How to Avoid “Cute Puppy”​ Syndrome as a Project Sponsor

How to Avoid “Cute Puppy”​ Syndrome as a Project Sponsor

Summary – The Down and Dirty

We all know that effective project sponsorship is critical to any change initiative. But, when supporting organization’s that are young in their improvement journey, I see the same barrier arise. Sponsors, although well intended, try to do too much too fast. The excitement about the journey ahead causes a lot of positive energy, but when left unchecked, it can stifle progress and cause unintended consequences – thus the article title.

I believe this is happening for two reasons. The first, is that the organization is eager to see results, so they confuse being active with making progress. The second, is that sponsors are easily beckoned into the deep end of the swimming pool, and before they know it they can find themselves in over their head.

During my recent search for articles on “project sponsorship”, I came across several articles that promoted the more complex tools, such as Hoshin Kanri or portfolio management, as the go to tools for sponsoring and leading organizational transformation. These tools do have a proven track record, but can be difficult for organizations to implement and sustain. In this article I discuss tools that will help sponsors, and organizations, “go slow, to go fast” when it comes to getting things started on the right foot.

Article – The Long Winded, Soapbox Speech. Someone Get Me a Milk Crate, Please.

As a change agent, I have been involved in a handful of projects that have aimed to transform the way a business delivers its mission and vision. In some cases, the project was to redefine what the organization’s mission and vision were. These are big changes. Organization turnarounds and rebirths. Most projects like this are referred to as “journeys”, well because, they take some time, and they don’t ever follow a straight line.

Implementing a systematic approach for driving organization-wide improvement through Baldrige is right up there with the biggest of the big projects. When deploying a culture of continuous improvement, the organization is committing to become the best at getting better.

Committing to such a thing is extremely exciting. It is a like a giant blinking neon sign that says to everyone in the organization that “we want your ideas”. The rush of ideas quickly occurs – often burying the organization in a pile-up of broken processes, pain points, and opportunities for improvement. Just as soon as the sign is plugged in and displayed in the window, it is unplugged and hidden in corner – as soon as the organization gets started, it gets side-tracked.

Facing stalemate, sponsors, being resourceful as they are, go out and seek expert advice in the form of articles and consultants on ways to remove the bottleneck and and get back on track. This is where I see the flywheel, meant to create positive change in the organization, become the vicious cycle that brings the organization to its knees.

In their search for a solution, sponsors are met with glitzy, super sexy tools that are so terribly complex and confusing, that they have to work. Right? Tools like deploying a strategic planning process, facilitating Hohin Kanri sessions, creating a prioritization schema, and implementing a project management office (PMO) lure leaders down a dark hole of “too much, too soon”. And, I get it. Who wouldn’t want to do something that sounds as awesome as Hoshin Kanri. It is literally interpreted as “strategic congruence” and it is achieved by doing this thing called “catchball”. Uh, yes please. Sign me up for that.

I am not saying those approaches aren’t helpful and won’t be helpful along the way to becoming an improvement powerhouse. I am just cautioning organizations that too much of a good thing, can be a bad thing. Especially if the organization lacks the bandwidth (often stated as capability and capacity) to make those things successful. You have to remember, that you are young in the journey, and that this is a journey. The first step adds to the second step, and then the third. Laying a strong foundation first, allows for the organization to reach higher levels of maturity further down the road.

To paint a picture. Let’s take an organization that has never facilitated improvement in an organized fashion. All the improvements to date have delivered results that are highly varied, and sustaining these results has been near impossible. This is an organization that is said to be “early journey”, or Level 1 on the Lean Six Sigma Maturity Model (pictured below). For comparison, an organization that has a fully deployed strategy, that is being used to align improvement activities, which are supported by 90-day action plans, with clear ownership, and routine updates on results and changing priorities, is on the opposite end of the spectrum at Level 5.

Lean Six Sigma Maturity Model

Notice that there is no time frame written below Level 5 in the model above. Reality is that most organizations only achieve Level 3 or 4, and it takes them years to get there. The fact of the matter is that not very many organizations ever achieve Level 5. Level 5 is like a “purple duck”, whatever that means. But for some reason, my search for articles on project sponsorship, made it seem that all organizations were at the top of their game at Level 5 – which is awesome that those Level 5 organizations are willing to share their results so transparently. But what we really need is for those organizations to share about how things were when they were at Levels 2, 3, and 4. Not how the mounted the summit, but about how they struggled along the way, got lost, and were able to get back on track, doing the little things.

This article isn’t meant be a downer. In fact, I as I am writing this – I am typing it super-fast with an up-beat energy, and little voice in my head saying, “you can do it” (Happy Gilmore reference). And, don’t forget, I am standing on a soapbox here. Pouring my heart out. I am not trying to rain on the parade. I am telling you that there is a better way. A simpler way. I am telling you to enjoy being young and naïve as an organization just embarking on your journey.

Don’t rush past the early stages where you are freer to experiment, where you are freer to get it wrong, where the energy is raw and where the rules are more flexible and inviting. Jumping to the conclusion that you need a PMO sends a message to everyone in the organization that improvement is to be left to the experts. I am serious. Look up the different types of PMOs. One of them is called a “Controlling PMO”. Does that sound like the words you want to be using when you are trying to get precious buy-in? Implement the PMO after you have the buy-in. And then direct that energy in a positive way.

Instead of applying rigorous governance, that may confine or even stifle innovation. Focus on culture, creating systems and structures that guide, and try to keep things simple and playful. At this point of the journey you have to measure your results using passion, not progress.

To help organizations adopt a pace that is sustainable, I am going to step down from my soapbox and discuss, in a slightly more technical way, a handful of approaches that can provide tremendous results for organizations that are just getting started.

Idea 1: Go Grassroots and Give People a Simple Process to Solve Problems

The temptation to “go big or go home” is heavily present for organizations just starting their improvement journey. As such, the organization is likely to be distracted by the need to invest in advanced training to prepare for the journey ahead. And consultants will gladly sell you Black Belt training, which is one of the more advanced and time-consuming training levels for Lean Six Sigma. This aggressive approach can turn out, but the upfront cost can be a hard pill to swallow. Google “Lean Six Sigma” training and you will be met with a variety of training options with prices upwards of $12,000 per person and events that range from 7 days to 10 days.

Spending the resources necessary to fund Black Belt training can be a smart investment, eventually. What I’d propose instead is to start small, harvest your quick wins – which can generate some cost savings and create some capacity (process efficiencies) that may allow team members to step away from their day jobs and into the classroom ready to learn. Opposed to putting people in all-day Black Belt training, but have them be distracted due to the demands of the job stacking up while that person is away.

As an alternative, an organization can “go Grassroots” and make a smaller investment in training that requires less commitment of resources (in training expenses and people’s time in training). As you may know, there are multiple levels of training available on the topic of Lean Six Sigma. The entry levels are White Belt and Yellow Belt. With the advanced levels being Green, Black, and Master Black Belt.

The beautiful thing about how the training is organized is that the lower level training exists in order to create the foundational skills necessary to be successful at the advanced levels. Depending on the external vendor that the organization partners with, or if they choose to train internally, an organization can training nearly 24 Yellow Belts for the cost of training 2 Black Belts, under the assumption that Yellow Belt training costs about $1,000 per person trained over a 2-day training event. For me, the biggest bang for the buck is to start with Yellow Belt training. Harvest some quick wins. Put time and money in the bank and make the Black Belt investment after you cut your teeth on some smaller, less complex change initiatives.

For those not familiar with how the training programs are organized, I have shared a quick diagram that summarizes the different belt roles.

Skills by Belt
Project Complexity by Belt

Now that I have hopefully piqued your interest on investing in Yellow Belts, I will share with you what makes these belts special. The first thing is that they won’t require time away from their jobs in order to make improvement. Yellow Belts are expected to improve their work processes. The work they do day in and day out is where they will be making improvement. Because of this, the Yellow Belts tend to be a very engaged group. The “What is in it for me” of WIIIFM is that every project they execute, will make their jobs easier. This group knows where the opportunities are because they endure the pain points every day. They also know what the solutions need to be, because often time they are the subject matter expert (SME). Really, all you have to do is give this group some basic problem-solving skills and give them the support they need to safely the elements of waste that are impeding their process and driving their customers crazy.

What is waste you ask? Basically, waste is any inefficiency within the process the causes risk to meeting the customer’s expectations. In other words, waste is anything the customer isn’t willing to pay for. Yellow Belts are given “Waste Goggles” and are taught to identify and eliminate the 8 most common forms of process waste. These forms of waste – transportation, inventory, motion, human capital, waiting, over-processing, overproduction, and defects; consume valuable time and resources. And they are industry agnostic, which means they can occur anywhere, and that no industry is immune to these types of waste.

Understand the 8 common forms of waste using the acronym DOWNTIME (defects, overproduction, waiting, non-utilized talent, transportation, inventory, motion, and extra-processing).

As the Yellow Belts seek out waste and aim to reduce it, they need to be provided a framework for staying on track. The recommended tool and hero in the red cape is A3 problem-solving. The reason I like use of A3 problem-solving is because it encourages curiosity and exploration. Instead of prescribing tools, the A3 simply asks questions. And, these questions are relevant to every project. They are just harder to answer at the Green Belt and Black Belt level. At those advanced levels, answering the questions may require advanced statistics or a robust project plan. However, at the Yellow Belt level, most of the answers can be answered by mapping the process, targeting the forms of waste, building consensus, and implementing some pretty obvious countermeasures.

This isn’t to say that things are going to be so easy that you just hand the Yellow Belt an A3 Template and tell them to go and conquer. Yes, using an A3 is easy, but adhering to the A3 isn’t. You have to give the Yellow Belt the structure to be successful – meaning they have the authority to make change and accountability to make change.

To illustrate how the A3 drives accountability, I have mocked up a blank A3 with the improvement questions that need to be answered and some suggested check-in points to make sure the project is staying on schedule and within the guardrails, where a Yellow Belt can be most effective. The hairy beast you will have to fight throughout the process is going to be “scope creep”. The rule of thumb as a Yellow Belt is “aim small, miss small”.

Okay, drum roll please. Prepare for the unveiling of the A3.

A3 Project Schedule


What you see here is a 6-box A3. There is a 9-box A3 that exists, but we will leave that tool to the fancy pants Green Belt and Black Belts. For our intent and purposes, when working with Yellow Belts, we need a tool that can facilitate rapid improvement, at the local level, through experimentation and learning, in 75 days. And the A3 can do just that.

Idea 2: Go for the Low Hanging Fruit

The desire to have a wildly successful “splash project” tempts organizations to create a project pipeline of large, complex projects that will deliver value, but will also require “boiling the ocean”. You want small buckets of water that MacGyver can boil with a flashlight, some dental floss, and a pair of spectacles. No? The reference is lost on you? Okay, let me put it this way. At this part of the journey, you don’t need to stay up all night worried that the projects aren’t perfectly aligned with strategy. Heck, you don’t even need a strategy. All you need is some optimism that you can get better as an organization.

Don’t try to improve by leaps and bounds. Try to improve in smaller ways that will add up over time. The best way I know to do this is to look for the “low hanging fruit”. To do this, you are going to have to ignore the super cool tools that are being promoted by the techy cool kids. Sure a project selection matrix (or Pugh), with strategically aligned selection criteria, and a clear hurdle rate sounds cool, but it is also excessive if all you are trying to is inspire your organization to take baby steps in the right direction. Don’t lose sight that a selection matrix will be needed in the future, because it is a good target to aim for. In fact, you won’t advance past Level 3 on the Maturity scale if you don’t have a pipeline of project ideas or a tool for prioritizing them. But as the Maturity model suggests, that is a bridge you can expect to cross 2 years from now.

Until then, grab some Post-it notes. Get a mixed group of leaders together, representing the core operational areas of your business, and have people empty their pockets of the things they are working on, or want to be working on. Have them list one project idea per Post-it note. I am serious. Tell them to not be so “granola” and ask that they pretend they own stock in 3M.

Once they have exhausted their ideas, you will need to combine the like ideas and then prioritize the ideas. Again, no fancy formulas or Excel spreadsheets that can help land a rocket on the moon. Simply prioritize the ideas based on impact over effort. To do this. I recommend using what is called a PICK chart (pictured below).

PICK Chart (Priority Payoff Matrix)

To facilitate the PICK Chart, find some flip chart paper and mock-up the following template. I like to orient the paper in landscape format, because I am married to a graphic designer, and being able to use the words “landscape orientation” helps me to feel smart around her. Another note I need to mention when mocking up your template is that it is advisable to not put the labels “Possible”, “Implement”, “Consider” and “Kill” on the template. No one is going to put their project idea in the box titled “Kill”.

Once you have the template created. Have the group make decisions about what each axis includes. In other words, you have to decide what ‘easy vs. hard’ means. For me, when I work with organization that is just getting started, I like to use days for the difficulty scale. If the project will take less than 90 days, it is “easy”, if it is more than 90 days, it is “hard”. For impact, I like to use the organization’s values. If the idea is aligned with at least 50% or more of the organization’s values, it is “high impact”. Other impact areas to consider is the customer experience, employee experience, impact on cost, or impact on time savings.

Once the axes have been established, have the people share their project ideas one at a time. Allow for the group to ask questions about the idea, and then place the idea on the template. You will have to remind people that there are only four outcomes here, and that the scale is not dynamic enough to consider things like “moderately hard”, “hard”, and “extremely hard”. If the project takes more than 90 days, it is “hard”.

After all the ideas have been reported out on, all of the project ideas should be placed in one of the four quadrants. At this point things have been prioritized. The projects in the left-hand, upper corner, are the low hanging fruit projects. They are relatively easy to implement with the potential for high return of benefit. After you have harvested all the low hanging fruit, go to the “Consider” quadrant in the upper, right-hand corner.

Idea 3: Inspire Risk Taking, Build Trust, and Rely on Relationships

In most articles I have read about sponsorship, the primary relationship being discussed is between the sponsor and the project. During the early stages of deploying continuous improvement, the primary relationship that needs to be fostered is between the sponsor and the project team members. Instead of requesting project updates, sponsor instead need to clearly communicate to the project team members that their growth and development is just as important as the project’s outcomes. During these early stages, the project teams are “wearing groves in their new tools”. In the learning process, they are at a critical state. Being new to leading change, the project team members are in Stage 2 of the learning curve, commonly referred to as “Conscious Incompetence” (see Noel Burch’s “Stages of Learning”).

Four Stages of Learning

As the team learns by doing, they start teetering between Stage 2 and 3, often requiring coaching and encouragement to maintain a positive energy as they equip themselves with new skills. To make it through what many call the “Valley of Despair” (see illustration below) the learner often requires external influences to be successful.

Levels of confidence and competence across the 4 stages of learning.

If the sponsor only focuses on the project’s success, and not the individual project team member’s success, the risk of the project team remaining lost in the “Valley of Despair” increases. As a result, burnout can occur. This consequence stalls the improvement journey in two ways. The first is that the project team member will become less likely to participate in future improvement projects and will become less likely to enroll in advanced learning. The second, is that the project team member may not advocate for the program, worse yet, they may detest the program and deter others from engaging.

Adopting the practice of Kata Coaching is a common countermeasure to the risk of alienating learners while they are in the most vulnerable state. If sponsor, while rounding on projects, only focus on the project’s success, they are more likely to intercede with their opinion on what the right answer might be. This robs the project team member from developing the critical problem-solving skills they need to grow in trusting their own ideas, and their ability to implement their ideas.

If you want to take the short-cut to losing engagement. Start going around and tell people what to do. If you want to bolster engagement, start asking others what they think should be done, and learn to get behind their ideas. As a sponsor, your primary role is to clear the path for the team to succeed. The largest barrier a team will face during the early stages of the journey is trusting their own selves to be able to institute change. If you want to break down this barrier, simply show that you trust their ideas, and they will start to trust them too. 

Through Kata Coaching, when talking about improvement opportunities, sponsors are encouraged to ask a series of questions that require the respondent to think critically about where they are, where they are going, what is the next most reasonable step, and show soon can they see if that next step made a positive difference. This should sound familiar, as it is the coaching side of A3 problem-solving. In fact, the questions the sponsor is trained to ask, are the questions the project team are trained to answer (see Improvement Kata Card below).

Kata Coaching Cards

The catch here is that none of this is automatic yet. Not for the sponsor, or for the project team member. Remember, the majority of people involved in the transformation are between Stages 2 and 3 of the learning journey. The automatic response, where things become “second nature” doesn’t occur until Stage 4. Kata Coaching facilitates just that. Kata, is simply a routine that is practiced over and over until it becomes habit. By asking questions as a sponsor that mirror the A3 problem-solving process, you are hard-wiring the practice of humble inquiry for yourself, and A3 thinking in the project team member. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

 With that said. I encourage you to not overthink it. And to just start doing and learn as you go. Don’t throw caution to the wind and dive headfirst into the deep end. But also, don’t start small and always stay small. As you embark on this journey and grow through this journey learn to read the signals that the organization is ready to advance to the next level of maturity, and take things step by step. And remember, enjoy the journey.

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