks so much, I appreciate that!

  • Comment Link Manian V.B. Dec 22, 2014 posted by Manian V.B.

    Simply brilliant Matt !

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