As I’m reading the newspaper, I notice two articles from different countries, Australia and China, both about eliminating plastic bag usage in retail outlets by the end of 2008. The Australian article focused on the benefits and did provide a few statistics, such as the number of bags used annually, estimated % decrease of landfill occupancy, etc. When asked if the government had looked into any alternatives to improve the environment, such as adding a bag tax to reduce consumption, the response was along the lines of “no, because those ideas won’t work.”

You can imagine what has happened since this announcement has been made. Customers are beginning to hoard plastic bags. Retailers are scratching their heads for alternatives (and contemplating additional costs associated with those alternatives). Basically complete micro-chaos has erupted because of a politician’s quick rush to judgment without a plan.

If there is one area in society that definitely needs an injection of Six Sigma, it’s politics. Just like the working world of business, people want a silver bullet quick fix that sounds good and will make people feel good. Politicians often open their mouths without performing due diligence and as a result only partially address an issue.

Let’s look at the situation above to determine what went wrong from a Six Sigma perspective. The first step is to Define the problem.“Plastic bags are bad” just doesn’t cut it. A more plausible definition would be something along the lines of “Country X uses Y plastic bags a year. By reducing or eliminating the number of plastic bags used, environmental problems x,y, and z will be improved.”

Also, adding a scope would be nice. Are we looking at a viable alternative for plastic bags or do we want to reduce all forms of bag consumption? Do we want to look at non-recyclable plastic bags or will all plastics be considered?

Next, the problem must be Measured. The Australians have made a good start by citing bag consumption and environmental statistics, however quite a bit of information is missing from this phase. What are the environmental repercussions from using an alternative such as a paper bag, cloth bag, plastic crate, etc.?

Measuring all encompassing data is essential for a successful Analyse phase, something the politicians have definitely left out. What does the data tell us? The answers should serve as the foundation for the Improve phase. In the article, the improvement plan is “to eliminate plastic bags by the end of 2008,” however no plan has been drafted on how to achieve this. Had the problem been more clearly defined and scoped, far greater leverage would have existed for improvement ideas. For example, if the word eliminate was replaced by the word reduce; I believe the target would be more realistic.

If your project doesn’t have an improvement plan other than a government ultimatum, it’s going to be really difficult to get your problem under Control and managed. Will shopkeepers be fined for using plastic bags? Will retailers be able to meet the demands of the government by the end of the year? Will cargo ships be searched and bags quarantined? These questions may seem far fetched, however they prove a point – initiatives, even those backed by the government, are more likely to fail when not thought through.

The most concerning flaw I found with government solutions to plastic bag consumption is that often it does not take into account the voice of the customer. While I believe most people are concerned to a degree about the environment, not having a plan to give customers viable options in a lieu of a plastic bag infringes on their freedom of choice. The “paper or plastic” question is virtually unheard of in Australia, even though paper bags are recyclable and can emit less greenhouse gasses when being produced. As a consumer, I would gladly pay a small bag tax to reduce usage, however the governments in question do not give me that option because “those ideas won’t work.” I would equate this to making project decision in the corporate world without including all key stakeholders in the department… and we know how that generally turns out.

In summary, if government leaders were to incorporate the Six Sigma methodology into decision making, key initiatives would be better defined, all relevant data would be analysed, and implementation of change would have less unanswered questions because the voice of the customer would be listened to.

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