Free the Sigma Six!

Here in Erie County, we just elected a new County Executive, who takes over a county that’s been pretty much of a mess for years. The incoming Exec, Christopher Collins, is a local businessman, new to politics, who pulled off one of those “Political newcomer who will run government like a business” campaigns. This, coupled with a fairly uninspiring candidate on the other side, led to his election. All this is pretty run of the mill stuff. People are always coming along, running for office on the basis that they’ll run government like a business. I’m always a tad skeptical of such talk, since it always strikes me as talk that sounds good, but it’s generally hard to tell what it really means. Governments aren’t businesses, their focus isn’t profit generation, and so on. To me, “run government like a business” is little more than feel-good rhetoric, right up there with Rudy Giuliani’s “stay on offense in the War on Terror” and Al Gore’s “Social Security lockbox” and all the rest.

However, we do have some idea of how County Exec Collins is going to run things like a business: he’s planning to implement something called “Six Sigma”, which is, according to WikiPedia, “a set of practices originally developed by Motorola to systematically improve processes by eliminating defects.” That’s all well and good, but of course, Six Sigma or no, that’s what any good manager tries to do: improve the way things are done by figuring what’s not working so well and ditching it. So Chris Collins is going to use Six Sigma to get his “Run Erie County like a business plan” going. Fine, I suppose; but if you’re like me, and you’ve spent as much time as I have in the company of various management types, you’ve heard this sort of thing before. If there’s one eternal skill that business types have, it’s dressing fairly simple ideas up in “golly whiz” terminology. Spend any time in corporate America at all and you’ll hear stuff like this constantly. Some people will be diehard adherents of the system in play, while for others, Six Sigma will be “that thing we tried back in 2007”.

All this is fairly harmless stuff. Looking through some stuff on the web about Six Sigma, it all seems fairly innocuous, and in competent hands, it may even work well, although I’m always less inclined to credit the new “Gee whiz!” business tool with the success than the competent people who implement it. I’ve been around the block a little bit, folks, and believe me, the competent person who flies by the seat of her pants will usually beat out the inept person with a system in the end.

So what’s my problem? Why am I posting this, and what’s with that picture heading this post? There’s an aspect to Six Sigma that strikes me as colossally silly. Apparently there are levels of proficiency depending on training and focus, and those levels are titled as the levels in the martial arts. So when Chris Collins talks about hiring a Six Sigma person to come in and help him out, he isn’t hiring a consultant or an expert or something like that. No, he’s hiring a “Black Belt”.

Well, sorry, Six Sigma devotees, but that’s where I get off the bus. This kind of terminology makes it nearly impossible for people like me, who just want to see the damned local government stop sucking quite so much, take things seriously. Now, instead of seeing serious people take a serious approach, I’m wondering if becoming a Six Sigma Black Belt requires making a big circle with the left hand to get the wax on, and a reverse circle with the right to get the wax off. Over in this BuffaloPundit thread about Six Sigma coming to Buffalo, someone asks how one becomes a Six Sigma Black Belt. With a title like that, it disappoints me to learn that it has nothing to do with single combat between office workers using staplers as nunchucks.

One of the things that makes The Office such a brilliant show is its skewering of management-speak, the jargon-heavy way that managers talk and the whole cottage industry of management consulting that has sprung up in the business world. And when we start drawing parallels between expert consultants and black belt karate masters, the only reaction I can muster up is a healthy snigger.

None of this, by the way, should be construed as skepticism that a Six Sigma approach can help with Erie County’s governmental problems. However, here’s an interesting article suggesting that the bloom is off the Six Sigma rose. A cursory glance through some links relating to Six Sigma conveys the strong impression that there’s not really anything new with it; rather, it’s a new way of codifying an old idea. And take it from me, there will always be a new way of codifying old ideas. In twenty years, Six Sigma will be in the management history books, and some other nifty new program utilizing the same notions of quality improvement will be all the rage. And maybe then the consultants will carry titles like “Padawan”.

UPDATE: Pundit follows up, here and here.

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One Response to Free the Sigma Six!

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    I’ve suffered a number of “management” styles in my day, too. My least favorite: MBWA – management by walking around.

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