Six Sigma
Last Word


Performance Improvement
H. James Harrington

The Executive Branch of Quality

The government's quality standard needs a strong reevaluation.

I love the good ol' U.S.A. It's the greatest country in the world, but it has a long way to go to be as good as it could be. On a scale of 0-100, with 100 being the very best, I rate it a 75, with the next best country a 70.

 The following is the improvement scorecard for various U.S. sectors, based upon the last 10 years of performance:

  Agriculture: A+

  Manufacturing: A

  Service: B-

  Health care: C-

  Government: D

  Public education: F


 The below-average grades go to health care, government and education. In my July 1999 column, I expressed my concern with our education system, which is overpriced and underachieving, so I won't address it again now. I only want to reiterate that private school systems are proving to be of much more value, producing better results at lower costs.

 Government quality scores second-lowest. When President Reagan was in office, he issued an executive order requiring a 20-percent improvement in productivity, without decreasing quality, for all federal government departments. It was a good start, but unfortunately the departments weren't held accountable and, as a result, the required productivity improvements didn't occur. We should all know that quality must start at the top, and as such, the president must lead the quality improvement activity for the U.S. government.

 In the early 1990s, we had a Federal Quality Institute; today it's gone. I guess it disappeared because it was no longer needed, or maybe because our federal government didn't believe it was worth the effort to improve.

 I was encouraged when Vice President Al Gore was assigned to head the "Reinventing Government" effort. This was supposed to be a major breakthrough in government processes to increase levels of customer satisfaction at reduced taxpayer cost. What happened to it? I met with the person assigned to lead the breakthrough approach for the Department of Defense procurement. She had a four-year appointment to do it, and she had the answer before any of the processes were flowcharted. The answer was simply to buy commercial products--not a revolutionary solution.

 I've watched Congress in session--what an opportunity for process redesign. I estimate that we could eliminate half of our senators (just joking). In all seriousness, it wouldn't be hard to halve their staffs. It's embarrassing to see Congress in session with only five or six representatives in attendance during a report reading. We need to question the discipline of our elected officers when the typical Senate one-hour adjournment extends to two or three hours because the senators can't commit to reconvening on time. We need to question the integrity of our elected officers when they vote along party lines so much of the time.

 I was pleased when the "Contract with America" was prepared and our elected officers offered a yardstick by which to measure their efforts and report their accomplishments to their constituents.

Quality of commitment, measurement and feedback is a cornerstone of quality programs. There has been some government quality improvement, but not nearly enough. In the latest customer satisfaction survey, federal, state and local government agencies were among the five lowest-rated organizations. The number of days the average American needs to work to pay his or her taxes is greater today than it was 10 years ago. Yes, life is better today for me, but it's not because of President Clinton's actions; it's because I work 72-hour weeks.

 We're all getting less and paying more for government activities. I don't blame our government workers; I blame our government leaders. Management isn't providing employees with the processes needed to produce quality results, nor has it tied employees' salaries to how well they're serving their customers. It was a good start when the government started requiring every federal organization to develop a business plan, but it was a baby step. We need to take a giant step forward--a breakthrough.

 It's time for a revolution. Not a civil revolution, but a revolution in the processes our government uses, focusing on designing them for ease of use and service to the public. We need one-stop shopping for all of the government's services, not a maze that challenges even the most persistent among us. We need to rethink the lobbying business: I know no one is lobbying for me, do you believe anyone's lobbying for you? Our leaders have promised to implement an all-out quality improvement effort on government services, but we've had enough promises. It's time for real action that can be measured in customer satisfaction surveys. It's time to start at the top by assigning a Secretary of Governmental Quality, who reports directly to the president, and another person, who reports to the vice president, to be responsible for redesigning the processes in Congress and the Senate. In addition, these individuals should establish an effective and efficient measurement system for each representative or senator, and the results should be reported back to the electorate. Wouldn't it be great to have a government whose customer satisfaction level was equal to that of used car salespeople?


About the author

 H. James Harrington is COO of Systemcorp, an Internet-software development company. He has more than 45 years of experience as a quality professional and is the author of 20 books. E-mail Harrington at jharrington@qualitydigest.com . Visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com .


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