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Doug Ford, the mayor's brother and adviser, is wild about Six Sigma, the technique used by many big companies to streamline business processes. He thinks that governments like Toronto's can use it to cut waste.

He isn't the only one. Six Sigma is the flavour of the month for conservative politicians in the United States. Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor now running for the Republican presidential nomination, employed the system in his state and thinks it could help federal agencies save up to 20 per cent on the cost of some programs. "I couldn't be more excited about it," he told supporters just after kicking off his campaign. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another Republican hopeful, has signed a pledge to use Six Sigma to cut government waste and eliminate the enormous U.S. budget deficit.

Six Sigma was born at Motorola Inc. when the U.S. telecommunications company was struggling against foreign competitors in the 1980s. Engineer Bill Smith came up with the "sigma" title, after a measure of mathematical variation, to identify the high quality the company was aiming for. One sigma represents seven defects in every 10 attempts to produce a product or provide a service, while six sigma represents fewer than 3.4 defects per million.

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Many companies swear by the system. Legendary General Electric chief executive Jack Welch was an early and zealous convert to Six Sigma's "management by fact," preaching that all business processes can be analyzed, measured and improved. Home Depot used it to make its checkout stations more efficient. Indian IT billionaire Azim Premji says it helped make his company, Wipro, more effective and profitable.

Doug Ford himself says he has used a hybrid system, Lean Six Sigma, to great effect at the family firm, Deco Labels and Tags. Now he wants every city department to hire two Six Sigma "black belts," or top-level experts. Mike Del Grande, the city budget chief, recently spent $16 on The Complete Idiot's Guide to Lean Six Sigma, according to recent expense reports.

But can Six Sigma work in government as well as it can in private business? Business consultant Mike George, a Six Sigma booster and founder of the conservative political group Strong America Now, insists it can. He says the U.S. military saved $169-million when a Six Sigma analysis showed carrier pilots could fly fewer practice takeoffs and landings and still be fit for combat. On a smaller scale, Erie County in New York State has used Lean Six Sigma to reduce printing and copying costs, reduce overtime costs at its social services agency and manage its public works vehicles better.

Six Sigma has it critics, too. In the Wall Street Journal last year, U.S. business professor Satya Chakravorty wrote that Six Sigma campaigns often start well, "generating excitement and great progress, but all too often fail to have a lasting impact as participants gradually lose motivation and fall back into old habits."

The Fords are far from the first politicians to promise they would use management techniques from the business world to streamline government. As The New Republic notes in a piece on the Six Sigma fad south of the border, George W. Bush said he would be the "MBA president" and Ronald Reagan boasted of bringing in "more than 1,600 … modern business practices" when he was California's governor.

Rotman School of Management scholar Joseph Milner says that it can be tough using Six Sigma in a unionized government environment "because it asks people to move outside their usual way of getting things done." It might work in Toronto, beginning with small processes like pothole filling, but only if government leaders champion the system as a way of improving life in the city, not just of slashing costs.

Under a mayor who claims the city is shot through with waste and aims to cut hundreds of millions in spending, that is a tall order.

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