Lectionary thoughts — Is 99% Good Enough?

images17th Sunday after Pentecost – September 15, 2013

Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-10; I Timothy 1:12-17; & Luke 15:1-10

Is 99% good enough?

Bring home a 99% on your math test and mom & dad will be proud.  Bring home a 99 percentile on the state EOG’s and they’ll be thinking college scholarship.

But a 99% accuracy doesn’t sound so good in many other places.  For instance at 99% accuracy, the United States Postal Service would mishandle 180,000 letters and parcels every HOUR.  Nurses would place 120 babies in the arms of the wrong parents every DAY.  Doctors would do the wrong surgical procedure 5,000 times a WEEK.  And 3 million people in the U.S. would die from food poisoning every YEAR.

Maybe 99% isn’t good enough.

Would you want to drink water that was 99% pure?  Would you want to eat food that was 99% free of e coli?  Would you want to drive on the road if only 99% of the drivers were sober?

A couple of decades ago Motorola developed a manufacturing principle called Six Sigma, which later was popularized by General Electric and became a standard business model.  Six Sigma (sigma being the deviation from a standard) made its goal to be 99.99966% accurate.  Or said another way, it only tolerates 3.4 mistakes per million.

At Six Sigma the USPS only mishandles 7 pieces of mail an hour, instead of 180,000 at 99% accuracy.  That’s a bit more tolerable.  At Six Sigma a plane landing at a major airport falls short of the runway or lands beyond the runway only once every 5 years (At 99%, it would happen twice a day.)  And American doctors would make less than 2 surgical mistakes a week with a Six Sigma standard, rather than 5,000 weekly with a 99% rate.

When Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep, he described a shepherd who lost one out of a hundred sheep.  He left the 99 to look far and wide for the one lost lamb.  When he found it, he brought it back to the 99 and then led them all home.  And when he returned, he asked his friends to join him in celebration, saying, “I found that which I lost.”

Evidently 99% wasn’t good enough for Jesus.  Would Jesus be okay with Six Sigma?  If the shepherd had a million sheep and lost 3.4, would he leave the 999,996.6 to look for the 3.4?  Or would he say, “I can live with that standard deviation.”

While Six Sigma was the darling of the business world in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, critics have taken shots at it the past few years.  Some are saying that it stifles innovation, that it wastes time looking for diminishing returns that could be spend in better income producing ways.

How much time would Jesus’ shepherd spend looking for the 3.4 sheep while ignoring the nearly one million?  How many churches ignore the needs of its most dedicated and committed members because it spends so much energy on trying get its wandering sheep back in the fold.  One criticism with No Child Left Behind is that its focus on the at-risk student has meant that the average student and the accelerated student have not gotten the attention they need.  Maybe the question is not:  Is 99% good enough?  Rather it may be:  Does 99% cost too much?

A friend of mine, who pastors a Unitarian Universalist church, told me that universalists love to quote the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  Philip Gulley & James Mulholland in their book, If Grace is True, speak persuasively for a believe that God will save every person.  One of the biblical texts they point to is the back-to-back parables of the lost sheep and lost coin.

Is 99%, or Six Sigma, good enough?  Does it cost too much?  That may depend on whether you are human or God.

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