Lean Six Sigma: Mike George's sitcom-approved idea for making the federal government more efficient.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 15 2011 7:37 PM

Jack Donaghy for President

A Republican businessman wants all candidates to agree to attend a two-day business seminar.

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But attracting the attention of Newt Gingrich isn't the same as attracting the attention of the public. The Strong America Now campaign hasn't exactly primed voters for a lesson on business strategy techniques. In its TV ad, George says only that he has a plan to "reduce waste and deficit spending with no new taxes." Its literature looks like the stuff churned out by every other conservative group, with a sad illustration of a baby dragging a literal ball and chain.

The soft sell is a little complicated, too. When George pitches the plan to Tea Party groups, his ambitions for the plan vary wildly. "Applying this across the board will save $1.5 trillion per year," he told one group in 2010, "and that is a conservative estimate!" Last week, Gingrich cited a new George estimate: The plan would save $500 billion per year. Not bad, better than what the supercommittee's expected to do, but you hear enough of these different numbers and you wonder what Lean Six Sigma can achieve.

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So do the program's other promoters. Graham Richard, the Democratic mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., from 2000 to 2008, is generally credited as the first government official to implement the plan. He gives seminars on how other local governments can copy it, pointing them to the little cost-saving measures his city figured out—$200,000 less a year spent on garbage collection, things like that.

"I support the use of Lean Six Sigma," says Richard. "I'm glad Mike is out there doing this. But I don't like starting the discussion by saying 'Lean Six Sigma will save you money.' This is the start of a process where eventually you'll get to fewer people doing better, yes, of course. At the federal level, I'm just a little bit leery of grandiose promises. We Americans … we're always looking for the moon shot, the easy solution, just do this and everything will be fine."

This may be the reason that almost every candidate is signing onto the plan, but only Gingrich (who has nothing to lose) is running hard with it. Neither Mitt Romney nor Jon Huntsman, the candidates with the most business experience, has signed the pledge. Huntsman simply won't sign any pledges. Romney's campaign didn't answer a question about why he hasn't signed.

"It's very surprising," says George. "I have made money with Mitt. I met him while working with the Preferred Technical Group. Everybody beats Mitt up for cutting jobs? Well, when I was with Mitt, we doubled employment and we tripled revenue. He ought to be trumpeting that!"

So why wouldn't he sign it yet? The point-and-laugh reaction that Pawlenty got for boosting Six Sigma might have something to do with it. Presidential candidates gain nothing when they get bogged down in details, and this plan cries out for some details. How is this idea, one that part of the government is clearly already aware of, any different than the claim that cutting "waste, fraud, and abuse" will balance the budget? There are only two things we know. One: A more efficient government is good, but efficiency alone can't save us. Two: Presidential candidates will say anything.

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