A Warning from the Future and the Future of Six Sigma

Photo of the Earth-Moon system taken by Galileo on Dec 16th, 1992 from a distance of 6.2 million kilometers.

On October 31, 2011 the United Nations symbolically recognized the birth of the 7 billionth human alive on our planet. For two centuries or more the demise of the human race has been predicted due to unchecked population growth and limited food and water.

Until now the Malthusian doomsayers have been proven wrong. But is it a question of timing rather than reasoning? While increases in food production have indeed occurred, one must also wonder if this agricultural miracle is a sustainable one. The gains, in retrospect, have come at a steep price in the loss of some biodiversity, exorbitantly cheap and lavishly wasted water, some species under stress from over-fishing, chemical additives affecting human hormones, obesity, and other as-yet unseen unintended consequences. As the population grows can the production of healthy food and safe water continue apace? Is it possible that Malthus was side-stepped only through the one-trick pony of exploiting vast areas of the planet — the Americas especially — over the last two centuries along with cheap petrochemicals?

As Black Belts and performance improvement professionals we talk about improving productivity in a plant or in a particular business unit. But what about the ultimate performance improvement project, the challenge to have adequate healthy food, breathable air and fresh water for humanity 20, 30 and 50 years from now?

Even if one views the failure to provide nutritious food to a great many people as a breakdown in the political process rather than food production per se (because, it is often argued, we can and do produce more than enough food for everyone but we waste that potential through inefficient supply chains, trade barriers, and the distortions of using food for fuel), it does not invalidate the possibility that at some point an improvement philosophy such as Lean Six Sigma will need to act on a global level else we risk working solely to re-arrange deck chairs on the Titanic.

If you have a child that is ten years old today, by 2031, on their 30th birthday, there will be 8.3 billion people instead of 7 billion today (by the estimate of the U.S. Census Bureau). Consequently, societies will need to continue to increase the production of food and other consumables without further degrading our air, water, and biosphere whilst also determining how to provide adequate health care and the other features of our modern civil society. Thus far, various technologies such as genetic modification and chemical fertilizers have increased output. But as with most technologies, we should not be surprised to begin to see the “S curve” take effect as we experience diminishing returns from each technology.

As an illustration of the challenge, I recently saw an article on the growth in population and the growth in the consumption of meat and fish protein per person on our planet. The numbers are astonishing. In 1970 the number of humans on Earth was 3.706 billion and each person ate each year 38.6 kilograms of meat and fish. That is 143 billion kilograms of meat and fish per year in 1970. In 2011 the per-person consumption of meat and fish was 57 kilograms per year. Multiplied by 7 billion people that works out to about 400 billion kilograms of meat and fish per year. By 2031, using the historical annual rate of increase in meat and fish consumption per person, the amount grows to 560 billion kilograms.

Every Black Belt should automatically begin to run the numbers: how many cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, salmon, sole, and cod does this represent? Are we able to properly raise that many animals and fish? Even if we could what is the load on our waste treatment? How many millions of tons of corn, wheat or krill are needed to feed this food chain? What if a virus is set loose in any of these animal populations? Is that level of intensity perhaps a trigger for more potent viruses?

The mission, therefore, of Lean Six Sigma is, or should I say, needs to be, more than about trying to get the stock price up for one company; it increasingly needs to be about moving whole economies to higher levels of performance. By this I refer to actions taken on entire end-to-end value chains and industrial sectors. This in turn brings us to the extent to which Lean Six Sigma can influence and improve governments and their processes.

Thus far, aside from the use of Lean Six Sigma in a few cities, towns, and some government agencies such as the U.S. military, the application of a fact-based and disciplined improvement process in the political sphere has been spotty, to say the least. But there are signs that there are vehicles for progressive change in non-governmental agencies as well as for-profit companies. But the mindset and approach of improvement must be more systemic since the earth itself is the ultimate closed system.

Many organizations think only of the next quarter. In a world of day-traders that is understandable but not excusable. As Elliot Jaques pointed out (“Requisite Organization”, 2nd Edition 1998), the essence of the Stratum 7 leader (CEO level) is to think and act on issues 20-50 years ahead. Twenty years seem like a long time. But just this past October was the 10th anniversary of the first iPod. 20 years ago Nirvana released “Nevermind.” 20 years.