Why do projects need sponsoring? What are the do’s and do not’s of sponsoring? How can you be a bad sponsor? These are some of the questions that I regularly review with clients who are eager to see their lean six sigma project teams deliver successful results.
Project sponsorship is a subject infrequently addressed in continuous improvement and project management literature. Many people believe that a good project leader, that is someone who is well organised and has good interpersonal skills, is the most important factor in bringing a project successfully across the finishing line. However, in my years as a management consultant I have come to believe that effective sponsorship is the single most important factor in guaranteeing project success. I believe the following to be three essential guidelines for effective sponsorship.
- Strategic alignment. The sponsor is responsible for ensuring that the team leader and the team understands the business or strategic importance of the project. He/she is responsible for clearly articulating and restating the strategic objective during the project lifecycle. Example of strategic plan summary objectives are ‘zero lost time accidents by close of year and ongoing’ or ‘expanding into 3 new markets within the next 12 months’ or ‘30% productivity increase over the next 18 months’. This strategic focus is a key enabler of team success, and lean six sigma project participants are encouraged by the sponsor to take pride in their contribution to organisation development. If the project is not supporting a strategic pillar, then it simply should not be undertaken. It is assumed that safety and compliance with the law (or regulations) are always priorities.
- Scope and timeline management. The sponsor acts as a coach for the lean six sigma project team, without actually taking part in any project activities. Above all, the sponsor must not guide the team towards a particular solution. The lean six sigma team must be allowed to follow due process during the DMAIC project lifecycle, and occasionally make mistakes along the way. It is very disheartening for any team to be shown the solution by an overenthusiastic and under aware sponsor. Where the sponsor may intervene, is to provide advice on scope of the project and to prevent scope creep if the project leader is relatively inexperienced.
- Reward and recognition. This third most important role of the sponsor is to ensure that the team is rewarded at the close of the lean six sigma project. This reward is not monetary in nature. The reward should include a very clear ‘thank you’ from the sponsor to all team members, and public recognition of the project achievements. It may also include a token reward such as lunch vouchers for the team members.
In his/her capacity as coach, the sponsor may be instrumental in smoothing over any interdepartmental barriers and perhaps giving budget approval for best practice site visits. Beyond that he/she should encourage the team and not interfere. The most effective sponsors are very adept and confident in using the three magic words ‘I don’t know’. This ensures that they do not take on any team leader responsibilities, and give as much autonomy to the team as possible, in executing the project. In fact, it is good practice for any senior manager to encourage development of his/her people by regularly refusing to take on the monkey of process problem solving. Those who are most effective in developing their people, are also those who are most adept in developing their team’s problem solving skills.