GovExec.com, a website devoted to covering government policy issues, has a column today on lean six sigma that is quite applicable to the world of election administration.
Six sigma is a management approach that has been around in one form or another since the 1940s, when Edward Deming promoted total quality management. Specifically, six sigma focuses on reducing errors in any given process to almost zero. Lean six sigma focuses on how to reduce waste—especially wasteful processes and procedures in an organization. The article outlines the six sigma principles as:
defining a problem area, mapping out the current process, measuring inputs and outputs, analyzing the impact of particular steps in the process on output, and experimenting with possible solutions, such as eliminating steps and making sure all participants follow the same steps.
Many of the nation’s successful and best-run corporations use six sigma as a bible for their operations. And bible is the correct term; six sigma adherents tend to be almost fanatical in their belief in the process and in the benefits that come from making it the center of a corporation’s culture.
One key to implementing six sigma reforms is to have a strong data collection model for the processes and procedures within the organization. As we saw last month, the EAC’s post-election survey has the potential to be a critical vehicle for measuring the performance of local election officials (LEOs). The survey also brought to the fore the problems inherent to implementing six sigma in many LEOs: many surveys were not complete because LEOs are not capturing the necessary data.
Additionally, the survey also illustrated the need for uniform definitions of various election processes and procedures. Without this uniformity, it is difficult to compare the performance of different LEOs and for LEOs to benchmark their operations against others for the purpose of identifying and implementing best practices.
Six sigma also emphasizes the need for training and for changing the culture of an organization. States and local governments have historically attempted to run elections on the cheap, often against the recommendation of the election officials. Investing in the training of election officials and election judges/poll workers is needed to improve election processes and is a baseline requirement for improving election processes systematically.
Improving the process of elections will also likely require election officials to be effective lobbyists. Nothing can screw up operations in a LEO faster than a poorly considered piece of legislation in the state capitol. LEOs need to be diligent in ensuring that new legislation is designed to mesh with existing operations and that poorly designed laws already on the books are altered so that election law in the states works in harmony.
Underlying six sigma is the idea that errors need to be almost zero in any operation. It is a methodology, a process, for moving an organization to perfection. Given that the public, candidates, and the media already expect perfection in elections, implementing a process that moves in that direction probably makes sense. It certainly cannot hurt.