How to choose your Lean Six Sigma Green Belt projects wisely

Lean Six Sigma - Green BeltOne major factor can significantly impact success at both the project level and by extrapolation in the programme as a whole – how well your Belt project was selected.

When you decide to embark on an organisational programme of continual improvement using Lean Six Sigma tools and methods, you need to take a number of factors into account. These factors are crucial to gain the necessary step changes in process performance.

Whilst most argue it's simply good business sense to put a large focus on project selection, many organisations and stakeholders overlook the importance of this stage in their rush to get people trained and active. This often results in ill-conceived projects that constantly undergo major re-scoping or redefinition – leading over time to the abandonment and disillusionment amongst participants.

To avoid this, Project Champions, Sponsors, Green or Black Belt Project Leaders and other major stakeholders need to thoroughly discuss the ‘what, where, who and when of each potential project as early as possible. In doing so, the ‘how’ and using DMAIC as the chosen route forward becomes apparent and sets in motion a fully supported project.

It should be noted, however, that these early discussions focusing on robust project identification do not replace the Define Phase of DMAIC. Each project still needs to be further characterised and then formally documented through some form of Project Charter. Building in a Project Identification Phase (or process) helps however to ensure all your efforts are concentrated on the business areas and organisational drivers that matter most. 

Initial project selection: Important questions and areas for discussion

Andrew Slaney is a Principal Consultant, as well as a coach and trainer in Business Improvement techniques and Lean Six Sigma at BSI. Based on 15 years' experience, he recommends a number of useful questions and areas for discussion all Champions, Sponsors and Belts should consider. By following this checklist, you'll ensure the key considerations of any potential DMAIC improvement project has been taken into account right from the start. The key DMAIC project considerations include benefits, strategic link (or business priority), scope, measures and the ability to introduce ongoing process control.

What are the potential benefits and opportunities of undertaking this proposed piece of work?

  • What is the gap you're looking to close or deficiency you're trying to remove between the current state process and where you want it to be?
  • If you succeed and close this gap what will be the gains? This is usually expressed as a monetary value, or possible savings, as well as enhancements to operational measures associated with the process.
  • Does the above monetary figure surpass any hurdle rate (payback value) that the organisation has mandated for Lean Six Sigma activities, or for that matter, the selection of business projects in general?  If not, will the project work be supported?
  • Are there any other benefits that may be less tangible or less easy to quantify financially and that need to be considered and documented?
  • Are there any higher value, more straightforward, or urgent problems, issues or potential projects you should concentrate on first before undertaking this piece of work?

Does this piece of work have a strategic link?

  • Do you understand the strategic goals of the business and how the leadership team intend to leverage Lean Six Sigma or other related programmes in order to deliver these goals?
  • Does this operational improvement idea have a clear link with the business' strategic goals and does the management team agree?
  • What matters most to the business at this time?  Cost reduction, cost of poor quality improvements, increased customer satisfaction, time to market etc.?
  • What impact will this potential piece of work have on the above and any other important metrics that are components of the corporate scorecard?
  • Does this potential project link with any additional improvement activities currently taking place and is there any risk of task duplication?

Has this potential project been reasonably scoped and is it a suitable size?

  • Would you describe the potential project as a mess1, or difficulty/problem2?
  • If the project is a mess, can you turn it into a difficulty/problem before progressing the work (see R. Ackoff, Soft Systems Methodology)3?
  • Is the potential project being considered here too big, too complex, too resource or data hungry? Does it need to be broken down further into multiple smaller scope pieces of work?
  • Are the benefits of this potential project too small, or the scope too narrow to justify progressing it as a Belt project? Or is the answer obvious, requiring a 'Just Do It' solution?
  • Is the issue causing concern here a recurring one? If it's not, why are you looking at this as a potential Lean Six Sigma project?  

Have or can you put any suitable measures in place?

  • What data is currently collected for the candidate process to be studied and what information (even at a high level) suggests a problem in the first place?
  • What measurement systems are already in place and are they suitable and trustworthy? Upgrading measurement systems can become a major element of any project if the integrity of key data cannot be confirmed in the Measure Phase.
  • If you don't currently collect the required data, will you be able to once you begin the proposed piece of work?  Think – accessible technology, process availability and resources that might be required (human and otherwise).
  • Is the problem only sporadic and can you adequately measure and quantify the issues?  If not, is the Lean Six Sigma DMAIC approach the best way forward?

Do you have control of the process?

  • Will you have access to the candidate process to be studied for the likely duration of this potential project, particularly if external stakeholders or suppliers and their facilities are involved?
  • Will you be able to access the required data for the duration of this potential project if it is not internally generated?
  • Are you empowered to make the necessary changes to improve the process once solutions become clear, particularly if you can foresee a potential need for capital investment?
  • Are there any other factors that will inhibit your progress? Have you looked at any possible risks and considered your assumptions well (e.g. required resources –financial, human, technological or otherwise, possible changes in business needs etc.)?

These questions should serve as a pragmatic list of ideas that can prompt discussions to help those involved in Lean Six Sigma programmes to choose and develop practical DMAIC projects.

By choosing your Lean Six Sigma projects wisely, and aligning them to the business, its stakeholders and the organization's overall improvement strategy, you'll reap rewarding results.


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1 Definition of a mess:

  • This will likely need further unpacking and scoping prior to DMAIC.
  • A mess is made up of a complex network of problems and opportunities that are viewed differently by different stakeholders. The issue(s) involved are difficult to describe and quantify.
  • Many improvements are needed in order to satisfy different facets of the problem(s) and the route forward is not clear, i.e., you know something is wrong, but can't say what.  
  • Improvements typically take the form of multi-component activities with many interactions being present.  The sum of the parts does not add to the whole.  
  • A judgement has to be made about whether or not an improvement has been made.  This will depend on the perspective of the various stakeholders individually. 

 2 Definition of a difficulty/problem:

  • This may a suitable DMAIC project
  • A difficulty/problem is generally viewed identically by all stakeholders. It is well understood in terms of the less than desirable outcomes, although the cause may not be known (and in the case of DMAIC project causes won't at the beginning be known).
  • Improvements made to a difficulty/problem are relatively easy to identify and describe. The logic (cause and effect) of how they came about can be shown.  
  • Any improvements will be generally agreed upon by most stakeholders and from most perspectives.

 3 For more information on Ackoff's Soft Systems Methodology, visit: