Lean Six Sigma came into the news this week as Presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, promoted it as a way to solve deficit problems. The name was intriguing enough (it sounded to me like the code to get into a secret club) that I spent some time finding out what it is.
Lean Six Sigma is a management tool that was developed by Motorola in the mid-80’s. It has been used by many top companies such as IBM and GE. Lean Six Sigma was developed to improve each step in a sequence of manufacturing processes to ensure or maximize a defect-free product. There is a quantified financial target such as cost reduction or profit increases for the products the management tool addresses. Lean Six Sigma is just one of many similar management tools that are used by manufacturing companies such as TQM-Total Quantity Management and SPC-Statistical Process Control. Al Gore’s campaign to “Reinvent Government” was based on similar management concepts. In fact, several government departments including the Dept. of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency already use Lean Six Sigma as a management tool.
Lean Six Sigma is well suited for manufacturing businesses as it utilizes statistical modeling of the finite steps in building a product. On the other hand, for businesses dependent on innovation, it has been criticized as stifling creativity on developing new products.
It seems fairly clear that these management tools can be extremely valuable where the aim of the business is to increase its profit while having a quality product as is what businesses want to do. Government, however, doesn’t exist for profit. Most government programs cannot be analyzed by looking at the bottom line – endowments, national parks, FEMA, clean air and water, national defense, etc.
Government is mainly a service provider. There seems to be no doubt that government could be, and should be, run more efficiently. I am sure wasteful redundancy abounds throughout government. Implementing a program like Lean Six Sigma most likely could analyze the individual steps and make incremental improvements thus reducing waste. But can this approach really reduce 25% to 40% of federal spending needed to affect the deficit? Might it not actually introduce more bureaucracy by developing volumes of procedures? Overall though, it sounds like a good idea to streamline government as much as possible.
In the end, however, I don’t think Lean Six Sigma, or other such tools, can resolve the fundamental disagreements about the role of government - its size, the influence of interest groups, structural deficits, etc. that are the real source of the current dysfunction in Washington. No program or management tool can solve that. Suggesting that Lean Six Sigma, or any other management tool, can resolve the current Congressional impasse on the deficit seems more than it is capable of. That is in the hands of the voters.