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.

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. Click to expand image.
Newt Gingrich

If Mike George gets his way, the next president will give his (or her) victory speech, brush the confetti off his (or her) blazer, and then schedule a couple of days to duck out of the spotlight and take a seminar with some business consultants."From the time they're elected to the time they're inaugurated, they'll commit to a two-day training session on Lean Six Sigma," says George, calling from his office in Texas between meetings.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

You have heard of Lean Six Sigma, right? Perhaps you've listened to Jack Welch drone on about the error-eliminating techniques he implemented at GE. Maybe you've seen the episode of 30 Rock in which Jack Donaghy attends a corporate retreat and is briefed on the principles of "brutality" and "handshakefulness" in between team-building exercises.

Advertisement

That's Six Sigma. "Lean" Six Sigma is a slight variation, developed by George and others. When it's implemented, 1 percent of people in an organization go through four weeks of training to become "black belts" who do "nothing but process improvement," according to George. Three percent undergo one week of training and become "green belts," helping out their martial arts betters. The entire organization is schooled on slogans like "variability is the enemy" (or "variation is evil," as Welch likes to say). The inefficient company becomes efficient.

George's purpose is to get the next president to be more like Jack Donaghy. His 501(c)(4), Strong America Now, is omnipresent at Iowa political events, with its red, white, and blue slogan—"No deficit, no new taxes"—splashed on volunteers' T-shirts, hats, and signs. They get in candidates' faces. They tell the candidates that 22,000 Iowans are onboard already. The pitch works. Six of the GOP's presidential candidates, including Iowa frontrunner Michele Bachmann, have signed the pledge. (Tim Pawlenty, who cited Six Sigma in his big economy speech, signed the pledge but is no longer in the race.) They have sworn to attend training sessions and promised to "eliminate spending deficits and start paying down the national debt by 2017" by implementing the plan.

George had been pushing Lean Six Sigma on legislators long before the 2012 primaries started. He can point to the government organizations that have received the gospel: Fort Wayne, Ind., Erie County, N.Y., the U.S. Army.

"But I couldn't get anywhere with congressmen!" George says. "Most of them have no experience working in the private sector. Explaining this stuff to them is like explaining astronomy to a cat." He's tried, and failed, to get Paul Ryan to read his plan.

It sure sounds odd—fixing government with martial arts belts and Jack Welch quotes. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, introduced legislation that would have made the government implement Lean Six Sigma. It has sat around the Hill with only one co-sponsor. Even Bachmann's Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act did better than that.

But presidential candidates are easier marks. If they're presented with pledges, they're going to think about signing them. If someone hands them an idea, they can say to voters: "Hey. I have an idea you've never heard before. Who else can say that?"

No candidate has adopted the Lean Six Sigma gospel quite like Newt Gingrich, who has yet to meet a complicated, jargon-stuffed plan that he doesn't like. He name-checked the plan in his feisty Ames debate performance. When he got his turn at the Iowa State Fair's soap box, he announced his idea to make Congress scrap the "supercommittee" and become better consultants.

"They ought to come back in Monday," said Gingrich, "and every subcommittee in the House and Senate ought to be assigned the following task. Take every aspect of government your committee is assigned to, bring in experts from business, using Lean Six Sigma, and apply it to rethinking the whole thing. Here's an example. I would take Lean Six Sigma, and I would go through the entire State Department VISA process and redesign it."

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.

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.