Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E061: Lean Journey of Employee Gardens for Nonprofits

26 min read

In this podcast, I share a presentation given by Joe Hnat from Collins Aerospace (formerly Rockwell Collins) at last year’s IISE Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida on May 19, 2019.

He worked with his facility using lean principles and methods to find space for an employee garden on campus and make it successful. The fruits and vegetables grown in the garden by employee volunteers are donated to a local nonprofit, who use the food to feed those in need from their kitchen.

He shares additional details about his experiences in the book, “Lean Six Sigma for Good: Lessons from the Gemba (Volume 1).”

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Are you interested in learning more about Lean and Six Sigma?

Or are you looking to expand your existing skills to apply them to environmental impacts at your work or local community?

Check out our FREE online course called “Lean Six Sigma and the Environment”

We’ll teach you about the lean forms of waste and WASTE walks (which stands for Water, Air Emissions, Solid Waste, Toxins and Energy)

We’ll go over examples of reducing electricity and solid waste, teach you how to involve your facilities and ES&H personnel. We’ll provide guidance on how to green your 5S and lean kaizen events, and many other tools specific to find environmental opportunities


Joe (J):  Hi, everyone. My name’s Joe Hnat, I’m a program manager at Collins Aerospace. We reside in Melbourne Florida, which is about an hour away from here. I’m going to take you through a little bit of our Lean journey. I partnered with a nonprofit and I’ll show you a lot of things that we were able to do with them, give you a ton of lessons learned that can be applied. I heard, in the last session, lots of lessons learned that you guys were sharing about how to improve what you’re doing volunteer hours. I did bring some samples, so these plates, this actually came right from the garden on Saturday. I harvest these various things. If you can name every item on this plate, you can take the plate home.

Male Speaker (MS):  Is there weed?

J:  There is no weed. It’s not legal in Florida yet. In Oregon, we were just talking about Oregon. But there’s a lot of good stuff on here. This is really what I enjoy. We’re able to actually produce vegetables from mostly seeds and then provide them to a nonprofit that really needs them, and I’ll tell you little bit more about it. So I’ll pass these around and you can take a gander at what’s there. Some of them smell really good. You can pick them up and get a feel for it. And some of them are really spicy, so be careful when you take a bite.

I’ll give you a little bit of preface to this. Before I got involved with this, I had no gardening experience in Florida. Not at all. I had a previous garden. I lived in Portland, Oregon a little bit less than two years and I got a chance to garden out there, which is pretty unbelievable because the soil is so great out there, and then when I was growing up with my dad. My dad was a big gardener and he did his favorite vegetables, Brussels sprouts.

I am active in the community. When I came to Melbourne, I spent a lot of time doing different things, so I’ve coached basketball for 10 years, I was involved with a lot of the nonprofits. The big one you guys were talking about, Habitat for Humanity, I did that. I took groups of employees from our work and we built houses, so that was a lot of fun. I have an engineering background. My simple definition is and I’m a problem solver. And so you get tasked to go into a nonprofit which needs a lot of support and go help them and so what you’re going to see is some of those things.

For the workshop objectives, I’m going to share my experience, give you a little bit about Lean and the nonprofit itself. I’m going to present to you what I came up with was our standard work for doing this for another corporate garden and that’s important because you can pretty much be ad hoc doing this all the time, but you really need a regimen of what you’re going to do. What are the things you’re going to do to make sure you accomplish this for another corporate garden so they’re successful and then we can built it up in the community? And the last thing is getting you excited. The big thing for me is I always tell everybody “go dig”. That’s my saying from day one. I want people to get out and get their hands dirty. That’s a picture of my daughter. She was a big help when we first started the garden, but now she’s preteen and she doesn’t get our hands dirty so right now, she did a good job.

So what’s Lean to me? these definitions, you guys have probably all heard them. How many engineers are in this room right now? I think mostly everybody is probably an engineer in here and you probably all heard of Lean. The big one for me, what was trained in my brain was elimination of waste, Muda. You’ve heard that term, Muda, Muda, Muda, and so that was the big thing. Striving for perfection, you’ve heard that before, and then value-added versus non-value-added. The last one is actually really important, customer focus. If you went into a nonprofit and you just wanted to apply your techniques and improve something, you may miss the whole boat if you’re not focused on the customer and I’ll share an example of where we kind of missed the boat initially and then we got our act together.

Techniques that I’ve used, these are things that we were trained at Collins. Value stream mapping, a simple technique but gets you a lot of information really quick. It’s where I would start on any project that I would perform. And then standard work involves a lot of different things, visual controls is big, and then if you have a garden, you need some workplace organization because you’ve got a lot of things going on, a lot of tools and so forth. So my challenge to all of you guys is, as I go through this presentation, I want you to think about what you might have observed. What technique and what slide, when did I share that example, so think about those various techniques.

I’m going to share with you this is a deep picture for me. Back in September 2013, this is what I was given. I was given a land that basically was all rocks, pretty much. That boat wasn’t part of the property, but the boat was there. And they basically said, “Hey, Joe, you can have all this land for your garden,” and I said, “Wow.” I mean, it’s literally just a little bit less then what the size of this room is. Can you imagine making a garden out of that? so I got pretty excited. But as soon as we started digging, it was like… It was all rocks, so we had to do a lot of work.

And here we are just a little bit a month ago. We transformed the garden a little bit into what’s called a food forest and so it’s a concept where you put a lot of fruit trees close together and then you do a lot of maintaining and trimming and you get a lot more fruits in one little small area. This soil is months of mulch. There’s probably about six to eight inches of mulch here. We left that sit there for six months. You’ve got to have a lot of patience with gardening, but we let it sit there and by the time we put our plants in, it was like black, so that rock that was underneath was gone. It wasn’t there because we were hitting good soil, and that’s the most important part.

There’s all kinds of plants in here, like we’ve got bananas here, we’ve got Barbados cherries, there’s guava, there’s lychee, there’s passionfruit, there’s Moringa. Anybody heard of Moringa? in Florida now, Moringa grows like crazy, which is unbelievable, and it’s one of the best. You can eat everything off the plant. If you noticed, there was a part of Moringa on there. This was the green bean of a Moringa. If you let this grow more, you’ll eventually get seeds and you can have fun and grow more trees. That’s where we are today and we’re still going. That’s one of the gardens we did, so we started out with two gardens, and I’ll show you that one too.

So I had this, when we were starting this like, you’re all engineers, you’re working in business and I had an idea:  I wanted to start a garden. I’m in Florida, I actually needed help. Florida has a different season than anybody else, so it’s not so nice. My wife was a vegetarian, so by default, she cooked, I was a vegetarian, so it was pretty easy to go after veggies. And then there were homeless folks in the area. They get one meal per day. Most of us probably ate breakfast, probably ate lunch, eventually dinner. We get three meals; they get one meal a day, that’s it. It’s a pretty nice meal, it’s considered a seven-course meal for them, but they only get one meal a day.

Our idea was, hey, how can I produce those fresh veggies for the homeless people and get somebody to sponsor it? that’s the key. So I went to my company and I walked in and I said, “Hey, I want to have land for our garden right on our corporate area.” The answer was “Uh…” I got rejected. I got rejected the very first time. The guy basically, the maintenance manager, said, “Cotton Joe or whatever, you’ve got lots of fun ideas, but we’ll end up doing all the meetings, so forget it. We’re not doing it.”

So I went back on a second proposal, and I was actually on a business trip, and the funniest thing – I’ll never forget this – I don’t typically always pick up a local newspaper. That week, I did. I pick up the paper and there was an article in the newspaper and there’s a guy that says, hey, this guy named Joe, another Joe, started a garden at Rockwell Collins in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa. So I took that paper, I ran down to maintenance, and I threw that on his desk and we got accepted, so that was a big deal to get acceptance. You guys are always going to come up with these ideas, with lots of proposals. If you’re an engineering background, you’re always taking something different. You’ve got to be persistent. In this case, I think I was just lucky that I found an article, that I picked up that paper. I mean, what’s the coincidence that I live in Florida, went to Iowa, opened a newspaper, and saw that article? so pretty neat stuff.

A big part of the Lean journey is the planning. These are the things that I really had to work on. What was the mission statement? what were we going to do, as a team, to make this happen? and again, a lot of the things that you guys do, if don’t have a mission statement, you have no idea where you’re heading, so we had to develop that. I had to organize the club. There’s no way I was going to be doing the garden by myself, that’s not going to happen. And we had to partner with a nonprofit. That became fairly easy after we did some research in the community. There’s material and supplies for a garden and then, lastly, you have to have fun.

I’ve been fortunate. Collins Aerospace actually does a green grant each year and I had to come up with a proposal, a business paper, and timeline of materials and supplies, and I basically said, “I’d like to have $1500 for my garden,” and so far, we’ve gotten it every year. I’ve gotten it now for five years and that makes it easy. You guys, if you’re going to volunteer for Habitat or Restore or something like that, you’re not going to really spend a lot of money out of your pocket, but if you get a company, and it seems a lot of guys might be associated with big companies, that makes it 10 times easier.

That was the initial garden on our corporate campus. We put four planter boxes out there. Again, we really didn’t know what we were doing. It’s staged terribly, it’s in the middle of grass. The other thing that was really bad there was a sprinkler system with reclaimed water. Now, if you know anything about reclaimed water, if it goes on the vegetables, you can’t eat the vegetables because you have to wash the vegetables. So our first attempt at this garden on the corporate campus was a disaster and we really needed to get our act together. So we got back together and we started on a mission statement. Up there on the right-hand side was actually from the spreadsheet that we developed back in September, late 2013. And that’s that, I took a snapshot right from the spreadsheet that we used back then, and we had a pretty simple one – provide fresh produce to those who need it. It was simple.

We had to figure out who’s our customer, who needs support, what do we know about the nonprofit, because that’s important. One thing about coming up with a mission statement, and I see this all the time at work and stuff, somebody calls a meeting. We all get in a room and somebody starts talking and then another person starts talking and you really need to set agendas. This was a very important meeting. We had an agenda, we knew we had to figure out what the mission was, we knew we had to figure out who the customer was, and we just followed it and then it really went pretty simple. I definitely encourage that as you move forward in doing any type of Lean activities with nonprofits.

So we partnered with this nonprofit called Daily Bread Inc. they’re known in Melbourne, Florida. Their vision there is to say everybody has access to food and services so they become self-sufficient. When a person is homeless, there’s a lot of things that they’re going through in their life. Mentally, physically, there’s a lot of things going on, so that’s what their vision is. They do about 225 meals every day, so that’s a good amount of people coming through the cafeteria there. If you want to go check them out, I put the website up there. I imagine these presentations are going to be on your website.

Material and supplies. Brion knows this. At Collins Aerospace, reuse, reduce, recycle, that’s a big thing that’s in our brains and that’s all part of ES&H and it’s also part of 5S workplace. But a lot of these things you see here, these planter boxes all came from our stock room. Every one of our planter boxes, I didn’t pay for anything. I actually went to the stock room, I looked around, and I saw the boxes and I couldn’t believe they actually folded, came out, and were about 4 x 4, and so a nice garden size. All that wood was free, we got rain barrels from a local aloe company, bamboo sticks, trellises. Once you put a word out to employees, we got donations. Compost and kitchen scraps are pretty easy, you need compost.

We got soil from a local company. We do pay for some of the soil, but we do get it sometimes donated for free, and then mulch. There’s a local company here in Florida, and probably all over the nation, called Asplundth, and if you tell them what you’re trying to do, you just say, “Hey, I need a dump of mulch,” they come over and dump a truckload of mulch. I’m talking like that’s one dump, so that’s a lot of mulch and so it goes a long way. But you’ve got to have material and supplies.

Here’s our timeline from 2013. This is when we started it and here we are at 2019. From here to when it started, vegetables were pretty much the end of 2014. I kind of say we had a free-for-all gardening. I’ll never forget there was a bunch of employees volunteering and one person said, “Joe, do you mind if I put a pumpkin in the vegetable patch?” and I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, sure, no problem. Go ahead, put a pumpkin.” Well, then several weeks later, we had strands of pumpkin. They go on. They’ll go all the way to the wall there and out the back, and so it took over the entire garden. And so we were like… And pumpkins actually don’t do well in Florida, so it didn’t really work out.

MS:  You planted a what?

J:  We planted it in one planter box and had like different vegetables all over the place and one planter box took over the entire garden and we were like, all right, we really screwed up.

MS:  They just spread on their own?

J:  Oh yeah, they’ll spread. The stems will just go on forever. Yeah, it’s wild. So it was a disaster. I’ll tell you, I would say, in our timeline, when we came up with a consistent vegetable plan, that’s when we finally got our act together. And it really was the time when we went to the nonprofits and said, “Hey, what would you like?” and they said, “Joe, you can provide us salads. That would be great.” So what’s in a salad? pretty easy. You’ve got lettuce, some spinach, you got radishes, onions, tomatoes, these are something that we can actually do for them, so then we finally got our consistent plan going forward.

The other thing that was kind of neat here, we actually did an Internet site for employees is so everything that we did, I took pictures of. So if they volunteered, they were there to check it out. This has been huge for us with getting more people to volunteer, getting ourselves visible with leadership. I would definitely start this maybe even earlier, but it just when that happened. The other neat thing is, and I’ll touch on this and show a couple of things, but you can do a lot of education to people even outside your company. So we brought Girl Scouts in and the Girl Scouts were either coming up I think, in June, they’re going to come again this year, but you can really do a lot of neat things not just with your own company but with people outside in the community.

And then in 2017, I had this idea, hey, we have two gardens feeding this nonprofit. My goal is to get to a total of five, so we started soliciting other corporations, and I’ll show you one of the ones that we got started this year. And actually, it’s right here – Embraer is another company a local area of Melbourne. They actually kicked off their garden and I have a slide on that.

Here’s the community impact. There’s me with a bunch of Girl Scouts. And it’s funny that you ask people, Brion and I were talking about this last night, it’s like a lot of people don’t even know where food comes from. They don’t know how it grows and so if I can impact some of the younger people with a couple of seeds, with some dirt, and some water and they can see the plant grow, they just learned so much in life, and so you can really get this going for other people. And then they were very helpful in making our garden a lot nicer because there were a lot of weeds in there that they helped clean up, so you take advantage of the… There’s no child labor acts I don’t think, for volunteers I don’t think otherwise.

So to give you an idea, we’ve got some more people in the room that came in, but we do have some plates and vegetables up here. These are the type of vegetables that we’ve grown over the years. We’ve got tons of there’s beans and hot cayenne peppers and green peppers, tomatoes, radishes are really easy in Florida in the winter, they grow like crazy. Rhubarb, eggplant, you’ve got some kale, some collards, you got papayas, carrots. This is sweet potatoes, and then broccoli. So anybody that’s going to start guarding in Florida, you’re pretty much going to do sweet potatoes and okra in the summer months and everything else you can grow in the winter and so forth. So I know it’s 5 o’clock too, so I know you guys are getting hungry. This is halfway to the slide package, so I’ll keep going.

These are our lessons learned. Some lessons that, on this journey, that I thought I could share with you guys. Your initial adversary could be your biggest advocate. That maintenance guy that said no to me, he’s been the best person for the garden. He actually has offered landscaping services to help us, he actually built the fence for us, he put a water source in for us, he asked me if I need any mulch, he’s asked me if I want to put some kind of seed plant structure to grow the plants. So even though we had a little rough start, sometimes in Lean, I can tell you this, if you’re in the professional side and you’re working in manufacturing, the biggest guy that’s against it, go ahead and try to figure out how to defeat that person and get them on your side because once the guy who is the biggest obstacle is for Lean, it’s easy for you. You just turn and say, “Hey, Brion, what do you think about Lean?” and, all of a sudden, he’s speaking for you. I don’t even have to sell it anymore. So you’ve got to find out which guy you want to overcome.

The second one, having volunteers. I heard, in the session before, volunteering is the toughest thing. We have 1500 employees at our site. I had this idea I could get 5% of those people. Man, that would be awesome. We can get 5%, 75 people. You think I have 75 people volunteer? No way, José. I have probably, on a regular basis, two to five people that come and help with the garden. I’ve got about 30 people who are on the distribution list that, from time to time, will come, but we’re nowhere near 5% that I thought I could get. So it’s very difficult, whatever you’re doing with nonprofits, to get volunteers.

The gotcha, though, is this, and I challenge everybody here, how many people have volunteered in the past year? So I would ask you to try to double down on that and try to do it twice. Because the biggest thing with volunteering is that once you do it and get your foot in the door, you’ll end up probably doing it again and then, all of a sudden, you’ll bring your friends, you’ll bring your family, and it really makes a difference for the community.

Gardening for fun could lead to serious gardening. I would say I’m addicted. My wife always laughed at me. She says, “Where are you at? are you at the nonprofit gardens or at home?” so I’m definitely there. Producing vegetables will have success and failures. Some years, you’re going to be infested by pests, some years, you’re going to have droughts. You’ve just got to figure out. And then the lesson there, the endless smiles. Here’s one of our volunteers, Suridar, he’s helped us several times with the garden, but every time I go, everybody smiles and that helps.

It’s teamwork. Here’s an example of some of the employees from Collins. This picture right here is from the very for very first early days. This is probably about 2015, and this was just recent, end of 2018, and so it’s really nice. You’ve got to have teamwork. Again, you’re not going to do Lean, you’re not going to do nonprofit support without a team. You guys, you might be a very smart person and you go in there and you think you’re going to change it. You’ve got to build a team, so that’s one of the most important things here to get going.

This is what we came up with. I’ve done two nonprofit gardens with my company and we came up with this in three phases. You got a proposal phase, you’ve got to check into the grants. He emphasis on funding is very important because no one’s going to be able to do this just out of your pockets. You’ve got to have the funding, so that’s important. And then you’ve got to gain acceptance from your company. For me, it was the maintenance manager, that’s who I had to convince and you saw how that went, but you’ve got to find that person in the company that’s going to back you, a sponsor of some sort that’s either going to help you with the money or not. The second is this is probably the biggest phase, this planning phase. You guys know that if you’re doing a project, you really need to spend a lot of time upfront rather than just jumping into it. That’s just 101. But for me, seeking the volunteers, creating that vision statement, we got volunteers outside the company.

Where are you going to put the garden? that’s important. What’s the layout going to look like? can you get items donated? that’s important, and then the water source. People forget about that but that’s an important planning phase. This whole checklist is what I’ve given to Embraer and they’ve just follow right through all the checklist and got their garden started in probably less than a couple of months.

And the last phase, the dig phase, you’ve got to go purchase your materials. One thing to emphasize is documenting what you’re getting, so your purchases, your donations. You’re going to go back later and look at your list and say, “Where did I get all that soil from?” or, “Who gave me that mulch for free?” that’s going to be important. Start building the garden and then wait about two to four months and then harvest vegetables. This is really the standard work for any corporate garden that I’m going to work with going forward. They would get a sheet of this and wed say let’s go. I’ve got another one in process right now that we’re just in the proposal phase and so we’ll see how that goes.

Lots of things to consider. Again, this is more to the garden side of things, in terms of all the different items that you would need in order to make it successful, but these are just some examples.

I came up with a projected timeline because everybody wants to ask, “How long would it take to do this? if you got into it, what would it be?” and you’ve got to have an answer for that. You can’t just say, “You’ll get it in a couple of months,” that’s not going to work; you’ve got to have a timeline. So I came up with just forming a team, selecting it, it’s all part of the standard work, and it’s about a 12-month cycle. So if you’re going to start a corporate garden, just plan it for 12 months.

These are some of the corporate garden lessons. So as we did this, this is what the team has issues. You guys, you saw my lesson in location. When we first did the corporate garden on our campus, it was definitely the wrong place, so we put it in the right place. Don’t fear asking employees or community to donate, that’s important. One of the things that’s difficult getting up in front of people is asking, “Do you have any money to support this or do you have any items to donate?” You’ve just got to go do it and you’d be amazed that people really want to donate. Considering fruit in the garden was one.

Learn from others, and we are fortunate, in Florida, and I know you guys are from other states here, but the University of Florida has a great plan to guide. So I didn’t come up with the seasonal vegetables that we were going to do, I went to my local university and said, “What have you got from my region?” and I got a recipe of what vegetables would work good in our area, pretty simple. But I looked and other states have it. I looked at different states and they’re all out there. We did a T-shirt for gardening members, so if you donated twice, you get a T-shirt. Sometimes that motivates people to do it. Attempt to be organic.

Take time on the design and the layout. When you do your layout, once you have a planter in place with dirt, you’re not going to move it, it’s hard. And then think about your walkways, you’ve got to make it look good. So we’ve done hay, over time, and we’ve done mulch, and so you just got to do something that looks nice.

This was our third garden. This was Embraer in Melbourne, and you can see this was their initial kickoff. They had, gosh, they must’ve had 15, 20 employees come out and in an afternoon and they started installing all the plants, and so this is a big deal. I’m more than halfway, I’ve got three out of five gardens and I needed to get to five. This is actually, this person in red, that’s actually the executive director from Daily Bread, so he actually came to the event to support the local company and he’s going to receive that food from Embraer. Big deal.

Again, references. If you’re going to get into corporate gardening, and anything you do with Lean stuff, you’ve got to do some education. These are the type of things that I go through in order to make a garden successful. We’ve talked about U of F, down here in Florida, there’s a guy named David the Good. He doesn’t give his last name, he’s just David the Good. He’s excellent with Florida gardens. I wouldn’t say you can apply it to maybe Pennsylvania or Oregon, but for Florida, this is the best guy that I’m aware of. Mother Earth News magazine, local nurseries, there’s also this term master gardener, is a certificate program, so they are local guys there that you can get a lot of details. And then hands-on. It’s just you’ve got to get your hands dirty and get out there.

So Lean summary. In the very beginning, we talked about the different techniques, value stream mapping, standard work, visual control, the 5S workplace, customer-focused. These, there’s examples throughout this whole nonprofit partnership where we were able to apply techniques that I typically would use in the manufacturing world, you can apply it to a nonprofit. I didn’t have to do much more different than I normally do. I could apply right to a nonprofit and create a good garden. Brion and I met some folks, and you can apply this to all kinds of things. You can apply it to adult beverage distribution and management, you can use some of these parks that are in the area. Lean can be applied to lots of various organizations. Nonprofits, to me, is a big one because you’re giving back to the community. And these are all the different things that would line up with those techniques.

I put my email up there if you had a big interest in doing corporate gardening and you needed some input and a kick start, you can always email. I’m okay with providing information to you guys. I would kick it off now for questions.

MS:  The main postal distribution center in Manhattan in New York City put a rooftop garden in. Do you know about it?

J:  No, I’ve seen them before. They’re great. You can do a lot of them.

MS:  I used to work there, that’s how I found out.

J:  I’ve always wanted to do that in Florida because there’s lots of roots not being used, even solar panels, but I think you can do a lot of rooftops down in Florida. Other questions coming to your mind?

MS:  Did you have to set up a nonprofit designation for the group because you were doing grant writing and had to keep track of receipts and expenditures? Were you recording that in oversight, third-party, and funding?

J:  Everything I do is documented with purchases, donations, and everything is routed through the nonprofit, and so all the documentation, they have to have. And then if I need to get reimbursed, they…

MS:  Oh, so it’s with your partner?

J:  Yes, they get the money.

MS:  So you didn’t set up your own…?

J:  No, I’m not a nonprofit. Our corporation donated a grant and it went to the nonprofit, and then I get reimbursed from that grant to purchase items and stuff.

MS:  I heard when, you start talking, about like how the families get like one meal a day and then I kind of missed some of the stats after that. What kind of yield did you guys say you were getting for the families in the area or what’s the nutritional stats with kind of the volume and the output that you’re getting?

J:  There’s 225 meals a day going out and we’re nowhere near supporting that many, so a lot of the food actually comes through other channels. For our vegetables, it depends on the month of the year. We’ll get bags of food out of our garden. Like kale this summer, or that would be in the spring, we yielded that thing six times and every time we did that, we’d have two or three bags worth, like brown bags, of kale taken to the nonprofit. So some of your vegetables will yield really well, some you figure out that I probably won’t do that one again. Unfortunately, one thing we’re not doing, I’m not measuring it. So I see a lot of other organizations measure, like they actually weigh the amount of vegetables, and we haven’t done that. Sometimes, I just want to get the food right to them and then go home.

MS:  Makes sense.

J:  All right, so I’m going to transition and thank you very much, you guys.

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