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Strategies for Implementing Six Sigma in Government

written by: Ginny Edwards • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 6/1/2011

Six Sigma is not something that is common in the government sector. Find out what are some of the hurdles that make starting up Six Sigma in the public sector different from setting up Six Sigma in the private sector, and what strategies government leaders and managers can use.

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    The Current Status of Six Sigma in Government

    Six Sigma is a quality improvement methodology which focuses on reducing defects in production and processes to boost customer satisfaction, drive quality initiatives, and reduce costs, thereby adding to the bottom line of businesses. Although a few government agencies have implemented Six Sigma with reported success, Six Sigma has not yet achieved the status as a mainstream quality solution for the improvement of government processes. Part of the reluctance on the part of governmental leaders and managers to embrace Six Sigma is attributable to the organizational challenges in launching Six Sigma initiatives. Government leaders and managers need to identify, understand, and target organizational structural issues, particularly internal and external cultural factors, which present impairments to the successful implementation of Six Sigma. A proactive leadership is essential to overcoming these challenges and successfully setting up Six Sigma.

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    The Pyramid: A Hierarchical Model for Understanding the Challenges

    Pyramid of Challenges The organizational and structural challenges faced by governments in setting up Six Sigma can best be represented in a hierarchical model in the shape of a pyramid. A pyramid comprised of the base, internal angles, and the apex, must be properly aligned to support Six Sigma methodology in the public sector.

    The Base of the Pyramid: Public Perception

    Pyramids are built from the ground level up and must have solid foundations to stand the test of time and remain viable organizational structures. The success of initiating Six Sigma in the public sector is dependent upon building positive public perception of the projects to be improved. However, unlike businesses in the private sector whose customer base is well defined, a government’s customer base is much broader and includes taxpayers who may not directly benefit from the improvements identified by the methodology. Convincing taxpayers who are concerned about excessive government spending of the need for Six Sigma can be a challenging task.

    To initially address these concerns, governments need to effectively communicate the expected benefits and savings resulting from the improvement initiatives. A great example of a government effectively communicating with its taxpaying customer base can be found on the website of the City of Fort Wayne, Indiana. In listing its Six Sigma initiatives, the city includes a description of the quality problem, introduces the members of the Six Sigma team, and details the solution and the calculated savings, thus introducing credibility and accountability for each project. For governments considering Six Sigma, choosing the right project to launch is critically important. Governments should first identify and choose projects which will appeal to a large segment of its taxpaying customer base. For instance, one of the first projects indertaken by Fort Wayne was to improve its pothole repair response time, which became an instant hit with the city's customers, thus creating a positive public perception of Six Sigma.

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    Internal Angles of the Pyramid: Finding Stability in the Culture

    A pyramid with a solid foundation will not last long without the right support. The success of Six Sigma in government depends on the successful alignment of the internal culture to support the tenets of the Six Sigma methodology. The first challenge for governments is to ensure that the internal culture is aligned to promote entrepreneurship which naturally leads to continuous improvement. Although government employees are conscientious workers and they do their jobs effectively, they don't have the same entrepreneurial spirit found in private sector employees who are motivated to develop better approaches to improve the bottom line. The takeaway for government leaders and managers is that they need to develop a rewards system that encourages entrepreneurship.

    A second challenge for government is to ensure that the internal culture understands and supports the dedicated roles of the Six Sigma team members, which include Champions, Green Belts, Black Belts, and Master Black Belts. Because governmental agencies are often set up along functional lines, the typical government worker has a multitude of tasks and assignments. The idea of an employee, such as Black Belts, dedicating 100 percent of their time to a Six Sigma project is a foreign to the mindset of government managers and employees. Also, government managers are more likely to assign Six Sigma members other duties as staffing levels shrink because of budget cuts, forced layoffs, hiring freezes, and extended furloughs. To guarantee the success of Six Sigma, government managers need to preserve the independence of Six Sigma members.

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    External Angles: Finding Stability in the Market Landscape

    The competitiveness of the market in which Six Sigma organizations operate has a direct impact on its initial success. As seen with the internal culture, resistance to change can also come from the market landscape in which governments operate. When government products or services are offered in a noncompetitive and monopolistic market, there is no marketplace incentive to reinvent the proverbial wheel. One classic example of a government monopoly is the exclusive right in a number of states to sell distilled liquor. Without direct competition, states can control the profit margin and adjust it to generate more revenue. Under these circumstances, the market incentives that lead to better customer service and reduced costs are lost.

    In addition to a limited marketplace, governments face an environment where citizens hold them to high standards of ethical, responsible, and open conduct. These higher standards of accountability and responsibility embodied in FOIA, procurement, and conflict of interest laws, may make it more difficult, but not impossible, to introduce changes in the process. For more information on change management, continue reading this article on analyzing resistance to change.

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    Leadership Dynamics: Governing from the Apex of the Pyramid

    Leadership takes its place at the top of the pyramid because it is the most visible and important support for Six Sigma in government. A gap in the level of commitment by leadership opens the pyramid to the elements which can result in procrastination and backtracking, eventually undermining the success of Six Sigma. Leaders in government face different challenges than their counterparts in the private sector because of the influence of political agendas in the decision-making process.

    The dynamics of the political process often determines the allocation and reallocation of resources. Determining the allocation of resources has never been more difficult as governments struggle with dwindling revenue streams while awash with ever increasing public demand to provide faster and better services without raising taxes. To increase the chances of the success, governmental leaders must move quickly in committing to Six Sigma projects and continue to emphasize their priority when the allocation and reallocation of resources are discussed. With government leaders and managers focused on addressing internal and external challenges at the onset, the transition to Six Sigma in government will be viewed as more positive and worthy of emulation by all those serving in the public sector.



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