The Corner

Lean Six Sigma as a Risky Dog-Whistle for Gingrich

Newt Gingrich has repeatedly called for applying “Lean Six Sigma” to improve the functioning of the federal government. This is not an entirely daft idea. In fact, it’s not even a new one, as Lean Six Sigma is already being applied everywhere from the Department of Defense to the EPA. But it’s hard to believe that Gingrich is foolish enough to think it will really transform our government. 

Six Sigma is just the latest iteration of what is more or less the same, basically sensible method for business operational improvement — carefully observe and measure current work practices, think of them holistically and in light of the goals of the business, and then redesign work practices — that keeps getting reinvented. Taylorism, “Goals and Methods,” factory statistical process control (SPC), Total Quality Management (TQM), business process reengineering (BPR), and now Six Sigma are all just manifestations of this approach. Each is typically pioneered by innovators who have a fairly supple understanding of the often unarticulated complexity of the task. It drives clear profit gains, and many other people want to apply it. A group of experts are trained by the pioneers, who are also quite effective. There is an inevitable desire to scale up the activity and apply it as widely as possible. It becomes codified into some kind of a cookbook process that can be replicated. This process becomes a caricature of the original work, and the method is discredited by failure and ridicule. (Seeing this phase of reengineering at several companies in the 1990s, a close friend of mine once described it as “like the Planet of the Apes, after the monkeys have taken over from the humans.”) Within some number of years, new pioneers develop a new version of the approach, and the cycle begins again. 

If implemented intelligently, a structured approach to operational process improvement could be a useful exercise for the federal government. As one of many examples, Al Gore’s Reinventing Government initiative was an attempt at the same basic concept, and appears to have created at least some temporary efficiency gains. Even the idea of using a single framework (whether Six Sigma, or some other useful tool) that creates a uniform method and vocabulary across the whole government is probably worth some reduction in flexibility across departments and agencies. But to imagine that this will resolve the fundamental disagreements about the size and role of government, the influence of various interest groups, voter acceptance of structural deficits, and so on that are the root issues in the dysfunction in Washington is silly. 

I assume that Gingrich’s real purpose in calling for this is to connect with the huge swath of Republican primary voters who work in or around Fortune 1000 companies. They can hear him saying things that they hear at work every day, but that they never hear politicians mention. This makes Gingrich seem more practical and connected to their world, and less a creature of what they take to be out-of-touch Washington. I’ve informally observed that Gingrich has used something like this technique for many years, probably effectively in terms of the politics. 

My guess is that it will be less effective, or at least much riskier, against Romney, who can pretty much respond at will with a “You’re no Jack Kennedy” comment about how something like Six Sigma really works inside of a real business.

Jim Manzi is CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company.

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