Welcome to the twilight zone, where truth is stranger than fiction:
CAMBRIDGE, MA -- Todd Mitchelson, Parish Minister of the First Church in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist, announced today the congregation's groundbreaking initiative, "Six Sigma Church."
"We are a healthy and growing congregation," said Mitchelson, whose 350-year-old church has ridden a recent wave of activism to achieve levels of membership not seen since the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson. "But we don't intend to rest on our laurels. Six Sigma Church will align our entire organization with the needs of our customers."
Developed at Motorola in the 80s, popularized by super-CEO Jack Welch in the 90s, and practiced by countless other corporations since then, Six Sigma is a comprehensive system to improve the quality of organizational processes. Traditionally perceived as the domain of Fortune 500 manufacturing firms, Six Sigma has never been practiced by a local church, until now.
Mitchelson elaborated with a reference to 9/11, "We can't always count on world events to bring new customers to our doorstep. Now when we are riding high is the ideal time to throw out our assumptions and ask, 'How can we do even better?' Our customers demand the best worship experience possible. That's our core business, and we intend to remain a leader and innovator in the worship industry. That's why we are committed to Six Sigma Church."
Harry Snyder, the Six Sigma expert tapped by Mitchelson to lead Six Sigma Church, explained just how Six Sigma works: "Six Sigma is a totally unique and revolutionary system that will achieve not 10% gains, not 20% gains, but incredible breakthrough gains for First Church, Cambridge! Six Sigma makes every other system you've heard about obsolete! When you are ready to take your church to the next level, then you are ready for my Six Sigma Transformational Workshop! Hallelujah!"
Though I did fudge a few names and liberally paraphrase a couple quotes, the above news item is in fact what is happening in my parts these days. Believe it or not.
Some of you may be asking, what is Six Sigma? And I can answer: Good question! But more specifically, I can say: Be careful who you ask. There are characters out there who will brainwash you with enthusiastic gobbledy-gook. Indeed, they have written entire books in such fashion.
For a sensible explanation of Six Sigma, I recommend The Six Sigma Way: How GE, Motorola, and Other Top Companies are Honing Their Performance, by Peter S. Pande, Robert P. Neuman, and Roland R. Cavanagh.
Pande et. al. start with a great executive summary of Six Sigma which culminates with their five-step "Ideal Six Sigma Roadmap":
1. Identify core processes and key customers;
2. Define customer requirements;
3. Measure current performance;
4. Prioritize, analyze, and implement improvements; and
5. Expand and integrate the Six Sigma system.
Very solid stuff. But it makes me wonder what, precisely, is the revolutionary part. Maybe it's the origin of the name itself? "Six Sigma" describes any process which successfully meets all customer requirements 999,997 times out of 1,000,000. A great goal, but it sounds expensive, right? Actually, proponents of Six Sigma argue that done correctly, meeting that level of quality will dramatically increase profits by transforming the core culture of the organization. If that sounds like too much of a stretch, you could still launch your organization on a Five Sigma initiative (999,800 right out of 1,000,000) and do well. But you'd miss out on the catchy alliteration.
Now that we've steered clear of the overly evangelistic system-mongers (who are by no means exclusive to Six Sigma), how does the church come into the story?
It turns out that my very own First Parish Church, Cambridge, has appointed a committee to re-engage the congregation in every aspect of worship. (And before I go any farther, let me clarify that our church is in no way evangelical, nor strictly speaking Christian. Actually, we're not even theistic when you really come down to it. The point is, I have no religious message to preach here. By now you may be asking, "What then is worship?" But I digress. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.) How could I say no to such an invitation?
And so I, your faithful blogger, am chairing the committee responsible for re-engaging our entire congregation in the core "business" of our church. We are still early in our initiative, but I have already learned a lot. Foremost, I have grown to appreciate my colleagues' refined sense of organizational process. If I just sit back and keep my mouth shut, my fellow committee members say things like, "First we should ask the congregation how we're doing now. Then we should analyze the feedback, pick the most important issues to tackle first, and set up a process to address these on an ongoing basis. As we progress we can get more feedback and bring new issues into the process." I swear none of them has heard of Six Sigma, BPR, TQM, or any other "revolutionary system."
But we do have one advantage in our "Six Sigma" effort over other churches. As my friend Chris Bell put it so well in another committee meeting: "We're Unitarians. Process is all we have."
Stay tuned to this site for occasional updates on "Six Sigma Church."