Three Pillars to Successful Process Improvement

An interview with Randy Clark, Director of Six Sigma  for Upland PowerSteering

A successful process improvement initiative rests on three main pillars. The ability of a project leader and project team to adhere to these pillars will have a direct impact on the success – or failure – of the initiative within the organization.

Randy Clark, a Black Belt and Executive Master Black Belt-trained member of the American Society of Quality, and three-year examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, shared his recommendations on how to structure and lead a project to ensure the most successful outcome.

Visibility and Accountability

Upland Software: Let’s start with visibility and accountability. Projects often fail due to a lack of accountability for project status and outcomes. What can you tell us about how a project leader can give better visibility to the project, and how this can impact the success of a project.

Randy Clark: When you think about the project activities going on in any Continuous Improvement initiative, there is very little visibility or understanding of what the resources are working on or the status or progress of the project. The project lead spends puts in a lot of effort going on to try to get visibility into this information and share it with others.

If there is no visibility into what a resource is working on, then there is little accountability to deliver to any key dates or any promised outcomes. Without information flowing to the project lead, the resource is basically anonymous to the organization and they sit in dread or getting a call to explain what they are working on. This is no way to run an initiative.

With clear visibility; project goals such as savings, quality enhancement, or defect reduction targets are spelled out in a Charter. Without a Project Portfolio Management (PPM) solution, the Charter is usually in a PowerPoint deck the project manager keeps and must update. This Charter is rarely in a single place visible to everyone so without the visibility, accountability suffers. Due dates get extended, nobody is informed, and nobody is asking questions because they don’t know the questions to ask. The resource focuses on keeping their head down and hoping they get through the project without pain.

Unlike a SharePoint site, email or shared documents; PPM software provides a real-time collaborative platform. The PPM solution has information on all the projects in one place and can leverage the information and knowledge of the projects. Without a PPM solution, you hear statements such as, “Well I sent you an email” or “It was in an attachment in my second email.” Everything having to do with the project is not accessible by everyone because it is scattered across emails, shared drives, or somewhere.

A PPM solution keeps everything is in one location. The project lead has the history of all project activities, documents, and other items are in one place and are completely visible for those with the permissions to see them, and the project stakeholders have all the information they need to make decisions.

Upland: Randy, you talked about the issue of missed due dates and long project cycle times, how does a PPM solution help keep projects on track?

Randy: I think it goes back to accountability to a target or to expectations. Without visibility, work tends to expand to fill the time available. In a PPM solution, the roadmap template has major milestones and due dates. I know when the Define or Measure phases needs to be completed because each has a target date which can trigger a notification to the right people if the date passes without the activity being marked as completed. Since the master black belt or mentor are notified, they can be much more proactive. With this accountability, this visibility, the resource is now tied to the dates and needs to perform to them.


Upland: Randy, another area we want to look at is Alignment.  One concern I’ve heard is that business goals and objectives are not always being clearly communicated or understood. It sounds like it is a lot along the lines of visibility, but can you give us more insight on this?

Randy: Sure, when we look at any organizational transformation effort like a Six Sigma initiative, what the organization is trying to do is not always clear. You hear things like, “We are going to have a Six Sigma initiative,” “We are going to train a lot of people and they are going to do projects.” What are they trying to do in terms of organizational targets? What changes are we trying to effect? If I am going to run projects, what should those projects be focused on? What are our major objectives as a company? Is it revenue growth? Is it cost reduction? Is it customer satisfaction? Is it net promoter score improvement?

The PPM solution provides a single resource of organizational objectives and targets and provides the ability to communicate across the organization. We now know what success looks like and what project targets are. Because we know this information, we can be sure our projects are centered around those targets and supporting them.

At that level, this is an organizational deployment issue: What is the organization trying to achieve? At a more specific, project level, we get a bunch of people together to run this project. We need to be sure we have a Charter, with a scope, an outcome, a problem statement, and a business case to support it. Many times, the Charter is in a PowerPoint somewhere in somebody’s folder. What a PPM solution does is collect the Charter information or upload the Charter document and put it online so the team can collaborate. They now know what the project is about, and the team can focus on what they are doing to achieve the particular objective.

Upland: It sounds like one of the issues is projects are not aligned with key business goals. How can a PPM solution help?

Randy: First, make those goals visible. Communicate the targets and make sure the SMART (Specific and Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) objectives are spelled out and communicated to everybody. Next, select projects with those objectives in mind. The projects need to be scored and aligned to be sure they can help achieve those objectives. If it is seen as a worthwhile project; but has no alignment with or structure around achieving those objectives, maybe it is something we should put off until later. A PPM solution will feature a scoring and alignment mechanism that will ensure our focus is in the same direction as the corporate objectives.


Upland: Ok, another one of the focus areas is productivity. It seems one of the issues is a lack of tools and disciplined methodology. Without these, a team can spend a lot of time just trying to stay organized and focused. How can an organization get around this?

Randy: There is a reason why people go to training to learn the Lean methods and how to execute Lean projects. It is because there is a method and set of tools proven to be successful. You want to be able to drive the execution of those kinds of projects using those tools, using that methodology, so everyone will know how to do it consistently.

A good PPM solution will allow you to create templates, based on the CI methodology you are using, with the steps, stages, and tools you can use, giving you direction, and creating common understanding of the methodology. Because of the template used, we will know it will be a PDCA, DMAIC, or other CI methodology you are using in terms of the project approach and that the steps to the project are laid out like a checklist of the things you need to do to execute the project. In this way, you’re going to take the execution of those projects to a new level where before, people were doing their own thing and applying their own solution set and tools. Without a common PPM solution approach, you’re not sure what you are going to get.

Upland: I have heard you say, one of the productivity issues is the fact you have the inability to share best practices. It seems like you are always re-inventing the wheel. How does a PPM solution help you get around this?

Randy: Everybody is working on numerous projects. Your project is not going to be the first ever executed in this organization, especially in a large-scale initiative. Why would I work on reducing cost of containers without knowing six other projects have occurred focused on container cost across my organization? I had no idea if the other projects were completed two years ago, a year, or six months ago.

A PPM solution can serve as a leveraged knowledge base. Everything is resource by key words and by major areas. You can designate a successful process solution project as best practice, search for best practices, and share that information with your team. What we have found is half of the benefit of that type of leveraging of knowledge is simply having the contact information of those people involved in the successful project.

Since this is a similar project, I could pull it up online and look at the notes and learn from it. But if I have the contact information for person that ran it and people that were on that team and I can talk to those folks about their experience, I can learn what they found, why they did what they did, and how they came to the solution they came to. I will be so much better off than simply being able to search for something in SharePoint. You can really be able to communicate with those folks.

Upland: Is there anything else you want to tell us about how Process Improvement itself can be improved by using a PPM solution?

 Randy: Yes, absolutely. When you think about an initiative like Lean or Six Sigma, there are a number of processes and methods used to improve the way people do work and to improve outcomes of the organization. Having a PPM solution gives you the ability to gather data about the effort such as how projects are executed, how long they took, which ones are more effective than others. You will be able to pull and mine that data and torture that data until it confesses (This is a great, old Six Sigma saying).

Where does the data come from? A PPM solution will have all the data recorded in terms of when the project started, who is doing it, what were the targets, what were they types of projects being executed, how long did they take, and what were the cycle times between phases and overall? You know, as I start to analyze the information like any improvement project, I start to run it through some filters. Which projects are more effective and produce higher outcomes? Which ones can we drive quicker and in what areas? Then we can apply all the information we have learned. By doing the work, you are gathering data about the work so you can apply the data to improving the project and the process. That is just you basic Lean Six Sigma process or thought process.

Learn more about PPM for process improvement, read about PowerSteering for Continuous Improvement, and when you’re ready, contact us for a personalized demo of the Upland PowerSteering PPM solution.

About Randy Clark

Randy Clark is the Director, Six Sigma with Upland Software. Randy has over 20 years’ experience working in continuous improvement with emphasis in Six Sigma and the Baldrige criteria for performance excellence. He joined Upland’s PowerSteering team in 2004.

While with Whirlpool Corp. as Director, Global Quality, Randy directed a Baldrige-based improvement effort, implementing numerous approaches to measure and improve performance. His leadership resulted in Whirlpool being recognized as a best practice company by the American Productivity and Quality Center, as well as winning recognition as a leader in the Michigan Quality Award (State Baldrige Award).

While working with Pitney Bowes, as Director, Quality and Productivity, Randy deployed a Six Sigma initiative from the ground floor. In less than seven months 40 Black Belts were trained with projects producing over $13 million in first year benefits.

Randy is a Black Belt and Executive Master Black Belt-trained member of the American Society of Quality, and is a three-year examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Randy, grew up the son of an NFL player and Coach, he and his wife Michele have two grown sons and currently reside in Connecticut.


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