Project Charters for Journalists (and Everyone Else)
©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

One of the first things completed for a Lean Six Sigma project is its charter. This appears to be simple, then looks complex and overly structured after looking more closely. I’ve seen templates that look like they require an MBA to interpret. (Fortunately, I have one, but that’s no help to others.) Charters can seem downright bureaucratic to some leaders, who then worry what they’re getting into if they’re asked for approval before work even begins.

Let me help to make it simple again. I was initially trained as a journalist, and I still practice this in my storytelling.

We can bring two concepts from that field into this document.

First is the “Five Ws and the H”—Who, What, When, Where, Why and How-- what every good reporter needs to communicate to the reader. Applying this to a Project Charter, though in a different order, we get:

WHAT is the problem? Try to state this in one or two sentences.

WHY is it a problem? If you don’t know, then is it a problem?

HOW do we know it’s a problem? There needs to be some understanding of the impact.

WHO is affected? This is usually one or more customers or groups of customers. I’d stick with the most immediately impacted since it will be easier to measure improvements later, although there could be a “domino effect.”

Bonus: WHO is going to help solve the problem? That’s your project team.

WHERE is the problem occurring? This isn’t just a physical location.

WHEN does it need to be fixed? This helps to establish a reasonable timeframe. No, dates in the past, i.e. “I need it yesterday,” are NOT reasonable.

The second concept is the “inverted pyramid”. Back in the days when the reporter was only given so much physical space in the paper, the story had to be told with the most important facts first, just in case the latter part of the story was cut before press time to given some other story more space. That there was a fire on Main Street is far more critical than what the responding firefighters had for dinner that night. Even if it was five-alarm chili. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) For project charters, this applies—keep the statements short, to the point, and prioriritzed, so that the readers—and the approvers—don’t lose sight of what’s being addressed. What’s the most important thing to communicate? The problem. On the other hand, don’t make the information so generic that it doesn’t tell the story at all.

Like breaking news, project charters can be updated as additional information warrants. We often call the charter a “Living Document,” but again, just like a news story, there is a time when it’s complete and doesn’t need any more modification—like, when you’re about to present the final report-out to leadership. But the Project Charter is a “Living Document” in the sense that someone not familiar with it should be able to read it, perhaps months later, and understand what the project was all about.

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