Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

EC 034: Lean Six Sigma Applied to the Portland Zero Waste Conference

15 min read


In this podcast, I share my experience setting up and running an environmental event in Portland in mid-October, called the Zero Waste Conference

I discuss ways in which I applied Lean and Six Sigma concepts to the event, such as Lean Startup, Pareto charts, FMEA, forecasting and predictions on attendance, net promoter score (NPS), check-in area flow optimization, and customer feedback data.

I also share ways in which we made the event more sustainable. I discuss name tags, event agenda, tickets, food and drink, waste prevention and “pack in, pack out”



In this episode, I talk about a zero waste conference I helped set up for the nonprofit I run, Recycling Advocates. The conference was really about trying to bring people together to educate them around how they can apply zero waste principles to their life and also a little bit around how zero waste is being applied to business. We decided to put on a conference as a fundraiser for the nonprofit organization and also start to build the network of people who are really taking on this zero waste lifestyle. It’s really gaining a lot of traction, especially here in Portland.

I just want to talk about how I took some of the Lean Six Sigma concepts and applied it to this conference. This is probably the first conference I’ve really put on of decent size. We had like 100 people there, so it was more than just a training or a meeting and so a little nervous about how this would work out, but just wanted to share with you some of the examples and things we went through and what I learned from that.

The first thing that we end up doing with the conference was figuring out if there was interest. We went into the event with some knowledge that there was some interest. And this is, we, I’m talking about a woman named Chloe (Lepeltier), who I had met through some other environmental education programs and she had done a little bit of work for the nonprofit around our Bring Your Own Cup campaign. She has set up a Facebook group around Zero Waste Portland, called Zero Waste PDX, and I’ll put links to these topics and groups in the show notes.

She had done a lot of work and built up a really good network of people. Part of the Recycling Advocates nonprofit I run is really trying to figure out where do we go from just the recycling discussion and how do we get ahead of this discussion around recycling and start to get into waste minimization and prevention, which is something that’s always key in terms of process improvement – how do we get ahead of problems, avoid them in the first place. Recycling is considered kind of the end of the value stream. It’s, “Okay, I’ve got all this stuff, what do I do with it? can somebody recycle it?” Now, we’re asking the question really late in the game. First question should be why do I even have this stuff in the first place? could I have avoided it? So the zero waste topic seemed really relevant at that point.

Before you even get into having a conference, we want to figure out is there interest in getting together and what would people want to learn so we don’t waste too much effort putting on a conference that nobody attends. So we took the Lean startup principles and said let’s throw out that idea, let’s put out a survey and see if people will respond to it. If we can’t get anybody to respond, that’s one indicator and maybe we don’t put in the effort. If we get people to respond, then what would they like to see so we can actually provide value to them? That concept was really key to get going.

The feedback in the survey we got, survey results were pretty promising. We had about 50 people fill it out. They had lots of good ideas for topics. Chloe and I went through the different topics and tried to categorize those into is this a question about business? is this a question about containers? is it about clothing? is it about food? And then, based on that, we basically created a Pareto chart, which is another tool, to try to focus our attention on what are the top topics that people were mentioning, the most important ones.

From there, we went through and decided, okay, who could we asked to speak on that topic and who would best represent that? So we tried to up speakers and say, okay, yep, we actually have a pretty good list of speakers for that.

And so we have some interest, 50 people. At least half of them, we thought, might show up and maybe another 25 people might show up through word of mouth. So we thought if we can get 50 people together and maybe charged them 10 bucks, 15 bucks, 20 bucks a head, that would be a pretty good little event. Well, how long should we have the event? that was one of the questions we asked. How much would you pay to attend the event if it’s half day or full day? That was another question.

Within there, we tried to validate the interest and would people actually pay money to attend and the results looked pretty promising. People said they would pay about $20 to attend, on average, for a half day, maybe $30 for a full day event. But a lot of people were saying, “We would like to have the event on a weekend, half a day,” and that was different than what I was going to propose. I was going to do a full day during the week or in the evening during the week, and that was not the most popular choice, so that really helped steer our planning. So we did a Sunday afternoon event, from 2 to 6 PM, and put we that out there and started to generate interest and found speakers, made a website, and then started to promote it.

And so, through Chloe’s group, that was a lot of the interest in signups that we got, I think, but our nonprofit group brought in some people as well. But it was hard to figure out exactly how they heard about the group and so we just looked at the names and said, “Do you recognize them from your group or our group?” But it would have been nicer if we got better traceability on where people found out about us, so that’s maybe an improvement for our next time is to have them sign up and tell us how they found out about us and how they found out about the event.

The next thing was to not do a full FMEA, Failure Modes and Effects Analysis, but really try to understand, since this is the first time we’ve done event, what are the things we’re forgetting? I didn’t really feel fully comfortable and so I said, well, what do I recommend in this case? Will I go through an FMEA? I’ve got a technique and I’ll link to an article about how to not jump into a full FMEA but kind of ease your way into it, so I’ll share that as well in the links.

Basically, the notion is start off by just having the discussion and say what are some of the risks? As we talk through that, if we start to get concerned about that, then maybe the next step is to walk through the full process from the attendee experience. They’re going to sign up on the website, they’re going to get an electronic ticket. On the day of the event, they’re going to drive or take a bus or get a ride over to the event, they’re going to get out of their car or they’re going to get off the bus. Where do they go? where’s the signage? where do they walk in? do they need their ticket? Do they need a name tag? When they come into the event, are they going to be hungry? are they going to want something to drink? Is there enough space for them to sit? Where should they sit? just trying to think through all the different scenarios. When speakers come up, are we going to have speakers with the mics? Are we going to have them standing? are they going to be sitting? are they going to have their PowerPoint slides? Are they going to bring the sides with them? Do we have all the materials? so walking through.

Basically, I went through and kind of walked through the scenario of the attendee and tried to list out all the ways that things can go wrong. And we didn’t go through and score it; we just basically listed things out and said do we have a mitigation in place? I felt like that was really helpful for this event, is to just try to list out failure modes and talk about some kind of mitigation – we might forget something, so bring an extra one of these.

What I found out later is that it did a really good job. I felt like, overall, we did a great job with the event. There weren’t any major hiccups, we feel like we addressed a lot of the concerns and risks and some of them never came to fruition. Obviously, things came up that we didn’t anticipate, but I think, overall, it went pretty smoothly. I was actually really surprised.

So that’s great but one thing that did come up as a risk that I didn’t consider the first time was what if a speaker doesn’t show up? I had no plan for that. Luckily, everybody showed up as expected, but that was something that, for our next event, I’ll have to put in a mitigation and say what do we do? What’s the backup plan for that? So I think that exercise was really helpful but we didn’t have to sit down and spend hours and hours on that. But in an article I’ll link to, basically, going through that verbally, walking through and just talking about risks and failure modes, that can often be sufficient enough. And then if that raises a bunch of alarms and red flags, then you might want to go into the full FMEA analysis where you start scoring the severity occurrence and detection and getting RPN calculations and prioritizing those risks, but not to jump right into that right away.

One of the things I also was concerned about was trying to get people to come into the event in a seamless manner. We didn’t want everybody to show up at the same time, overload our check-in process, and then try to scramble to get seats. So we opened up the event like 30 minutes early and encouraged people to come and network and that helped spread out some of the demand. There really wasn’t a big push at any point, which was nice. It means people kind of trickled in throughout the event.

And just in case there was a spike in people checking in, we had a very simple process. It was just basically find their name and cross off their name. There wasn’t more detail than that and that made it pretty simple for us to try to set it up. So there would be like up to three people who could check people in and then spread them out a little bit so people aren’t going just to one spot. And so, as people were coming up one or two, one of the two people could check them in and get them going and get them seated. We had name tags, but we didn’t actually give out name tags but we encouraged people to bring their own name tags. I’ll talk about that later but that also was a separate little workstation that we had off to the side. So if you did not bring your own name tag and you didn’t want to make one, then go off to the left there and get out of the workflow so it’s not in the way.

And then seating-wise, I had a little PowerPoint slide that was rotating through that would remind people, “Please move to the center of the seating so that, as people come in later, they can come in and sit at the edges.” Verses what normally happens is you go in there and people like to not have someone sitting next to them, and so the seats get kind of spread out. We encouraged people to try to move to the center of their section and make room for other people and then reach out and network with people. That seemed to work pretty well; it made it a little easier to seat. Luckily, because there wasn’t that many people as we expected, it was easier to get people seated and there wasn’t like we had to have every seat seated. So that actually worked out okay, but I think having that being done proactively where we’re trying to push people to the middle helped out a lot.

And then as far as follow up after the event, we’re sending out a survey and we’re getting responses right now as we speak. The event was on October 14, so now we’re at about two weeks out. We’re going to look over that feedback. That’s part of a continuous improvement is collecting data, getting feedback from your customers, finding out what went well, what could have been improved, and what we’re going to do for next time. Also added a net promoter score and asked them, “On a 1 to 10 scale, how likely would you recommend this event to a family or friend?” Hopefully, that will see how really strong they feel about the event itself.

The whole event around zero waste was a way to be as sustainable as possible and so, like I mentioned, the name tags. We said bring your own name tag, bring your work name tag, make your own, but we don’t want to just hand out little plastic lanyard things or clip on name tags and print out paper. But definitely come and when people have name tags, so bring your own name tag and I think it went over pretty well. There was a lot of people who were Master Recyclers, which you get a little wooden name tag, it’s very nice and professional looking, and so a lot of people brought that. But other people their name tags from work, so it was pretty cool. It was nice to see a different variety of things, and then it also minimized our waste.

Some other things we’re doing from a sustainability standpoint. We had snacks available that someone donated. They didn’t donate; they offered them for sale, but they gave some proceeds back to us for whatever they sold. And to get away from the waste, we had some people make little cloth beeswax types of fabric that they could put their napkin on and then they returned those when they were done, so that was pretty cool. We also had coffee available but we had people bring their own coffee cup or mug or bottle with them and so that was a way to minimize our waste being generated. We had “for-here” cups, like reasonable mugs, if they forgot. And also, anything they raised from the sale the coffee got donated to our nonprofit.

We didn’t have any electronic tickets, so we just said, “You’re going to get electron ticket. If there’s any discrepancy, we’ll deal with that when it comes up.” We did print out a list of names because I didn’t want people messing around with the technology or trying to log in. It just doesn’t run as smoothly and, expecting a big rush of people, I didn’t want that to be the bottleneck in the process where maybe the internet connection is slow or people are searching for a name or they signed up but they signed up a friend as well but the friend comes up early and they’re looking for their name and it’s not on the list. We just wanted to have it nice and smooth, so there was a little bit of paper that we generated, but it’s recyclable so it falls under our zero waste concept.

We didn’t print out any agendas either. That was one feedback that we did get, that people wanted to see what the speaker agenda was. It was on our website, but we didn’t post that information on the website. We could’ve printed off one or two and hung those up in the room. We definitely didn’t want to give out just as a hand out for people. So that was an improvement we can make for next year is at least have it available for people to go look on the wall if they want to know what the agenda is.

We also sent out some reminders. And the bring your own cup concept, that’s something we sent out early in part of the email communications that, “This is going to be happening. We’re going to have coffee, but please bring your own.” We also told them to pack in and pack out, so if you do bring something and you’ve got some snacks you’re nibbling on and you bring to it and it’s in a non-recyclable packaging, you need to take it with you. “So don’t leave anything behind, we’re not here to collect your trash. If you bring in trash, you need to take out trash with you.” That was another way we tried to minimize our our impact. And so, basically, at the end of the day, there was hardly anything in the trash container and we had a little bit of compost from some fruits. Overall, I think it went really, really well, and plus, we had a captive audience that was really interested in zero waste, so that was an easy sell.

Overall, we were able to raise over $1500 for the nonprofit based on the event, so that was awesome. We got some of those funds from sponsors who either were sponsors online or they were actually tabling at the event and able to interact and talk to our participants and attendees. We also had some in-kind donations with the coffee, as I mentioned, but also the video. So when you see the video that will be posted, eventually, on the Recycling Advocates website, you will see that all the filming was done by one of the sponsors that donated their time and also offered to put the videos together with slides and match them up, so that’s really awesome. That was Stumptown Media Group that did that.

I hope that helps a little bit with ideas. If you’re involved in setting up an event or a conference at work and you want to think about not only tools and techniques to apply Lean and Six Sigma to that but also think of ways to make your event more sustainable and more green, then hopefully, you got a few ideas from that as well. If you have questions or want to learn more about specific parts of this event, you can go to the website, or you can just reach out to me directly and contact me at Hope you enjoy. Thanks for listening.

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