Want Your Next Project to Succeed? Engage Your Stakeholders

Billy Ingram, Director of Lean Product Development, Interface
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Billy Ingram, Director of Lean Product Development, Interface

One of the keys to creating a culture of sustainability is approaching social responsibility holistically. However, applicable methodology around this subject is hard to find. Using the skill sets already available to many of us, in a different way, can create many alternative solutions.

In my opinion, of the three pillars of a sustainable culture, social responsibility is the hardest to effectively implement and maintain. The difficulty lies not in the tasks but in gaps in the methodology to define the problem. By revising the methodology of how we approach an opportunity we can create alternatives and solutions which are beyond the obvious. The approach with the broader perspective that generates more alternatives will ultimately produce the best solutions.

Stakeholder Engagement

This past year I embarked on a learning journey to more fully understand practically applicable methodology around social responsibility. The primary reason for this effort was to improve my personal effectiveness at creating sustainable solutions to existing problems. I felt that I have a good grasp of creating both economically and environmentally viable solutions. However, I lacked a good methodology for creating socially viable solutions. If my goal is to create new value in the most sustainable manner then I was not fully equipped. At this specific point in time God smiled and presented me an opportunity to fill this gap.

During the learning process I discovered that by applying this new understanding and altering my perspective, I could eliminate many problems completely by asking the right question. I also discovered that asking a slightly different question could be the solution to more than one existing problem. However, the most interesting application of this methodology was attempting to solve existing problems only to discover completely new, untapped, stakeholder value.

  ​In my opinion, of the three pillars of a sustainable culture, social responsibility is the hardest to effectively implement and maintain  

Over the span of a few months I learned some important lessons. The most important was that social responsibility as a means to a sustainable culture and product requires a thorough understanding of stakeholder needs. The second was that the more I study and learn the more I realize the gap in understanding.

DMAIC vs SOFAIR

Many people are familiar with the DMAIC model for problem resolution. The familiar steps to define, measure, analyze, improve and control have been applied with great affect by six sigma and lean practitioners for decades. However, this methodology, like any other, has opportunity for improvement and new frontiers of application.

One of the latest improvements to this methodology is the SOFAIR model. SOFAIR is an acronym for stakeholders/ subjects, objective, function/focus, analyze, innovate/improve and report/repeat. This methodology was developed to better define and capture additional value related to social responsibility not considered when using the DMAIC method.One of the major differences between the two approachesis the define portion of DMAIC. This portion is expanded to more fully represent the needs of the stakeholders. In addition the define portion also allows fora sharper objective and clearer focus for the project. These added steps enablethe practitioner to create more socially sustainable solutions which have a much higher chance of being implemented effectively.

VOC vs VOS

The six sigma DMAIC process uses the voice of the customer (VOC) as one of the methods to understand the outputs required. While this is effective at creating solutions it only considers the needs of a few stakeholders. Although it requires less upfront work than the SOFAIR method, DMAIC produces a narrower bandwidth of potential solutions. When viewed through the lens of sustainability and specifically social responsibility, the potential solutions are not as impactful as they could be.

Considering the voice of the stakeholder (VOS) creates a new perspective and the opportunity to generate much more socially sustainable solutions. By considering more of the projects diverse stakeholders rather than just a few, the opportunities to broaden your perspective happen more frequently. This methodology also helps the practitioner to more often ask the right question. Asking the right question is one of the most critical parts to getting the best answer. The last statement is even more impactful if you are trying to create socially sustainable solutions.

Practical Practitioner Tips

As a new practitioner of the SOFAIR methodology my steepest learning curve occurred when working through the VOS. The VOS method like VOC is systemic and collaborative. As you work through the process it feels a lot like your facilitating VOC, value stream mapping or process mapping. If you are familiar with any of these types of facilitation you will feel right at home.

It’s essential that the stakeholder engagement process is not completed in isolation. Collaborative engagement of the stakeholders by the practitioner is critical to understanding the output required and crucial to the project’s alignment with the goals of the group. If the process is completed in isolation you will lose many of the desirable benefits and outcomes of the methodology.

Fill your stakeholder identification and engagement team with optimistic, supportive, knowledgeable and willing team members. Ideally you would like to engage all of the project stakeholders. But you don’t have to gather them all to begin. A smaller team that provides wise and friendly counsel will help you gain a better understanding of stakeholders who have not yet been engaged or are otherwise unaware. This is also a great way to create strategies to engage those who enjoy the status quo or even stakeholders who are hostile.

Begin with the end in mind. Ensure every stakeholder who agrees to spend their valuable time with you has the opportunity to contribute in developing the goals of the project. Also, make sure your team members have a good understanding of why they were chosen to be a part of the team. Sharing the credit for a well-developed stakeholder engagement plan also goes a long way to ensure future positive replies as well. Much can be accomplished when the project lead is unconcerned about who gets the credit.

Best Chance for Success

The SOFAIR method has some distinct advantages over the DMAIC method. This is especially true as the need to create social responsiblity and sustainable solutions increases. Learning and applying the SOFAIR methodology will allow the practitioner to create better socially sustainable solutions that have the best chance for success.

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