Can Lean Six Sigma Reduce Government Waste?

Quality professionals say 'yes,' but outline challenges to implementation.

Conservative presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has been promoting Lean Six Sigma as a means by which to reform the U.S. government. Among several endeavors, in mid-August he held a teleconference on the topic, telling listeners his interest in lean and Six Sigma dates back to the mid-1980s. He also said Lean Six Sigma would be the centerpiece of his campaign.

Several other conservative presidential candidates also have expressed interest in Lean Six Sigma. So, too, has President Obama and his administration.

Quality professionals, too, believe Lean Six Sigma, can help reduce government waste, according to the results of a new survey, but they outline a number of challenges to its successful implementation.

The online survey, conducted by the American Society for Quality, was completed by more than 2,500 ASQ members from Aug. 29 through Sept. 6.

Survey respondents identified the biggest obstacle to implementing Lean Six Sigma in U.S. government is the very structure of the U.S. federal government, which they say can be a barrier to comprehensive evaluation.

Other obstacles include:

  • An environment faced with conflicting strategies, goals, and priorities.
  • Creating a sense of urgency to deploy a comprehensive improvement methodology across all government agencies.
  • The personnel management model currently used by many government agencies. (During his teleconference, Gingrich said implementing Lean Six Sigma would require a total reform of the civil service model.)
  • A lack of familiarity with Lean Six Sigma and how it can benefit the organization.
  • Ongoing political partisanship.

Some 75% of the survey respondents said they had implemented Lean Six Sigma in their organizations, with 75% reporting improved quality levels, 73% identifying reduced costs, and 68% reporting improved competitiveness or pursuit of their core mission.

Survey respondents also provided possible first steps government could take to effectively implement Lean Six Sigma. They include providing training for key members of the administration and government agency management teams, conducting pilot programs and requiring government agencies to implement the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria.

They also suggested that Health & Human Services is the federal agency that could most benefit from reducing waste and cutting costs.

ASQ Past President Liz Keim added a caution: Match the right tool to the challenge at hand.

"There are true benefits to using lean and Six Sigma to reduce the national debt, but its important to emphasize that these tools alone are not a solution for all government budget ailments," Keim says. "There are a number of other excellent quality improvement methods available, and it is crucial to match the right tool with specific needs."

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