Sponsors have a vital role to play in any Lean, Six Sigma or Lean Six Sigma project. Without them, a project will be harder to complete on time and in full, and yet their role and significance are generally misunderstood.
Typically, a sponsor is a person within an organisation who has a problem to be solved. He or she is most likely to be a manager or senior manager with issues to address, targets to be reached, and a responsibility to improve the business.
If you have been tasked with solving a problem, the request should have come from a manager and they are your sponsor. However if you are the manager and are using Lean Six Sigma for your own training or problem solving, then you effectively become your own sponsor. This is fine but you need to think like a sponsor, imposing the same pressure and constraints. It might be better therefore to ask your manager or director to take the role, and they can also help with implementation.
Sponsors are ultimately responsible for the success of any project and should be called to account if things go wrong. Failure to understand this means that many sponsors don’t provide their Green Belts and Black Belts with enough support and guidance. They also don’t drive projects as quickly as they should.
The key roles of a sponsor are:
- Select projects– Lean Six Sigma sponsors should be looking for an issue or problem and then engaging a company Green Belt or Black Belt to solve it. As the sponsor is responsible for the success of a project, they need to pick projects which are:
- Important to the business, ideally in line with one of the business objectives
- Not so simple that anyone given some time would solve them
- Not so big and complex that they become world peace
- Meaningful, effective and important
- Make time – the sponsor has chosen a project which is important to them and to the business. Next, they must ensure that the Lean Six Sigma practitioner is given headroom to solve the problem effectively. This might mean freeing up their time if they report directly, or facilitating some time with their manager. It is essential that any Green Belt or Black Belt is given time to solve a vital business problem quickly and, more importantly, effectively, in order to achieve the greatest benefit and sustainability.
- Drive the project – the sponsor should insist on regular meetings with the Green Belt or Black Belt. As a minimum, this should be done at each gate review (after each phase of DMAIC). A weekly update is even better. After all, if they were solving a vital problem for you, wouldn’t you want to know what’s happening?
- Hold gate reviews – formally after each phase of the DMAIC process, the sponsor and other interested parties should review the phase completed to see if the project is still valid. Business priorities may have changed, or the data may show the problem is not as important as first thought. It might be that the project has become too big and needs to be re-scoped. Together with the Green or Black Belt, the sponsor needs to make this judgement.
- Smooth the way – every Green Belt or Black Belt at some point will come across situations where they can’t get support from other functions or personnel. This is where the sponsor steps in and talks to other managers to resolve the issue.
- Provide coaching – Sponsors should regularly offer guidance on how to move projects forward. If they have Lean Six Sigma knowledge, they can also advise on project content and the methodology. If not, they will have a Lean coach for this role.
Seen in black and white like this, the Lean Six Sigma Sponsor’s role seems obvious – but the reality is that most sponsors are never given guidance on what they should be doing, and they may not even choose the project. As a result, they have no vested interest and the project, and the organisation, suffers.
This is why we’re talking about sponsors here – we advise that all sponsors are fully briefed, recognised and empowered – expected even – to suggest projects and find Green Belts and Black Belts. If you ask someone to be your sponsor, make sure you explain the role and why you need them. You need to make sure they’re engaged.
If you would like to discuss the role of a Sponsor or any aspect of managing Lean Six Sigma projects in more detail: