Newt Gingrich, Jane Jacobs and Lean Six Sigma

Black Belt-in-Chief?

When I first read about this last summer, it was mildly interesting. Newt Gingrich had signed a pledge to learn and apply Lean Six Sigma to the U.S. government if elected President. From Newt Gingrich’s website:

There are a number of sophisticated management systems that create more productive, more effective patterns of work. One of those systems is Lean Six Sigma. If applied across the entire federal government, some estimate it could save $500 billion a year or $5 trillion over a ten-year period. By comparison, the newly created “Super Committee” is merely trying to save $1.5 trillion.

A properly focused Lean Six Sigma effort could reorient government to act in ways that would help balance the budget, grow our economy, accelerate job creation, and make America the most competitive country in the world. To achieve this future, it will require us to work together to educate the American people, the news media and our elected officials, and win the argument for smaller, leaner, and more effective government.  See http://www.newt.org/leansixsigma

When I read about Gingrich’s Republican Primary win in South Carolina yesterday, I recalled his Lean Six Sigma statements and thought about whether applying Lean Six Sigma in government on a large-scale would be a good idea or a bad one. There are a number of outcomes:

A. A well deployed and designed Lean Six Sigma effort could have beneficial systemic results provided the conditions were right.

B. A well deployed and designed Lean Six Sigma effort could achieve good but limited or localized improvements but fundamentally not achieve overall breakthrough improvement because the overall conditions were not conducive to systemic change.

C. An improperly deployed and designed Lean Six Sigma effort could make some situations much worse, squander the well-intentioned efforts of scores of talented people, discredit aspects of Lean Six Sigma, and serve to further the cynicism people have about the ability to reform or improve important areas of our civic lives, specifically our governments.

ABC News correspondent, Matt Negrin, wrote in an article in December 2011 that

Newt Gingrich is such a big fan of the Lean Six Sigma method that Strong America Now, a group that promotes the waste-cutting technique, features him prominently on the top of its website (see http://strongamericanow.org). “This is the biggest idea for rethinking how you run government,” Gingrich is quoted as saying in the first slide. The second one links to a video of Gingrich at the Nov. 22 Republican debate, where he said: “If we were serious, we would apply Strong America Now’s model of Lean Six Sigma. We would save $500 billion a year by having an efficient, effective federal government.”

Lean Six Sigma is actually two business methods – Lean, first used by Toyota, and Six Sigma, first employed by Motorola – merged together. Popular in the private sector and particularly among Fortune 500 firms, LSS aims to cut waste while minimizing mistakes. Gingrich says the methods can be applied to the federal government, and his campaign website displays a whole memo devoted to that idea. But lumping a practice used primarily in the private sector onto a massive federal government might be easier said than done.

Negrin is correct in identifying one of the important considerations in fully and effectively translating Lean Six Sigma into the political-bureaucratic complex that is the modern government, most especially those at the national level, are a mind-boggling web of shifting interests, agendas, and actors, not to mention the often corrosive or distortive effects of big money. Put another way, it is possible to envision, and indeed there are already examples of successful applications of Lean Six Sigma practices, in limited ways in governments and not-for-profit settings. But typically these cases deal with either less politically explosive issues such as back-office processes, or they are operating at a more modest county or city level.

This is what I mean when by scenario “B”. Successful but limited in some respects such as scale (to “reform” a local town government is one thing, to transform the U.S. Federal government is quite another thing) or scope (for example, addressing the back office processes of health care is one thing, changing the medical practices of surgeons is a different matter altogether).

Scenario “B” is by no means a bad outcome; even local relative improvements can have good outcomes worth pursuing even if the larger systemic transformation is not achieved. But the dangers of Scenario “C” should never be far from our minds as performance improvement practitioners. Forget for a moment the negative effects on our profession, more important is the confusion, damage, and wasted effort ill-conceived “improvement” efforts might unleash. Applying an inappropriate tool or approach, however skillfully, in a situation can cause significant harm.

But let us hypothesize for a moment that wise and experienced Lean Six Sigma practitioners could design a robust Lean Six Sigma deployment for the American Federal government. As always, the success of the deployment depends largely on the extent and nature of the advocacy of leaders up and down the line. This alignment of “buy-in” is tough enough to achieve in a single, for-profit company; it is self-evident that due to sheer size and the impact of election cycles that the “change management” challenge of any kind of performance transformation effort would be, to be restrained in one’s language, significant.

It is easy to throw criticisms, less easy to make recommendations. What might I recommend as a starting point in designing a Lean Six Sigma deployment in the U.S. Federal government? I would not start by bringing together Lean Six Sigma experts or gathering materials from the world of Lean Six Sigma or other performance improvement schools of thought. Instead I would start by drawing together a diverse array of thinkers to discuss and debate the ideas in Jane Jacobs’ 1992 book, Systems of Survival, and others like it. In Systems of Survival Jacobs explored the ethical structures that sustain civic and economic life. One she called the Guardian syndrome, the other the Commercial syndrome. Quoting from the editor’s introduction:

From these two modes of survival have come two discrete and contradictory ethical systems that are the subject of this book. Conflicts occur, according to Jacobs, when the precepts appropriate to the guardian syndrome are imposed on the commercial syndrome and visa versa.

Jane Jacobs 1916 - 2006



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