There’s a wry old episode of NBC’s “30 Rock” in which Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon attend a seemingly fictional “Six Sigma” business conference (motto: “Retreat to Move Forward”) and immerse themselves in the ever-intense world of consulting buzzwords and team-building exercises. “There they are,” says Jack, reverently, pointing to a group of older men, “The six sigmas themselves, each of them embodying a pillar of the Six Sigma business philosophy: Teamwork. Insight. Brutality. Male Enhancement. Handshakefulness. And Play Hard.”
The gag, in part, was an inside joke: NBC’s corporate parent, GE, is a keen advocate of the real-life Six Sigma management strategy, which, at root, just involves using data to improve business practices, but which is often lampooned as a vaguely creepy cult. (It doesn’t help that the program calls for enlisting special experts known as “Master Black Belts,” “Green Belts,” and so forth.) GE bristles at the criticism on its website—“What is Six Sigma? First, what it is not. It is not a secret society, a slogan or a cliche.”—but that hasn’t stopped the snickerers. Tina Fey reportedly carried around Six Sigma for Dummies for a spell, thumbing through its pages for humor material.
Now, however, Six Sigma may be on the verge of becoming the latest political fad. On Tuesday, Tim Pawlenty gave a big campaign speech on the economy and promised that, if elected, he’d apply “Lean Six Sigma” techniques to the federal government and save, quote, “up to 20 percent in many programs.” Meanwhile, a Texas business consultant named Michael George is traipsing around Iowa trying to convince GOP candidates to sign a pledge to adopt Lean Six Sigma techniques that would “eliminate 25 percent of spending per year across the federal government.” (The candidates would also have to attend a two-day Lean Six Sigma seminar.) Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain are on board, and George is holding out hope for a Mitt Romney’s thumbs-up. So what’s going on here? Is there really some magical consulting strategy out there that’s going to solve our deficit woes?
Legend has it (okay, Wikipedia has it) that Six Sigma was first developed by Motorola back in 1986 as a way of cutting down on defects in the manufacturing process. Statistically, a six sigma process was one in which a mere 3.4 products out of every million produced had problems. The idea was that, by investing upfront in data-driven, higher-quality production methods, Motorola could cut down on repair costs. The company has reportedly saved more than $17 billion as a result. Later on, Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, made it an obsessive focus of his business strategy in the ’90s. “I don't give a damn if we get a little bureaucracy as long as we get the results,” he snarled at his critics in Businessweek. “If it bothers you, yell at it. Kick it. Scream at it. Break it!” To this day, Welch still gives Six Sigma major credit for GE’s turnaround, although the numbers have always been hard to verify.
Such outsized claims have naturally lured out the critics. Other famed consultants, like Joseph Juran, have sniffed that there’s nothing actually new about this fabled strategy, except that “They’ve adopted more flamboyant terms, like belts with different colors.” Skeptical articles in Fortune and Businessweek suggested that the Six Sigma approach was pretty good for improving manufacturing processes, but not great for innovation or the service sector. (When Home Depot’s CEO ordered his employees to go Six Sigma and obsess over data measurement and paperwork, worker morale and customer satisfaction plummeted.) Even Welch concedes in his book Jack: Straight from the Gut, that Six Sigma has its limits: “While it’s worked for many functions at NBC, it hasn’t improved our batting average in picking sitcoms.” (Gawker passes along a tale, possibly apocryphal, that Welch once ordered employees to tally up laughs on NBC’s episodes.)
So is there any reason to think Six Sigma is some miracle government cure-all? In his book, What Is Lean Six Sigma?, Michael George recounts the tale of Graham Richard, a Democrat who became mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 2001. Richard enlisted a few Green Belts to figure out why the city was churning out construction permits so slowly. One key lesson learned was that crucial documents should be uploaded to a central server so that employees from different agencies could more easily share information. That seemed to help, and Fort Wayne’s permitting process sped up, but it hardly sounds revolutionary.
Or take Pawlenty himself. In 2003, one of his cabinet officials, the head of Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency, brought in Six Sigma experts to meet with her staff. Again, the agency had been issuing permits far too slowly, and, by the time the Black Belts and Green Belts pored over the data, Politico notes, “the agency greatly accelerated its work and began issuing 70 percent of the permits within that time frame—all without layoffs or relaxing environmental standards.”
That’s impressive, but here’s a caveat. This is hardly some breathtaking secret that only Pawlenty is privy to. The EPA itself touts Minnesota’s success on a portion of its website devoted to “Lean Government.” In fact, the EPA has an entire section detailing the virtues of Six Sigma—along with a slew of other in-vogue management techniques. It’s not as if federal employees have never given any thought to how to improve government efficiency—or that once Pawlenty rolls into the White House with a few consulting buzzwords he learned second-hand, improvements will materialize like magic, and whole agencies will become significantly leaner overnight. While there’s no doubt always room to do better, a lot of this stuff is already being done.
Indeed, Pawlenty is hardly the first politician to promise that he can make government more efficient by applying some old-fashioned private-sector pixie dust. George W. Bush was the self-styled “MBA President,” and Ronald Reagan used to brag about how he implemented “more than 1,600 ... modern business practices” back when he was governor of California. Spending, as we know, still went up under both presidents. In that sense, there’s nothing new about Pawlenty’s boasts. Virtually every former governor talks about how he or she managed—poof!—to shave away waste and fraud in their state. And, it’s true, there are often some real success stories therein. But there’s no case of a politician applying these techniques and getting the sweeping savings that Six Sigma fans are now talking about. And, conversely, often fancy consultants aren't even needed to make government work better. Barack Obama seems to have resurrected FEMA, and all he did was put a guy with actual emergency-management expertise in charge of the agency, instead of (as the CEO president did) a former horse-trading lobbyist. No Black Belts needed.
Then again, it’s always possible I’m woefully underestimating the power of Six Sigma. As one of its advocates, Mikel Harry, told Politico: “It'll strip you buck naked in the middle of the street and leave you pretty exposed, so you got to be prepared for that. It’s a no-BS tool used to bring about achievement in a direct way.” Don’t knock handshakefulness until you’ve tried it.
Bradford Plumer is an associate editor at The New Republic.