Who's the newest Six Sigma expert? Tina Fey. The cultish quality process observed by her employer, NBC Universal, is a predictable source of profitable laughs for her show, 30 Rock and all too real.
Six Sigma has been part of America's corporate culture for a couple decades now; some 80 percent of the 100 largest American companies now use it. But General Electric, NBC's parent, is particularly famous for its Six Sigma fetish. GE does not think it's a laughing matter: "It is not a secret society, a slogan or a cliche," GE's website harrumphs.
What does it means in practice? As Universal found out after GE bought the Hollywood studio, it means lots and lots of meetings. "They are very focused on results," Universal Studios president Ron Meyer said of his new owners to the Times in 2004, after the acquisition. "They don't want surprises."
The idea behind Six Sigma is that every process of a business should be executed with as few errors as possible — the target Six Sigma aims for is 3.4 errors in every 1 million attempts. Now, lots of companies follow silly management philosophies. But Six Sigma takes on religious overtones at G.E. because of its followers fervent belief that it is a universal belief, enforced in every facet of the corporate empire. Even, at one point, according to a (maybe apocryphal) well-told anecdote to comedy writing. Former GE chief executive Jack Welch is said to have once ordered the counting of the number of laughs each episode of NBC's sitcoms.
Eliminating deviations is entirely wrongheaded when the audience wants something fundamentally new. Six Sigma's not a bad practice for industrial manufacturing, but it's not easily applied to fields like information technology, entertainment, R&D, or startups — in other words, everything that increasingly drives what's left of our economy.
Then again, maybe Fey, who bought a copy of Six Sigma for Dummies, is learning something. When 30 Rock launched in 2006, Fey sprinkled episodes with Six Sigma jokes. One of her comedic predecessors, David Letterman, delighted in mocking GE after it bought NBC. Here is a process that can be defined, measured, analyzed, improved and controlled: biting the hand that feeds you. It delivers a laugh every time. The black belts would be proud.