01 January 2008

Via the omnipotent BoingBoing, a vicious indictment of NBC from a former Dateline producer:

Six Sigma–the methodology for the improvement of business processes that strives for 3.4 defects or fewer per million opportunities–was a somewhat mysterious symbol of management authority at every GE division. Six Sigma messages popped up on the screens of computers or in e-mail in-boxes every day. Six Sigma was out there, coming, unstoppable, like a comet or rural electrification. It was going to make everything better, and slowly it would claim employees in glazed-eyed conversions. Suddenly in the office down the hall a coworker would no longer laugh at the same old jokes. A grim smile suggested that he was on the lookout for snarky critics of the company. It was better to talk about the weather.

While Six Sigma’s goal-oriented blather and obsession with measuring everything was jarring, it was also weirdly familiar, inasmuch as it was strikingly reminiscent of my college Maoism I class. Mao seemed to be a good model for Jack Welch and his Six Sigma foot soldiers; Six Sigma’s “Champions” and “Black Belts” were Mao’s “Cadres” and “Squad Leaders.”

Finding such comparisons was how I kept from slipping into a coma during dozens of NBC employee training sessions where we were told not to march in political demonstrations of any kind, not to take gifts from anyone, and not to give gifts to anyone. At mandatory, hours-long “ethics training” meetings we would watch in-house videos that brought all the drama and depth of a driver’s-education film to stories of smiling, swaggering employees (bad) who bought cases of wine for business associates on their expense accounts, while the thoughtful, cautious employees (good) never picked up a check, but volunteered to stay at the Red Roof Inn in pursuit of “shareholder value.”

To me, the term “shareholder value” sounded like Mao’s “right path,” although this was not something I shared at the employee reëducation meetings. As funny as it seemed to me, the idea that GE was a multinational corporate front for Maoism was not a very widespread or popular view around NBC.

Well, Jack Welch was big on China’s bestseller lists a couple of years ago (and is no doubt widely available in major Chinese airports even today). So I daresay its reciprocal. Especially considering China also has dinosaur network news, mind-numbing indoctrination (I’d point out alot of Six Sigma advocates actually call it, without shame, “indoctrination”) and bitter and snarky journalists.

Finally, it’s worth noting that GE was totally cool with Alec Baldwin playing Jack Donaghy, Vice President of NBC’s East Coast Television and Microwave Programming, on 30 Rock, talking about management training and NBC television being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Sheinhardt Wig Company. Just as long as it didn’t show up on NBC Nightly News, though. That sort of talk belongs only in comedy.

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