Podcast #125 – Mike George on Lean Six Sigma for Government & Politicians (‘Strong America Now’)



My guest for Podcast #125 is Mike George, the founder of Strong America Now, a “nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing and educating citizens to support only those Presidential candidates who commit to eliminating the deficit with no new taxes.”

In this episode, George talks about his efforts to get candidates to commit to getting personally educated in Lean Six Sigma methods and to use these methods in their administration if elected. You can also read my previous blog post about his initiative.

Michael L. George is best known as the founder of The George Group, a consulting firm that was acquired by Accenture in 2007. As the author of books including Lean Six Sigma for Service: How to Use Lean Speed and Six Sigma Quality to Improve Services and Transactions, George is often listed as being the “creator” of Lean Six Sigma, which I know is somewhat controversial to some in the Lean community.

That said, I appreciate that Mr. George is working to create awareness amongst our elected officials that we can indeed eliminate waste in government by providing higher quality services at a lower cost by using process and quality improvement methods like Lean and Six Sigma. As in any industry, we can do better through “reducing waste” instead of just slashing costs.

For a link to this episode, refer people to  www.leanblog.org/125.

For earlier episodes, visit the main Podcast page, which includes information on how to subscribe via RSS or via Apple Podcasts.

If you have feedback on the podcast, or any questions for me or my guests, you can email me at leanpodcast@gmail.com or you can call and leave a voicemail by calling the “Lean Line” at (817) 993-0630 or contact me via Skype id “mgraban”. Please give your location and your first name. Any comments (email or voicemail) might be used in follow ups to the podcast.

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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. Mr. George’s approach for training politicians in Lean-6Sigma, 10 hours in the classroom plus one project, is well known to result in executive support for continuous improvement, but does not result in their daily participation in continuous improvement. This approach rarely promotes or results in learning by politicians through daily practice. Predictably, the use of Lean tools will be delegated to lower-level people, and leadership will fail to lead.

    I did not hear anything in the podcast about the “Respect for People” principle” or the importance of non-zero-sum (win-win) outcomes to help sustain continuous improvement. Also, the focus is only on eliminating waste and ignores unevenness and unreasonableness.

    The outcome will surely be Fake Lean in government.

    I have written about Lean management in government in my books, REAL LEAN Volume One (“Lean Government – Crazy Dream or Absolute Necessity”), REAL LEAN Volume Six (“Leanpolitik” and “Lean without Thinking”), and Moving Forward Faster. I point out the challenges and likely pitfalls of Lean in government (including a practical example of trying to legislate Lean in Connecticut in 2010) and suggests numerous practical countermeasures.

    While many of us would like to see progressive REAL Lean management in government, for many different reasons, making that happen will require a far better plan than the one offered by Mr. George.

    • Yes, Bob. I’d like to hear more talk about “respect for people” and more ongoing lean concepts – moving beyond training and projects. At their best, training and projects can help get things going, if the right leadership is in place and Lean isn’t just delegated to somebody.

      I’d like to see more talk about quality in Lean Six Sigma government talk, not just cost reduction (or even just “waste reduction”). What value do we need to be providing to citizens? How can we deliver the right value with the least amount of waste, including improving quality?

      For example, this lean healthcare presentation focuses on patient care and quality at UCSF:


    • That’s an interesting video clip. I know that Newt knows the history of Lean very well – the contributions of Deming, Ohno, etc. He knows that “Lean” was really created at Toyota and spread to the U.S. through NUMMI and other organizations and that Jim Womack’s MIT research team (Jon Krafcik) dubbed it as “Lean.”


      I’m not quite sure that, in the video, Newt said Mike George “created” Lean or if he’s talking about the particular brand of “Lean Six Sigma” that he promoted through this consulting and his books.

      • Welcome to the spin zone! Where is Bill O’Reilly when we need him?

        Quoting from Newt’s video:

        The company “proves that lean manufacturing, the way Mike George has created it, really makes a big difference.”

        So perhaps he did mean Mike George’s particular flavor of Lean Six Sigma. It still rubbed me the wrong way when I heard it. Is this all about Lean and Six Sigma or is it about Mike George?

        So maybe Speaker Gingrich (who I respect, don’t get me wrong) misspoke a bit or wasn’t clear… but this was a recorded video and Strong America Now could have asked him to do another take. Like Joe said below, this video comes across as self serving to Mike George, unfortunately. Maybe that wasn’t the intent, but that’s how it came across to me and that’s what rubs others in the Lean Six Sigma world the wrong way, frankly.

        Trying to be fair, Mike’s bio page doesn’t say he “created Lean Manufacturing.” It does say he created “Lean Six Sigma” – harder for me to say if that statement is accurate.

        • I am not spinning, and I am not sure the snarkiness is needed.

          I think it is rather obvious that Newt — who attended workshops back in 1986 when it was just Six Sigma — knows that George did not invent lean manufacturing.

          I think the intent was to praise George for bringing the issue to a wider audience as well as pushing for the implementation of lean principles.

            • Dear Neutron Jerk –

              You’re entitled to your cynicism and your snark, but your response here reminds me too much of the partisan bickering in DC – or even the bickering between the old guard Republicans and the “Tea Party.”

              That’s probably the better analogy.

              I bet you and Mike George agree on 95% of things Lean and Six Sigma related.

              Your snark reminds me of Congresspeople going on TV to criticize the other party instead of working toward something that’s good for the country. I don’t give points for some clever slam on the other party…. we’re in crisis here, so let’s focus on what’s important maybe.


  2. Heck, give credit where credit is due. It may be self-serving or whatever but he has stepped out and did something. As long as politicians treat it as away to get elected it won’t work. If the voters take hold of the issue and have an expectation and demand that it works it is different.

    I think the biggest problem is the majority of the 50% people in the U.S. that vote are receiving some types of entitlement that they would not want to see taken away. Heck, that is why they vote. But what would happen if we had 75% of people voting?

    There is absolutely no reason that we cannot have Quality in Government. Why not? Why can’t we grow this from grass roots? I only know of one step that can get it started is at the ballot box? I am not advocating that everyone runs over to Strong America Now and sign a pledge for all politicians to learn Lean Six Sigma but what if you only voted for people that did? And if politicians did sign it and did not follow it, we did not have to wait for the next election. It would be fraud! Treat them like criminals. Sounds drastic but why not!

    • Hold politicians accountable, Joe? That’s not the American way ;-)

      I hope there is a broader discussion, at the grassroots and in DC, about Lean in government. We can all be sharing our perspectives and experiences to help make sure we do our best to have “real lean” in government.

      Yes, good for Mike George for putting his time and energy into something to drive change. I just don’t want politicians to get the “lean is about speed and six sigma is for quality” message that you often hear from the “lean sigma” crowd, because that’s incorrect.

      Lean (going back to Toyota) is about quality and flow. They go hand in hand. Lean is a quality improvement method, not a cost-cutting approach. Do the right things (including respecting people) and cost will follow…

  3. Many large consulting companies have been very successful at stripping tools from Lean and adding them to the Six-Sigma tools pantheon to pass them off as Real-Lean.

    Some bandwagon consultancies with large marketing budgets have successfully convinced customers to view their stripped down version as the real thing. It’s easy to sell tools, it’s not so easy to sell a new way of thinking, behaving and working.

    Companies that have jumped on the Lean bandwagon without understanding it have devalued and impoverished what Lean has to offer.

    We now have to fight a rearguard action to pick to up all the pieces. After all the ‘Fake-Lean’, LAME implementations, Tool-Head Schools, and LINO programs (Lean In Name Only) the rest of us, along with all the Kings horses and all the Kings men are trying to put Lean-Thinking back together again.

  4. Yes, Hundley was part of the George Group. The book is tool-less and is a nice easy read with some good concrete examples on how it has been applied in government.

    If they wanted, they could have left the Lean Six Sigma part of it off but that would have been foolish. Thanks for the mention Mark!

  5. I don’t think you can win either way.

    I’m sure you’ve all thought – “if only the politicians ‘got it’ and ran government the way it should be run” – but then someone does ‘get it’ [mostly] we then don’t feel so great about it.

    I’m not sure the political system ‘maps’ so well to the concept of Lean in any event. For example, is the politician’s gemba the town hall meeting? or kissing babies on the street? or their office? The legislature?

    I liked Mark’s concept about respect for people. If they get that, the rest, including Lean, can readily follow.

  6. It would be interesting to know why Mr. George needed to introduce Six Sigma. He stated that he understood the power of Toyota’s process view, but does he understand how Toyota got to that point in terms of Toyota’s entire organizaing system?

    The process viewpoint is one aspect of a Lean organizing system, what about the other areas of the system. I did not heard anything about what is needed to transform the organizing system, and where the blame is being placed. Blaming people or blaming the system? What is happening to the people when it’s surfaced that the work they are doing does not add value?

    This approach appears to have a very tools only focused approach. I also was not able to find the papers he refered to on his site regarding his research.

    I also would not agree with generalizing data from one area can be applied to another for example generalizing the findings from the military to the government. Making the assumption the conditions in one system are the same as another.

    Overall I am quite skeptial of much of what Mr. George has stated, and that he is providing a accurate representation of what it means and what is needed to be Lean.

    I am more then happy to review any information people may have regarding the work he and his organizations have carried out.

    • It’s maybe worth noting, also, that Toyota does not use any formal Six Sigma program. They don’t have green belts or black belts. They use the seven basic Q.C. tools (which would be taught to a green belt), like histograms, etc. Toyota doesn’t see the need for Six Sigma, which is interesting.

      • I can only rely on what I have read regarding Lean (“The Toyota Way”, “Kata”, “The Machine that Changed the World”, “Principles of Mass and Flow Production” as well as books written by Womack and Jones, Emiliani, Joiner, …) even in the work I’m doing, I have never seen any mention of using Six Sigma or other programs similiar to it. It has always been my understanding there is no need for it.

  7. Lean is a management system, while Six Sigma is a quality improvement tool useful only under specific circumstances. The two are not comparable. Lean people would not be interested in Six Sigma because it requires specialists, and continuous improvement will be paced by the capacity of the specialists. In Lean, you want everyone to be able to identify a problem, determine its root causes, and identify and implement practical countermeasures. Lean and Six Sigma do not belong together. Also, most managers mess up Lean without Six Sigma, so why make Lean more complicated by adding Six Sigma?

  8. I am bewildered that this platform is being used to discuss the differences of Lean and Six Sigma. Let’s face it on this blog your preaching to the choir!

    Why instead of beating up the messenger, we try to say how Lean is correct for government. The mixing of the methodologies past the comparison of the 7 QC tools most of us agree is fundamentally wrong. I do it all the time because the majority of my clients view it from the LSS perspective and I “respect their right” to do that. I disagree but there may be a Black Swan in waiting.

    George’s point of of putting a continuous improvement methodology into government has merit. Raising Taxes and increasing taxes has not worked…there is something fundamentally wrong with the system. Improving the system is not novel but it is a start.

    What’s your views on that?

    • Rather than aiming for a high minded “lean culture” throughout government, I’d be happy to see these ideas and principles applied in transactional process and the “bureaucracy” – government operations more so than applying lean to law making.

      For example, why does it take so long to get a passport made or updated? I would assume and guess that this is a huge batch-and-queue process. How is that work structured and organized? How is that work managed?


  9. Hi Mark-

    Many of the earlier comments accurately portray my “Lean purist” leanings regarding much of what Mr. George has to say, but all told, I’m glad he’s at least trying to get the topic into the national discourse.

    That said, I was curious why you let some of his statements just fly by without yourself addressing them in the podcast. You pointed out above in this talkback section that Toyota has no need for Six Sigma, and I’m sure you’re aware that they seem to have a functioning management system without Six Sigma, but when Mr. George said that he turned to Six Sigma because Lean was too limited (I’m paraphrasing, as it’s been a few hours since I listened to the podcast), you didn’t respond. There were some other items that stuck out for me, like his quoted percentage of waste in various sectors.

    I guess the real question I’m struggling with is: what is your purpose in doing the podcast? Is it just to provide a soapbox for Lean celebrities, or are you approaching it with any sort of agenda? If it’s only the former, then your lack-of-responses/criticism seems to make sense (and that is your prerogative, I guess). But from what you’ve written and ‘casted, I suspect otherwise. Or perhaps it’s an attempt to be gracious and not be rude to your guests?

    In short, general curiosity on my part. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


    • Hi Shmuel-

      As you’re probably aware, Six Sigma is not a part of my professional practice and it’s not really a topic I cover on my blog. The only reason I reached out to interview Mike George was because of my interest in the Strong America Now initiative.

      I’m not one for “gotcha” interviews and, honestly, I can’t recall too many times in my 125 podcasts when I had to disagree or take issue with my guests. So I struggled a bit about how to approach this if Mr. George said things I disagreed with.

      I guess I fell back on trying to be gracious to a guest who took time out of his busy schedule to appear on the podcast. I got feedback from one listener who said my decision to interview him was a tacit endorsement of everything he said (and has done in the past), and I don’t think that’s true. I know he’s a controversial figure to some, but my intent wasn’t just to tee him up for criticism.

      My agenda is to promote Lean and bring thoughtful guests to my listeners. So choosing who I interview is a way of moving that agenda forward.

      Right or wrong, I figured I would let him have his say and then we could discuss it here the blog.

      I’ll listen to the podcast again and think about what I might have done differently in terms of follow up questions or challenging him on things.


      • OK, so in listening to the podcast again, my thoughts and reflections:

        Mike said early on in his first comments that he respected and studied Toyota and Lean, then “realized that Six Sigma had the management structure” of black belts, etc. that “lean didn’t really address explicitly.” That was a bit of a “hmmmm” moment because not everybody who has studied Toyota deeply has come to the conclusion of “man, we need Six Sigma or this stuff won’t work.”

        I could have challenged him on that point. Yes, Toyota doesn’t have “belts” but I believe that “belts” aren’t completely necessary (as a formal role)… more importantly, I think Lean has quite a lot of management structure and approach that’s helpful.

        So Mike’s comment sounds like he’s maybe pooh poohing Lean as some process improvement tools. But then again, if his view is that you DO need green belts and black belts, he was factually correct that Toyota/Lean doesn’t have that view.

        But it was early in the interview and he’s a “guest” – but I could have waiting and asked a more challenging follow up on that point, perhaps.

        When I asked my first follow up question (being mindful of about a 15 minute time limit), I tried steering the discussion back to the planned topic of Strong America Now.

        But he brought the topic back to why Lean had risen up through manufacturing… so I could have used that as a chance to continue talking Lean, asking a challenging followup.

        I go into these interviews with a planned set of questions – but expecting to have to react and ask good follow ups. I *was* prepared to question/challenge him if he said something like “lean is for speed, six sigma is for quality.” But he didn’t say that.

        So, I could have challenged him, but I wasn’t there to pick a fight… and after reviewing the podcast again, I’m not going to beat myself up for not pushing harder.

  10. From 2 August blog post: “Much of the discussion, maybe unfortunately, was focused on Mr. George and his approach (‘Lean Six Sigma’) rather than the potential for using Lean to improve the public sector.”

    I think this IS the right discussion to have because it shows we still have far to go to improve people’s understanding of Lean management. This isn’t “aiming for a high minded ‘lean culture’ throughout government,” it’s practical, even if limited only to government operations.

    Public sector workers will not embrace continuous improvement in government services if they are marginalized (already happening). Ignoring the “Respect for People” principle will result in dis-continuous improvement – one-time gains, which is not what Lean management seeks to achieve… and not what we advocate.

    There is little potential for improving the public sector (in fact vs. in appearance) if we do not apply our extremely valuable lessons-learned from the private sector – for the last 100+ years.

    • Bob, maybe “high minded” was a bad choice of words on my part. I meant really about aiming high for an ideal state of a Lean culture. But I doubt that’s possible in political settings, so I’d be happy with more efficient government operations, as you described it.

  11. Yes Mark, don’t beat yourself up over it.

    The perfect is the enemy of the good, and Lean as preached is good while ‘perfect’ lean, is sometimes hard to replicate outside Toyota or outside contexts of people who understand how Toyota works.

    I sometimes wonder too, if the name Lean is at fault. Womack and friends claim they didn’t want to keep calling it Toyota Production System but if they had called it that, we would always know whether the thing accorded with TPS or not, because we could always check it against a known standard.

    Rather than complain about consultants, who often just package Lean up and then sell it dumbed down, ask about the organizations who are prepared to buy it – managements who really don’t want to change themselves and therefore think a consultant will bring them Lean out of the box and it will just work.

    And as for the anti-Six Sigma posts, this is getting tiring. Toyota doesn’t have Six Sigma, but it has statistical process control, which Six Sigma is just a systematized, brand name for.

    And coming from an organization where statistical process control would be COMPLETELY ABSENT if it didn’t come with a brand name and a system, like Six Sigma, I can see the benefit.

    Also adding Lean to Six Sigma takes some of the waste and crap off Six Sigma. Some Six Sigma courses had people doing 150+page project briefs when these were waste. An A3 often does the same trick.

    Finally, can’t get over the people complaining about belts yet using terms like Sensei or dropping names of famous Lean identities – it is the same fetish, differently applied.

    • Thanks, Richard. I think Six Sigma goes way beyond just giving a brand name for SPC. There’s the whole bureaucracy and hierarchy of “belts” and some of the waste that comes with that over processing and overproduction – training that never gets used, certification processes that force you to use certain tools instead of just quickly and effectively solving the problem, at hand, etc. OK, I sound like a Six Sigma basher, but my point is that if Six Sigma were just a brand name for SPC, fewer of us would take issue with it.

      • So Mark, if we removed the ‘wasteful’ elements of Six Sigma how would we then integrate them into Lean (where they are missing)? I agree that 100 page project briefs for Six Sigma can be wasteful if the problem does not require them.

        I believe that’s what Lean Six Sigma is – a “Lean” Six Sigma without the waste.

        At my local Toyota plant at Altona, I’ve seen them using control charting correctly, but that’s an environment full of engineers and without engineers on site, you cannot assume statistical process control knowledge.

        Lean does NOT have any statistical process control as standard learning, and in organizations like mine it doesn’t exist without Six Sigma. (and your’s I suspect: I worked for years in hospitals, even a large Melbourne one where a University clinical department taught biostatistics and epidemiology on site, but ask your average doctor about the distribution of the standard error they would stare blankly at you.)

        Also you haven’t acknowledged my point that calling Lean practitioners Sensei is the same fetish as calling Six Sigma people Black Belts.

        There is a bigger problem, though, of credentialing, which you will know from hospital work. If you want to know your newly hired surgeon can do heart work, or your nurse is qualified in intensive care, do you also want to know your lean practitioner has accredited experience and knowledge?

        I’m more skeptical of university degrees in lean than I am of belts; belts imply 5-10 days of teaching and some project work, this is more ‘right-sized’ to the problems at hand than degrees.

        • Richard – Sorry I didn’t acknowledge your comment about fetishization of Lean and “senseis.” I wrongfully assumed my stance was known, but see this post:


          When I worked at GM, they had SPC before anything TPS. And they weren’t doing Six Sigma. I include some basic SPC in my Lean Hospitals book. I disagree that it is exclusively the Six Sigma domain. Toyota uses TPS plus the 7 basic QI tools… and so do some hospitals. That’s really all you need to incorporate from Six Sigma. I would be VERY opposed to training a ton of belts if I were in a position to make that decision at a hospital. The methodology is overkill for most of the problems that face hospitals today.

          It always seems to me that “Lean Six Sigma” is merely short hand for “Lean and Six Sigma.” To me, that’s the proper way to say it, as Lean and Six Sigma are two different methodologies. Saying LSS or “Lean Sigma” doesn’t make it a unified approach.

          I’d hire a lean practitioner with 10 years at Toyota or 10 years of other good experience over some newbie with a certificate. The analogy to heart surgeons and nursing isn’t a good one, since that’s a profession with a known and validated way of letting people into that fold. Lean, not so much. And, increasingly, a black belt doesn’t mean much if it was some bullshit online only program without a project or mentoring.

  12. Posted by Steve Bonacorsi on a different post:

    Mr. Gingrich supports Lean Six Sigma in helping to remove waste, while at the same time, increasing value in the US Government. He has agreed to an Online and Teleconference call Wednesday August 17th at 8:15pm Eastern Standard Time. This will be hosted by the the Process Excellence Network http://bit.ly/n4hBwu and on the Lean Six Sigma group http://www.linkedin.com/groups?mostPopular=&gid=37987. We will be able to have up to 1,000 Lean Six Sigma members join the call and discussion.

    Please list as a comment 2 things
    1. How can Lean Six Sigma remove Waste and/or Add value to the US Government
    2. Your question to Mr. Newt Gingrich

    * Note: The Lean Six Sigma nor Process Excellence Network group does not endorse any 1 candidate but do support candidates leveraging Lean Six Sigma as part of their solutions and approach.

    When: Wednesday August 17th Lean Six Sigma call at 8:15pm ET:

    Where: register for free at http://www.newt.org/leansixcall

  13. 1. Finding out what customers/taxpayers really want from their government

    2. How will Mr Gingrich involve frontline staff in determining waste and identifying improvements?

  14. Mark, Thank you so much for making this Podcast. It is indeed fascinating. 10 years after your talk with Michael George Waste and inefficiency in Government organizations ( the European Union for example) is still huge… and resistance to change, is sill as strong as ever. Michael George had / has the right ideas and his efforts to change ‘hearts and minds’ are commendable. I applaud him for standing up and taking on such a large and complex challenge! As a community of professionals we should be recognise that there is far more positive, good and correct in what Michael George does/did and says/said, than is incorrect or wrong. The alternative direction and approach is so much worse ! I agree with you that as a Lean / Six Sigma community we spend too much time and energy arguing about the 10% to 20% that we do not agree with, rather than supporting, promoting and evangelizing about the 80% we do agree with. As a community we should be supporting evangelist such as Michael George ( and you ….and Prof Bob Emiliani ) What you all bring to the table in terms of ideas, principle and plans are far, far, far superior than anything being offered by people and groups who have no knowledge, understanding or experience of the power of Lean and/or Six Sigma. Time to come together and for the Lean and Six Sigma community to take on the common ‘enemy’ ( waste and ignorance in many organisations ). Thank you Mark Graban….and thank you Michael George for talking a lot of sense !


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