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Writing Project Charters That Deliver a Solid ROI

When I was dragged kicking and screaming from the traditional approaches to management into the practice of Lean Six Sigma (LSS), I learned very quickly that there were many facets to the practices one needs to master. Many initial improvement efforts seemed to get good results as a standalone effort, like statistical process control for a given operation and setup reduction efforts to improve a specific major piece of equipment. We got some good results very quickly.

However, as we began moving up the food chain into bigger-scope projects that affected many parts of the business at one time, I began to notice that our success rate was not as good. As we expanded to an even bigger scope—say, a three-shift operation involving several work areas—it seemed we ran into all kinds of problems that were not previously an issue.

When planning our kaizens, we did the obvious things like making inventory ahead so that we could shut down to try things and making sure we had the right technical resources. At the conclusion of the events, we would publish a kaizen newspaper that would serve to help with follow-up on the actions.

I noticed that despite these efforts we would often see little progress on continued changes—other than those we could physically finish in the context of a week-long kaizen activity. Worse, I would often see the gains made begin to even deteriorate over time, effectively leaving us right where we started.

Over the last several years in working with some excellent organizations and in paying more attention to the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze and Control) cycle purported in the Six Sigma line of thinking, I came to appreciate the power of a well-conceived project charter to support improvement efforts.

The importance of a good charter increases exponentially with the expanding size and scope of a new change effort that involves many people and functions to carry it off right the first time. It’s clearly a case of measure twice and cut once when it comes to planning for success.

Here I will break down the various elements of a well-conceived project charter that any organization of any size would do well to consider. I am happy to send you the three templates I use upon request—two of which are favored by Fortune 500 size firms that are tightly aligned with world-class project management best practices.

Process Improvement Project Charter

  • Name: Naming your project is deceptively difficult. To get people excited, you may want to be sure your naming evokes your vision. Example: While “Reducing costs for medications in prisons” is not bad, “Team-based cost reduction in medication costs of 10 percent or more in our state prisons” is more descriptive of your effort and describes an outcome.
  • Dates of project: It’s very important to set the window of time we have in mind, which varies in direct proportion to the size of scope of the effort. For example, improving productivity in a single production cell or a small, specific services-providing department of 20 or fewer people can be expected to be completed in 30 days or less—a hallmark of kaizen efforts. As we expand the scope, we must also expand the time. For example, if we are going to affect the work of 100 or more employees cutting across multiple sites requiring interfaces with multiple functions and information technology, our window will stretch to 3-9 months.
  • Project Manager: For small projects, the project manager can wear many hats, including being the project sponsor and project owner, which I will describe next. For larger-scope projects, we need to consider having someone dedicate part or all of their time to support the team.
  • Project Sponsor: In small firms, this is often the president or owner of the company. This person is going to provide the necessary resources for the team to be successful in its project effort.
    To make changes, there must be an initial effort that requires resources and money with the requisite organizational pain to adopt changes. One other point: the project sponsor will either set the initial targets outright or will provide guidelines, at the least, for what the team is to accomplish.

In my next column, I will reveal the rest of the story on how to write LSS project charters that deliver solid results.

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