ERMB‘s recent article on two-sigma solutions deserves a look, as well as a short discussion the whole “sigma” model generally.
Sigma, from a symbol for standard deviation, is a way of talking about variability. In business speak, low variability is high quality and high variablility is low quality. Therefore, when someone talks about a six sigma solution, they want to see something with that doesn’t change much from one time or place to another. Likewise, when someone speaks about a two sigma solution, they are saying that it is ok if there’s more chaos in the system.
Six sigma, like the zip code, is a way to copeting with the dumbing down of available labor. Or, put more politely, a way of surviving as a business in spite of the ever increasing cost of workers. As real incomes have skyrocketed around the world in the past few centuries — now surpassing the real income of cavemen for the first time in 10,000 years — it’s harder and harder to find good workers. Once upon a time, you could simply fire a farmhand, leading to the starvation of his family and his extinction from the gene pool. Now workers not only get a 2,000 calorie diet, they get health care, vacations, and even internet for use during breaks (sometimes).
By reducing the worker’s freedom of action, six sigma gets around pushy know-it-all workers by letting them be replaced by know-it-less workers. This can be done directly, through scientific management, or indirectly, like when the zip code ended the need of postmaster’s to memorize complicated train schedules.
While “six sigma” is sometimes used as a synonym for “high quality,” this is only true in the businespeak meaning of “quality” as “lack of variation.” Through much of the Gap, intelligences are far, far below globalized levels, and six-sigma solutions will be vital to many mission-critical operations. (The alternative is trusting the locals!) On the other hand, many things are not missino critical, and it will be wise to allow “two sigma” solutions (loyalty militias instead of national security courts, etc.) because getting the job done at all is more important than assuring it is done in a hygenic, globalized, or even humane manner.
In shrinking the gap, the focus is not on quality-as-variability but quality-as-progress.