Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E100: How Lean Six Sigma Professionals Can Make The World A Better Place – Orlando March 2023

26 min read

I’m very excited about episode 100, it’s a great milestone in any podcaster’s journey. Thank you for listening! It has taken many years to get to this, but it’s a sustainable pace that has worked for me, and why I feel that I can get to #200 someday.

In this 100th podcast, I share a video of a speech I gave at the Lean Six Sigma World Conference in Orlando on March 16, 2023. Here is the abstract I submitted about the presentation.

Process improvement specialists have had decades of success helping organizations improve their operations using methods like TQM, Lean, Six Sigma, ISO and more. In 2015, the United Nations established the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet…”

There are specific targets for each goal that are meant to be achieved by the year 2030, focusing on topics such as poverty, hunger, healthcare, education, equality, clean air and water, and more. However, the approach being used to address these targets does not leverage these established improvement methods, which may add additional cost or time to achieving these targets.

As an example, I go through an example of sustainable consumption and reducing food waste in the video. How can process improvement practitioners shift our attention from helping for-profit organizations make more profits towards achieving the SDGs targets?

I discuss ways that you can help your organization transition improvement activities towards sustainability by looking at the impact each facility has on the environment and societal issues in the local community. This can be accomplished through targeted projects, events, training and activities with your Facilities, Environment, Safety and Health (ESH), and Corporate Sustainability teams. It can also be accomplished through skills-based volunteer work with local nonprofit organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are working on SDGs.

I share some examples of internal sustainability projects and external volunteering projects using Lean and Six Sigma methods, and hopefully inspire you to pursue opportunities to find rewarding and impactful improvements at work or in your free time.

In summary, here are some ways to help your company be more sustainable using Lean Six Sigma

  • volunteer with nonprofit partners during (paid)
  • invite nonprofit partners into improvement events and training
  • Conduct projects to reduce environmental or social impacts at work

If you cannot get your company support (unpaid), here are some other suggestions:

  • volunteer with nonprofit partners after work
  • coach or mentor nonprofits on your free time
  • coach or mentor students or co-workers that have time to work directly with the nonprofits

You can watch the entire video to view the slides, or go to


If you enjoy this podcast, please follow us on your favorite podcast app. Any ratings you could give us, or shares across social media would be greatly appreciated!


Have you ordered the new book, “Lean Six Sigma for Good: Lessons from the Gemba (Volume 2)?” The book is made up of 8 chapters written about experiences from Lean and Six Sigma practitioners, to give you tips and tricks to help you work with nonprofits in your area. All proceeds donated to charity. You can also order Volume 1 released in 2019.


Marco Luzzatti (ML): So I’d like to welcome Brion Hurley. He’s a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with Business Performance Improvement. As I said, he’s a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and trainer and consultant with Business Performance but also Global Six Sigma USA. He spent 18 years at Rockwell Collins saving millions and leading corporate sustainability. He teaches Lean Six Sigma to help businesses reduce their impact on the environment, and he’s author of the Lean Six Sigma for Good book series, which I think I see a few copies of here. So please join me in welcoming Brion Hurley. He’s going to talk on how could Lean Six Sigma make the world a better place.

Brion (B): How many of you are familiar with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs? We’ve got one, two.

ML: Don’t know them; know of them.

B: Know of them? Okay, that’s good. That’s a start. So these were put together quite a few years ago. They’ve evolved in their names, but going back to what Billy talked about, looking at sustainability, what are some of the categories for how you become more sustainable, and these are global across many different– you know, all countries, and where are we in terms of hunger and poverty and inequalities and peace and gender equality. There’s a lot of gaps in probably where we want to be and where we are today. So there’s 17 different categories that they’ve tried to identify, and these are goals to strive for over the next couple of decades to improve on those and close those gaps. And for us in process improvement, that’s music to our ears to hear about a baseline and a gap in performance.

So let’s take an example. This one is number 12, responsible consumption and production. It sounds like some of the work Interface is doing. If you break this down, there’s a couple of different categories or sublevels below that. We’ve got policy instruments, footprint, material footprint, kind of looking at carbon footprint and things like that. Food loss and food waste falls under consumption too. We lose a lot of food in the processing of growing it and getting it to consumers. International agreements on hazardous-waste, hazardous waste generated per capita. So there’s some metrics in there and some subjective things in here as well. Here’s a few more, recycling rates, publishing of sustainability reports, global citizen education, sustainable development in education, policies, renewable energy. So there’s a lot of different sublevel categories underneath each one of these different goals.

So let’s dig into one specific one, we’ll do 12.3. “by 2030, halve the per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer of levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including postharvest losses,” so they want to cut that in half. That sounds like a project charter that we could start to dig into a little bit. And 12.3.1 is food loss index and food waste index, so they have some way of measuring that food waste and food loss, and the percentage hasn’t really changed in the last six years, 13.3% of the world food is lost along that process from harvesting to transportation to storage and processing. Okay, so that sounds like not a very good signal number, but that’s something that we could look at and break down and try and work on something like that. So once we have an idea what the problems are, then we can start to apply some of our skills to this.

So if you start to look at region and break this down, there’s some data that you can dig into. We see sub-Saharan Africa is at 21.4% food loss whereas Europe and Northern America is 9.9%. So as we stratify our data, we start to see where things are going really well and things are not going so well, and that creates a gap and that’s something we dig into and we brainstorm what’s so different about this? what can we learn from the areas doing better and apply some of the best practices to areas that are struggling? but even within the 9.9%, that’s not a great signal level either. There’s a lot of opportunity within there to dig in deeper and look for ways to make that better. So ultimately, we want those to be near zero so that we aren’t losing a lot of energy, resources, and having all these losses in our processes which create an impact on the environment. If you take food and it gets lost and discarded and rots, and you throw it in the trash and it goes to a landfill and it gets covered up, it generates methane. That methane gets into the atmosphere and that’s a greenhouse gas, and so that has impact on the environment, so if we could bring that down, we could lower the impact of food loss on the environmental impact.

But now we start to use our skill set to break this down and see those gaps, find those successes in the data, and those opportunities where we’re struggling. So as we dig deeper into this, you can start to uncover some of those things, just like we would handle any problem that comes up. We’ve got a baseline and we’ve got a goal to achieve, a 50% reduction. We start to get into the data and we break it down by region. Maybe we break it down by type of food, and maybe we see there’s higher rates for fruits and vegetables versus meat and poultry versus liquids. You can start to dissect it and do Pareto charts and ANOVA analysis and things like that. So that starts to tap into our skill set a bit where we can look at some of these things and say there’s something I can probably do about that. This fits into what we already do, just a different type of problem.

So let’s take that as an example because that’s a pretty daunting challenge, right, to look at global food loss. Now, if you have the opportunity to look at some of that data or work for an organization that is working on that in your country or in the US here, maybe there’s an international nonprofit that you know that is working on this or an NGO, nongovernmental organization. Or maybe there’s the UN itself has some programs that they’re trying to promote to help reduce the food loss. There could be national agencies within each country that are working this issue to say how could we take the food loss in the US and drive that down. There are groups doing some of this work. Or you might have a large corporation with multiple facilities throughout a country, and you could look at your impact, what is the food loss from your organization, and is that something you can tackle and do something about. Do you have data on how much food loss is happening at each of your facilities?

So it can be daunting, but then there are things you could look at, at the country level, or we could go down a little deeper and look at the state level or city level or county and there may be local nonprofits or NGOs doing work at that level. You also have government agencies that may be working on some of these things. Or you have companies within a state or a county that have a large impact. What are they doing internally as part of their social responsibility, as part of their carbon footprint, to reduce that down? so your company might be one of those high-impact organizations in your local area. If you can look at your organization’s data, there may be sustainability reports that do measure some of these things. You might be able to connect up with your facility or catering services and pull data about food loss. Your environment, safety, and health may be tracking some of this and have it categorized out to say we have this much from construction materials and this much from food and this much from metals, and they might have some of the data already. Or you might say all that’s overwhelming too, but maybe I just start at home and say what am I doing to reduce my own food loss? Do I even know how much I’m throwing away? is there something I can do to reduce that down? so deepening on where you want to focus, there are opportunities to dig into something massive like this and say which piece of this can I contribute to or dig into.

So I used to live in Portland, Oregon. There was big goals to try and reduce the amount of trash generated, and they had a lot of initiatives going on, a really strong recycling program, a pretty strong composting program. And so I would say that they’re one of the leaders in the country in terms of trying to do this, but within that city, you still have a lot of opportunity to improve. And so I ended up putting on some workshops around wasted food and showing how Lean Six Sigma tools could be applied to help resolve or to tackle this problem, and basically giving people process mapping techniques, gemba walks, data analysis methods, check sheets, things like that that they could use to come up with solutions to that problem and try to bring some of that skill set to organizations that do not normally have that skill set. And so that’s kind of looking at this and saying, for each of these goals that you could dig into, is there something that you’re interested in.

So if you look at the nonprofit or NGOs space, and this was a very informal study conducted, but Andrew Parris has been doing a lot of work with Lean and Six Sigma, and he works at an NGO. He’s worked at two, actually, and he’s been teaching Lean and Six Sigma methods to organizations to help them improve some of their operations. These operations are getting medical supplies out to people in need or dealing with natural disasters and trying to help local groups recover from that. He did an informal survey and he said 87% of people that he talked to know little or nothing about Lean, 0% knew how to apply Lean, 0% could teach Lean to others, 61% would like to learn more but don’t know where to begin. So it’s intriguing to them, but they don’t really know much about it and that’s not surprising. A lot of us work with companies and you talk to people in the organization you think might have some background or be familiar with it, and I’m sure we’ve all encountered a lot of people who never heard of it, never heard of Lean or some of these methods. Okay, so there’s a lot of opportunity for improvement here, and you could read that article there.

So what might be missing if we’re not applying some of these tools? Well, we might not be defining the problem very well. That’s our first step, and if that’s vague or unclear or not well stated, we all know that that’s going to cause a lot of problems. We’re going to go down the wrong path and we’re not going to see tangible results because we didn’t get the problem statement clarified and understood first. There might not be a focus on going and looking and going to the gemba. So the example I used in Portland, who’s going to the landfill and looking at what’s there? yes, we have reports that people are generating, but who’s out looking and visually seeing this and talking to the people who are handling the food waste and getting their ideas and input?

We’re also not gauging people who are impacted by the problem, so who’s feeling the effects of that and how do we get their voice and bring that into the problem statement or the business case to say this is affecting people, this is getting into our water stream, this is polluting the air, and getting their voice heard. So that might not be happening and that’s something that we try to capture as part of a business case. We’re not necessarily engaging the people doing the work. They may not feel like they have a voice and they have great ideas and we’re not pulling those ideas out of their heads or giving them a platform for them to bring up those ideas and get them heard. It might be politicians or leadership and government agencies or NGOs that are driving these ideas, but we wouldn’t necessarily be able to trace back and say where did you come up with that idea. It might just be top-down driven because they think they have some really good ideas, but what do the people actually doing the work think about that?

It could be scoping or prioritization that might be the challenge. They’re trying to tackle everything, and we know that’s not going to work. We’ve got to segment this and focus on some small area and see some improvement, and then expand it from there. You can’t try to tackle the whole thing, but people want to and we know that’s a recipe for disaster. We’re not maybe pulling the solutions that are tied back to the data or observations. So we’re just coming up with these ideas, but there’s no basis in scientific thinking behind it. And then the idea around experimentation. If you get into government agencies, there’s a lot of fear and risk of trying something and worrying about that it might fail, so they become very conservative and cautious about making changes or trying new programs. And so having the mindset around let’s try something small in a pilot study and see if that works before we roll it out, and knowing it’s okay if it fails. So that could be in the way right now.

Statistical rigor. When we look at data, are we looking at P values and saying is this a statistical difference or is this just noise? that could be a gap when we’re saying something’s real improvement when it’s really not. Or maybe we’re not looking at the data properly and there is improvement and we’re missing it and thinking nothing happened or it didn’t work. We might not actually be getting tangible results, so we when go back and look, all these programs that were rolled out, how did it work? what’s the data saying? we might find out, well, none of this really worked or it didn’t move the needle as much as we thought it would. Okay, that’s part of our feedback loop, right? because we pull the data, we check, and then we make adjustments from there.

Probably a lack of process control. Once we do find some improvements, locking in those changes so that if new leadership comes on board or new politicians come in, that that process still runs and it operates. We’ve embedded visuals and those good process controls in place. Or it just might take us longer to get to the tangible real results because we’re not utilizing the tools, we’re not pulling in the right people at the right time, we’re not looking at the data properly. So we’re trying lots of things, and eventually we get there, but we could’ve shortened that time quite a bit. So these are some things that might be missing without the skill set that we can bring to the table.

So what can we do as practitioners? look at that UN Sustainable Development Goal list and say are any of those important or do they speak to me, and there may be multiple ones that resonate with you. Look around and say are there organizations or agencies that are working on this at the country level, the state level, the local level that I could start to connect or network with or reach out to, and then help that organization or agency in a series of ways. You could volunteer your time, become a coach or work with that nonprofit or NGO. You could apply to work or consult with that organization or agency or get hired into that agency and help teach and drive that culture. You could help your own organization get more involved. Maybe they’ll pay for some of your time to go work with local government or an agency. Maybe that could be part of your development is to do some volunteering. A lot of organizations give out time for that. If you say, “Hey, I wanted to do two days of volunteering with this organization and it’s part of something our company cares about, it’s important to our local community,” a lot of the companies will say let’s make it work. We’ll figure out a way to help you do that, and there’s good PR for them to do that as well. You could set up your own organization or nonprofit or NGO. That’s a little bit more effort. You could run for office and try to influence some of those things as well. That’s a pretty big effort. You could donate money to an organization and say I don’t really have the time, but here’s some money to help support your effort.

So let’s talk through a couple of studies here. This one was what we talked about with Andrew Parris. He worked with World Vision International and they did work in East Africa. He was working on things that tie back to goal number three, good health and well-being. He ended up training 56 Lean Six Sigma Green Belts and 11 Black Belts, trained 450 people in a process excellence energizing training program he put together. They saved $1.5 million in procurement costs and reduced recruitment time from 130 to 41 days. And this organization was providing medical supplies and services to people in need, and by streamlining some of these processes, he was able to get services out to people faster and get supplies to people that need it quicker. So there’s a video here that you can check out that gives a little bit more of an overview of that.

This is a group I worked with. We set up a volunteer group called Lean Portland when I was in Portland, and we reached out to local nonprofits and said I think we have a skill set you might be interested in. We have people that are passionate about sustainability and improving the local community. Would you be interested if we came in and did a little training and consulting for you? and after a few discussions, you start to explain the topic and do a little Lean Six Sigma overview training, they started to get more interest there. So one of the organizations we connected with was called Free Geek. They process a lot of electronic waste, so they get donated TVs and laptops and computers and mobile devices, and instead of throwing those in the landfill where the metals can leak out into the water, they recycle those and get them melted down into new metals or they reuse them and resell them and that funds their efforts. They’re trying to get more technology into the hands of people who can’t afford them, and during the pandemic, they had a huge demand spike.

And so we had started working with them on what we do with these laptops, and one of the things we walked into was 2000 laptops sitting there that they haven’t processed yet. Filled up an entire room. We said, okay, I think we found your bottleneck in this process. So we did some training on value stream mapping and kaizen and 5S and just really helped them walk through and think about what is the goal here. And they had multiple goals, not only just to process the laptops, but also to develop people in their organization with skills to be able to learn how to repair these devices so there’s mentoring and coaching that they’re doing. So it’s not just about production, it’s not just about output; it’s about output plus developing the people and engaging volunteers in the organization. They were able to go from 100 to 300 laptops per month with changes they made to the process, and that helped them refurbish or recycle more e-waste and keep it out of the landfill. So I’ve got a video here that talks about the person we worked with and their experience and the things they implemented in the process. A lot of standard stuff, standard work. They changed the rules, they had dedicated time for their production, and had different time set aside for learning, and they were working on education and the responsible consumption and production. That’s the goals that they tied back to.

A third one is I did a project at work when I worked at Rockwell Collins, and I was trying to figure out how can we use these skills to improve the footprint of the organization. So I conducted a Six Sigma project to help reduce electricity usage, so that ties to goal number seven, affordable and clean energy. The facility was spending $4 million a year on electricity. I don’t think they knew that until we pulled data and set the business case. I think that was a shocker. Maybe one or two people did, but I don’t think they realized the magnitude there. And we had to go collect data, there was no detailed data. It was a huge building, a million square feet, and they said we don’t have a breakdown of that data below just the utility level. You’ve got a bill that says you had this many kilowatt hours, so we basically had no idea where to focus. So we had to manually go around and find the substations and take manual readings on a clipboard and try to piece together where do we even focus around here.

But we found some opportunities there with this data we pulled. You notice that that data drops on weekends, but it doesn’t drop very much. And actually, that surprised everybody that there was a lot of usage of electricity on the weekends when people weren’t there, and that really focused our attention over to the heating and cooling system. Some of our maintenance team said, yeah, it just runs 24/7 like people were there, but there was opportunity we could do a stepback there. So we did a pilot study, it was very successful. We worked through all the risks and concerns that employees might’ve had, and then rolled that out and saved about $300,000, and it costs about $50,000 to change all these air handlers so that they could be adjusted at different times of night. So basically, when it’s at nighttime, you let it get hotter in the summer, and then in the winter, you let it get cooler in the overnight, and that saves energy on both ends. So that’s using this internally.

But what if you don’t have time to volunteer? We’re all pretty busy, right? so can your employer give you time to volunteer? if this is something you’re interested in, they might have a certain amount of time to dedicate for you to do some of this work, and if they’re smart about it, they’ll use that as good PR to say, hey, we’re giving our people at our organization time to work on community-level initiatives. I was fortunate to do a healthcare project as part of my job that was led by the local healthcare community. We did a Six Sigma project because we had made a connection with a local surgeon and he was studying ISO and learning about quality and he came to some of our classes. He said, “I think there’s an opportunity we can get a grant, and if we could get some of your team to come help us, guide us through this process improvement stuff, then I think we can really improve this process that we have of managing patients on anticoagulants.” So that was a pretty large project that I got assigned to work on and it was just added as another project and it had nothing to do the company, so I thought that was pretty cool.

And so we look at who are your strategic partners that you already have in place, and especially those nonprofits. It could be United Way or some group like that. But trying to understand what does this organization already care about, who are they already working with, and then is there opportunity to tie back to something you’re excited about or you care about with those organizations. So can you do it on paid time, that’s the first question, and I think a lot of people will be surprised that there is opportunity there. Sometimes, I’ve heard it’s just you and your manager if you can work out some deal. It doesn’t have to be a corporate policy. It could just be, “Yeah, that’s okay. I’ll cover for you.” It’s good development, it’s good for your resume, and if you’re helping your employees find exciting, passionate things they’re interested in, if you’re smart, then you’ll realize that they’ll probably stick around longer and that’s good for business, so if you can take these back to this is good for business.

There’s also a lot of students that are getting trained on Lean and Six Sigma. I’ve noticed just an increase in the number of people coming out with Yellow Belt or Green Belt training. And so it’s getting embedded into the schools and they want to have something on their resume, so they’re getting these classes. They may be actual courses or they may be modules within a course or they might be actual weekend programs they’re going through, but what they’re missing is real-life examples and they’re looking for ways they can apply what they just learned. So if we can connect up with the local schools and offer up your mentoring and let the students do a lot of the detail work and you coach them through that, that would be a lot less of the time than you going out and doing that directly. So that’s something you can look at to say maybe I can give up a little bit of my time as a coach or mentor for college students looking for real-life experience, and they’ll do a lot of work because they’re getting school credit for it. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in that aspect.

You could also try and motivate some other people, maybe some people who have more time, to connect in there and give them some of these ideas and say I don’t really have the time because I’m too busy right now, but I’ve got some younger people in my group. I think they might be more interested in this. Can I work with them or help them get connected to some of the organizations, and so then you’re giving them new experiences. Because that healthcare example was really eye-opening for me. I had done a lot of aerospace manufacturing examples, and then you get thrown in with nurses and surgeons and doctors. That’s a different experience, but that was great for my development. I could start to see how does this stuff apply to healthcare, and it was good and it felt like rewarding work. So yeah, that could be really powerful for people as they’re going through and improving their skill set.

Also, inviting these nonprofits or government agencies into your training classes, reaching out to say, hey, we’ve got this training. We’ve got two or three extra seats. Are you happy come participate and learn about some of these skills, and happy to talk to you about how it could apply, especially if they’re working on something tied back to one of these goals. That’s how we did that with healthcare is just the surgeon that reached out through– I can’t remember how we met, but we said we’re doing an SPC class. If you’re happy to come sit in and sit through it, and then we talked about, afterwards, how did the does this fit in with healthcare and had some really good discussions and that eventually led to this grant we got.

And you could just donate money to the organization as well. A lot of our companies donate money to nonprofits, but the question is are they spending it efficiently? if they’ve got a lot of waste in their process, then you’re giving them $100, $80 of that might go to the organization and $20 might be lost in the process of paperwork and bureaucracy and inefficiencies. So how do we help them use that money more effectively? so I think that’s maybe a better way of doing it than just giving money to them. So any thoughts about those?

MS: This is something I haven’t thought of before.

MS: I really like the invite nonprofits and government agencies to the training classes because we have training classes where we’re paying for a trainer to come in for 20 people and we have 15 people. You know, why wouldn’t they do something like that? It’s a no-brainer.

B: And that could start the conversation and get things going I bet.

Female Speaker: Yeah, I have a comment. We work with the credit union, actually, in South Carolina, and most credit unions are really big into outreach and doing things for the community and everything. And our credit union actually does give us paid, I think it’s like 16 hours a year, which I’m sure you could do more, but we have that opportunity to say, you know, these four hours on this day, we’re going to do volunteer at the local food bank or something like that. So our credit union is really big on doing stuff like that. We do Habitat for Humanity and, you know, Angel Tree around Christmastime, two different families to give gifts to. So yeah, the credit union is really big into that as well.

B: Yeah, that’s awesome. And I think there are a lot of organizations that do that, and I would just offer up can you bring in that skill set with you to say, yes, we’re helping you build homes, but is there an easier way to do it that takes you less time if we can better organize your trucks, better organize your warehouse? you know, and so bring in your skill set to that and say make them do that work better and more effectively. Yeah?

MS: In the case of number three, you said they paid $50,000 and made about $300,000 per year saved. Would you care to share what they paid for?

B: Yeah, they paid for– well, so it’s labor for their teams to go around and find the 122 air handlers and reconfigure them to allow it to do a setback because they just ran constantly. And they also had an override button that they installed, so if someone came in on the weekend and it was too hot or too cold, they press the button and it takes them to the normal temperature for two hours, and that was the mitigation plan to some of the concerns that the employees had. And actually, that team had purchased those buttons, but they didn’t get the funding to install them. So we did the project and showed that you could save $200,000 or $300,000 if you do this, then it was like what are we waiting for? that’s a great payback. But that pilot study helped us quantify that this was going to be worthwhile because they said it’s going to cost 50 grand, but they never said what are you going to get. And so management, of course, was concerned about spending 50K without knowing what they’re going to get for it. So I think a lot of that project was just trying to quantify the benefits.

MS: This was done in Portland?

B: No, this one is in Iowa. Okay, so I put together some books to capture some examples. These are the Volume 1 and Volume 2, and these are just chapters written by different people who have done work with nonprofits or government agencies or sustainable projects inside their organizations. Always I’m looking for Volume 3 participants to help put that together. I also have a website, Lean Six Sigma for Good, that helps capture some of the articles and videos I find online. So if you see something, send it over to me. I’m just trying to find ways to giving people examples to say you work at a zoo, well, there’s two or three videos about Lean and zoos. Read those or watch those, and that’ll give you an idea what we’re talking about, and that might start the dialogue a little it.

And there’s another couple of books that might be interesting. This is Getting Home, which was a nonprofit in New Orleans, SBP, and they got help from Toyota’s TSSC Group and helped them streamline and reduce the time to build homes. That was a really good book. And a couple of other things about Lean and government, Lean for nonprofits, the Lean startup movement around social change, and that’s my contact info. Any other questions?

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