Six Sigma Team Struggles

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

In my previous article on this topic, I talked about the different factors which, in general, can result in ineffective Six Sigma training.  Let’s imagine however that we found ways to incorporate lots of the right kind of practice into our existing six sigma training curriculums. Imagine that we taught people only what they really needed to know and use for six sigma success.  Would making these changes resolve our six sigma training concerns?  Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding ‘No’ from my perspective.  If you think that I am being overly cynical, please read on.

LEARN MORE:The Lean Six Sigma Debate

Do You Provide the Right Six Sigma Team Training?

To better understand my perspective, I encourage you to take a look at the variety of six sigma training course curriculums which are offered by consultants, associations, and continuing education groups.  What percentage of a given course’s time is dedicated to teaching people about managing the group dynamics which exist in their six sigma teams?  How many course designs even include a minimal amount of coverage on this topic?  Once you have observed what I have observed – very few course curriculums devote any significant time to managing group dynamics – ask yourself this question – “Does a black belt or green belt need to possess solid group dynamics management skills?”

EXPLORE MORE: Preventing Six Sigma Training Failures

No DMAIC project is completed in a vacuum.  Without a basic understanding of group dynamics concepts and how to manage them, the meetings that are used to help develop a project further will take longer than necessary and yield lower quality results. Failing to manage, let alone get the best results from, the dynamics of your group will extend a project’s cycle time at a minimum. Such failure may also compromise the successful implementation of the project from a worst case perspective.  These project development process defects come into play even when you are working on a project by yourself, as you typically need to obtain information from others (which involves a meeting or other communication of some type) in order to move your project forward.

By failing to include significant time (at least three to four hours) on group dynamics in a black belt or green belt training curriculum, we are making one of two assumptions – group dynamics is not important or our future black and green belts already have these skills.  If you have ever worked with people to implement a project in the past, I hope that you are convinced that your ability to manage conflict, groupthink, and challenging team members matters in terms of putting a high impact systems change in place.  I also think we more often than not make erroneous assumptions relative to our team leaders’ current ability to effectively manage group dynamics – we think they have mastered these skills, when in actuality, they may not have even gained an awareness of them.

LEARN MORE: Are You a Lean Six Sigma Leader?

Key Six Sigma Team Skills

If you think your people already possess these skills, I challenge you to tell me (1) where they acquired these skills and (2) how you know they are proficient in the application of these skills.  Very few formal education curriculums – high school, community college, or university – offer a course on the topic of managing group dynamics.  Unless your mother or father was a team facilitator in one of their past jobs, it is highly likely that you have never even been exposed to concepts such as groupthink, the process-content model, the Johari Window, or the Tuckman forming-norming-storming-performing stages of team development.  I was fortunate in that I spent five years with an employer in the 1980s that required all employees to receive eight hours of group dynamics training.  Otherwise, I might not be writing this article.

Failing to manage the dynamics of your group can compromise project effectiveness in several ways.  First of all, you may simply be failing to take advantage of the unique skill mix your group possesses.  For example, you may have a very creative, big picture thinking person in your group who is also very quiet.  Without effective group dynamics management, this person will likely contribute little to the project.

Secondly, you may fail to adjust for the impact that changes in group membership can have on your project development cycle time.  Simply changing one of the members in a four person team can easily send a team back to the norming, if not the storming, stage of team formation.  Finally, failing to manage group dynamics will significantly extend meeting times, potentially damage relationships, and dilute the results from a given meeting.

DISCOVER MORE: Six Sigma Leadership Challenges

You can gain awareness of the above concepts by doing internet searches. That is a good start if these concepts sound foreign to you.  As with any skill however, practice with feedback from a skilled coach is needed to really get better at managing a group, even if the makeup of the group stays consistent for an extended period of time (which is often not the case).  In organizations which take team effectiveness seriously, it is not uncommon to see both a facilitator (the coach) and a team leader (the learner) in a meeting until that leader has satisfied the facilitator’s expectations relative to group performance management.  Sadly, the percentage of organizations in this day and age that even know the difference between a facilitator and a leader is quite low.


Would You Benefit From This Six Sigma Team Project?

I am still convinced that most organizations would save significant dollars by commissioning a six sigma project to improve meeting effectiveness by (1) managing meetings with the DMAIC process and (2) upgrading the group dynamics skill levels of all of their team leaders.  If you concur, consider these action items to help you address this often unrecognized, but nonetheless costly, process defect.  First, modify your black and green belt training curriculums to include 4 to 8 hours on group dynamics.

Second, make sure that at least 50% of this time is practice, as opposed to lecture, based.  Third, determine how you will both assess current team leader skills in this area and provide effective coaching in those areas where improvement in needed.  Finally, consider requiring all team members to receive this same training, whether they are working on a six sigma team project or simply meeting for some other organizational performance improvement reason.

IMPROVE MORE: Six Sigma Basics

These changes might seem costly and unnecessary, but I think this perception exists only because most organizations fail to capture the cost and creativity losses that are associated with focusing almost entirely on the content of a group’s effort.  As I thankfully learned many years ago, the process side of group performance is what really drives team effectiveness.  You can have the best plans, agendas, and data analysis tools available, and still struggle to effectively put an improvement in place if you fail to also manage the process side of a team’s performance.

If you doubt me, simply observe how problem behaviors which go unchecked in your next team meeting affect the results of that meeting.  I am convinced that group dynamics matter, but I am not convinced that my opinions in this area are widely shared.  How well are you managing the group dynamics in your six sigma team meetings?

Keep improving! Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

If you would like more information about the improvement tools and systems I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at