Six Sigma In the Newsroom


Technology Review: “You Don't Understand Our Audience”

It's just one part of a very interesting article in the MIT magazine by John Hockenberry, a former reporter for NBC news. NBC (and NBC Universal) are a part of the General Electric (GE) corporate umbrella (also recommended is the part about trying to use GE “corporate synergy” to get an interview with the Bin Laden family).

Hockenberry's thoughts on the use of Six Sigma and GE culture were sort of funny, something you sometimes see skewered on the show “30 Rock”. (Another funny link here)


Six Sigma in the Newsroom
Perhaps the biggest change to the practice of journalism in the time I was at NBC was the absorption of the news division into the pervasive and all-consuming corporate culture of GE. GE had acquired NBC back in 1986, when it bought RCA. By 2003, GE's managers and strategists were getting around to seeing whether the same tactics that made the production of turbine generators more efficient could improve the production of television news. This had some truly bizarre consequences. To say that this Dateline correspondent with the messy corner office greeted these internal corporate changes with self-destructive skepticism is probably an understatement.

Six Sigma–the methodology for the improvement of business processes that strives for 3.4 defects or fewer per million opportunities–was a somewhat mysterious symbol of management authority at every GE division. Six Sigma messages popped up on the screens of computers or in e-mail in-boxes every day. Six Sigma was out there, coming, unstoppable, like a comet or rural electrification. It was going to make everything better, and slowly it would claim employees in glazed-eyed conversions….

While Six Sigma's goal-oriented blather and obsession with measuring everything was jarring, it was also weirdly familiar, inasmuch as it was strikingly reminiscent of my college Maoism I class. Mao seemed to be a good model for Jack Welch and his Six Sigma foot soldiers; Six Sigma's “Champions” and “Black Belts” were Mao's “Cadres” and “Squad Leaders.”

I know there are times when Lean and Six Sigma seem completely foreign to folks in areas like healthcare. So how do we address that? I think a key is emphasizing about how Lean (or Six Sigma, for those using that) are methodologies that are meant to improve the way you do your work. We are turning the hospital into an “assembly line” but we're using the methods of an assembly line in the context of hospital priorities and values.

It sort of reminds me of the phrase that's used, that China has “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” It's euphemistic, in that it becomes an Orwellian phrase where “capitalism” means whatever you say capitalism. We have to be careful that “Lean with hospital characteristics” doesn't become something we don't recognize as Lean. Yes, we can be sensitive to patient needs the unique dynamics of healthcare, but there are also ways in which healthcare needs to be shaken up, for the sake of patients and employees.

One more thought on China – it struck me that Hockenberry compared GE to a totalitarian system… remember our discussion here about large businesses being “Soviet” in nature?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. It’s a tough problem. It reminds me of Juran talking about how operations people speak in turns & cycle times and upper management speaks in dollars — you need a way to translate.

    One of the most difficult things is just that healthcare workers tend to be very opposed to any perspective other than each patient should be treated as an individual. That’s fine on a personal level, but at a process level one CHF patient is not much different than another.


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