By Ernie Arboles | Posted on May 1, 2012
It’s one of the easiest tools to use yet one of the often most underutilized ones in the Lean Six Sigma tool belt. It’s the Plus‐Delta. A very simple‐to‐use brainstorming tool most commonly employed at the end of business or project meetings as a means of evaluating how well things are going.
How Does a Plus-Delta Tool Work?
It works like this: A facilitator or team lead frames the subject we want to know a little more about. Then asks, “What are the pluses?” These are elements, activities, actions, ideas that are “positive” and which we want to repeat or do more of. The facilitator then captures, in list fashion, the various ideas that are plusses. Next, we address the flipside, the deltas. These are not negatives or bad things, but “deltas” referring to the Greek symbol often used to connote change. These are things we’d like to “change” or “do better” the next time around.
Typical, Often Ineffective Use of the Plus-Delta Tool
Here’s a typical Plus-Delta done at the end of a project meeting:
The idea now is for the project lead and team to incorporate the above feedback into the next meeting or round of project activities. Good teams incorporate the practice often at first, then as needed as the team matures. One drawback is the tool’s simplicity. Teams tend to put it aside after a while and either forget or tend to discount its contribution. Good teams will revisit the Plus‐Delta from time to time as a way of ensuring good team performance. Of course, the implication being that the delta’s will be acted upon, and that’s where the power of the tool can really take off.
Maximizing the Effectiveness of the Plus-Delta Tool
A Real-World Example
Here’s a way of taking the Plus-Delta and up‐leveling it. This is an actual project with the “names changed to protect the innocent.” While working a very typical Six Sigma assignment a few years back, a client lead came to me asking for facilitation help. Apparently a very high‐visibility multi‐million dollar project with multiple stakeholders (internal and external) started to run into some serious problems: competing interests, negative comments, cost overruns, poor communication on handoffs and deliverables. The project started showing “red” for on‐time delivery. The lead asked if we could get all the parties into the room to hash things out. “Sure, we can do that,” I said.
“But how do we do it in such a way that it doesn’t become a complaint session?” my client asked. We kicked it around a bit and came up with the following approach: start with the Plus-Delta as the foundation.
“This will help the teams come together on a positive note and emphasize what is working,” I said. Once finished with the Pluses, we transitioned to the Deltas. This required some very careful wording and facilitation: acknowledge the “elephants in the room” without triggering any ill-will.
“Let’s move forward with the idea,” the client lead said. So, we procured an offsite business venue, sent out the invitations, and took care of a few other planning details. Now came time to try it out. We started the session with a good team agenda: Introductions, statement of purpose, scope, outcomes expected, some ice‐breakers and ground rules, then the Plus‐Delta. The pluses came in slow and first, then very strongly. Actually team members reported a lot of good things happening, more than they realized.
“Now, Let’s look at the Deltas,” I asked the participants during the session. “Do you think there’s a thing or two we can do to improve the projects and deliver it on time?” A lot of heads started to nod up and down, but no delta’s, until the VP overseeing the project spoke up. That opened the flood gates.
Once we had the Deltas laid out, the fun really started. We generated a list of about 20 deltas. Given the project timeline and resources, we decided to prioritize our list by using multi‐voting. Take the number of ideas divide by 3, and that’s how many votes each participant got to apply to the entire list. Only one vote per your top three choices, in this case, for getting to a better working project team. The participants then scored the list; the ideas are ranked by highest tally marks.
A Combined Plus-Delta + WHO WHAT WHEN
With prioritized list in hand, we can now overlay some project discipline to our Plus-Delta list. It’s what I like to call: WHO does WHAT by WHEN. For each prioritized delta, we asked, WHO is the best person to own getting the delta completed. The WHAT means describing the specific action, improvement, or decision to be made with respect to the delta. The WHEN involved the next key piece: the deadline by which that delta needs to be either completed, or in the case of some pretty complex ones, at least given status.
Here’s an example of what the combined Plus-Delta + WHO WHAT WHEN tables looked like in this case (names and actions and dates modified “to protect the innocent”):
(Note: A common question that comes up is whether or not there’s a one‐to‐one relationship between the “plus” and the “delta.” There can be, but typically there’s not for two reasons, 1.) There’s not always a 1:1 correspondence thematically for every single item, 2.) The focus falls more and more on the delta and what can be done to improve it. Once the delta is identified, then it naturally follows that the WHO WHAT WHEN corresponds directly to each respective delta.)
Now, with the combined Plus-Delta and action plan, you have a very simple way of following up on the action items, driving accountability, and making sure the items are dispositioned in a timely way.
Results Driven By Accountability
Fast forward to today: the project completed on‐time with tremendous satisfaction by leadership and the various stakeholders who participated. Of course, they had a lot do to with it, but getting the team to work together in an easier way did a lot to break through the “noise” and get past the growing delays.
One of the things I like most about practicing Lean Six Sigma as a Master Black Belt is when I can solve a unique problem in a new way by creatively “mashing” the some tools in the Lean Six Sigma toolkit. My only caution when coaching other belts and teams: Don’t bastardize the tool to form fit a result you think is right. Use it to explore the possibilities. Try it. You’ll be amazed at what your teams can do.