Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

EC 049: Interview with Erica Stanulis from Follow the Sun

22 min read

In this podcast, I share an interview I had with Erica Stanulis, who runs the consulting firm called Follow the Sun. She has a strong background in Lean and Six Sigma and sustainability, and we met a the 1% for the Planet Global Summit in Portland in April, and realized we had a similar background and interests.

She talks about her background in the automotive industry, her life changing trip across the world, how she incorporates the sun into her consulting, and her work with the homeless in the Bay Area. I think you’ll enjoy this discussion!



Brion (B):  This is Erica Stanulis. She has a consulting firm called Follow the Sun. We met at 1% for the Planet back in early April in Portland. My consulting firm joined 1% for the Planet a year or two ago and there was an annual meeting in Portland, so that’s where we first connected. Was that your first conference you went to for them?

Erica (E):  It is, Brion. Actually, it was great to meet you and your mom there, actually. I met your mom first, actually.

B:  That’s right. She’s my wing woman for networking.

E:  She caught my eye because she had Business Performance Improvement, I think those were the words on her name tag, so I was like, “I’ve got to talk to her.” It was my first global summit with 1%. I’ve been keeping track of them for a while now. Previous to starting my own consulting practice, I was a director of CSR, corporate social responsibility, I Go Pro, so we had been in conversations with them when I was in that role. It was really good, though, to be in a community of like-minded individuals and connect with people that are already very geared and wired towards understanding the triple bottom line of people, performance, and planet, so it was great to meet there.

B:  Cool. You noticed the business name, so what is your improvement background that caught your attention?

E:  With respect to my background, you mean?

B:  Yeah, more of on the Lean or Six Sigma or both? can you just go through some of that background?

E:  I did my undergrad in chemical engineering and came out of school working in the automotive industry, actually for Michelin. They had an incredible Lean Six Sigma program and I was just fortunate enough to start my career there. I did a lot of process improvement work, specifically on the manufacturing floor, with a lot of incredible people and just learned the ropes of Lean and Six Sigma through Michelin and that carried me throughout my career. Eventually, I became a Master Black Belt, working in improvement, working in operational excellence, business performance excellence across the automotive industry, the nutraceutical industry, which is vitamins, biotech, and tech. That was about the first half of my career where I was doing a lot of process improvement work on the manufacturing floor.

B:  That’s great. I think the automotive industry has kind of the set the bar, at least in terms of quality systems and improvement methodology, and so that’s an awesome experience.

E:  It was. It was an incredible place to learn all of this. It was just top-notch. A lot of people think of Lean and Six Sigma, they think of it just purely from a manufacturing standpoint. A lot of people shy away from those methodologies because they think that maybe we’re not manufacturing anything here or that language doesn’t really apply to us, but there’s a whole philosophy behind it that I think people forget about. That philosophy really includes leadership and organizational culture because you want to maintain the conversation within your organization to continually improve and you can’t do that if you’re not a vulnerable leader, you can’t do that if you’re not open to having those meaningful conversations on the shop floor, wherever that may be, whether it’s in your open space, cube farm area or whether it is on the manufacturing floor.

I think that Michelin really, for me, embodied a lot of that philosophy. I came in, and I shared with you that, yeah, I learned the tools, I learned Lean and Six Sigma, but they also, as a new hire, set me up with a mentor that was not in my particular department so I was able to learn about different parts of the business from that; it was a VP of marketing. They also funded a trip for new hires to go and actually sit in a service center where they’re selling tires and interview customers on what brand of tires they are wanting to buy and why. They really took a lot of time to really connect us with the customer and connect us with different parts of the Michelin organization so that we understood the company and we understood why we were there. That’s really the big philosophy around those methodologies that I do think gets lost sometimes or misunderstood or forgotten about, whatever it may be.

B:  Right. What led you to go on your own and to consulting?

E:  That’s a good question. It’s a big question, Brion, and I’ll be very truthful with the answer. Back in, I think it was 2011 or 2012, I went through one of the bigger transitions of my life. I had been working on a project that was really, really tough; it required a lot of hours and a lot of my energy. I really enjoyed the work that I was doing, but I quickly realized that I wasn’t really happy, that there was a little bit of… How do I want to word it? There wasn’t a real connection to the work that I was doing. Something had gotten lost along the way and I think that was the connection to why, why I was doing the work I was doing. It was a really difficult time in my life. Personally, I had, also, some challenges and it was just kind of like my world was ripe for change. Little did I know that it was just beginning at that time.

I made the decision to leave that particular job and take a trip. I thought it was just going to be this radical sabbatical where I was going to go off and travel for three months and then come back feeling refreshed and reenter my career path as it had been scripted the previous years. So I structured this trip where it was like I was going to surf in Morocco, and that I was going to hike to Everest Base Camp, and that I was going to cap it off by surfing in Bali, and then heading back to the Bay Area.

B:  That’s awesome.

E:  Yeah, it was an awesome trip. It was the best and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. I did not realize, though, that the trip was going to actually change my life, the course of my career direction, and really ignite something within me that hadn’t been ignited before. Because I traveled to those countries and because I was doing a lot of outdoor activities, I had the opportunity to notice the tourist pollution that was being generated by people like myself – outdoors people, nature lovers. We were bringing in and causing the issues of needing to drink clean water, so we were using plastic water bottles, bringing in our own food that had complex wrapping, like Mylar wrappers with our granola bars.

A lot of these places don’t have that infrastructure to recycle, especially when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. I saw a lot of that pollution littering the beaches, littering the trails and I started thinking, “Wow, if I’m a nature lover in this is what I’m doing, I can’t imagine what people that don’t think about the environment are doing. This is wrong. I’ve got to do something about this. I’ve got a process background,” at that time, I had completed my Master’s in leadership and organizational change, I’m like, “I can’t go back and just focus on performance improvement and people. I’ve got to go back and teach people how to focus on the planet too.”

That was what changed my life and my career. It’s been a funny story. When that happens, when you get inspired by kind of like an awakening, if you will, I came back to the Bay and I’m like, “Okay, going back to biotech isn’t going to work for me anymore.” I had zero experience working in cause-based organizations, like what the hell am I going to do? I was just kind of like, “Okay, great, you’re inspired, Erica. Now what?” This happened in my mid-30s, this particular I call it my own personal transformation. They don’t have school for this. They don’t have school for what happens when you’re in your mid-30s and you’re totally contemplating a career change, so I had to become an intern again in my 30s. I did a lot of pro bono work for nonprofits, I learned the ropes, just like Lean taught me, going out on the shop floor. I did a lot of administrative work for nonprofits pro bono, just learning the system that they have to go through to generate funds.

I took some of my resources and funded some trips to do pro bono work overseas. I worked in Bali for a little bit, doing some plastic pollution prevention, specifically around the Bukit Peninsula. I went to Chile and I worked with the Tompkins Foundation to help restore the lands of Patagonia, which was a recent donation back to the Chilean government, which is awesome to see, and helping them restore the ecosystems of the grasslands; very proud to play a small role in that.

And so I created my own curriculum and did that and, over those years – it was many, many years – trained myself in sustainability by getting a sustainability certification. Over those years, I built a curriculum that now I offer to clients of Follow the Sun to teach them healthier ways of problem-solving. I think that my story here kind of shares that, individually, I had a personal experience where I wasn’t satisfied by just going in to organizations and focusing on performance and people, it was a miss for me; going out and witnessing the world, that it was a miss for our environments too; and then incorporating that understanding to develop a holistic toolkit for companies to use that can take care of their resources, resources being their people, the planet, and moving from that place instead of moving from a place of just worrying only about money and only worrying about performance.

B:  What tools or techniques or approaches did you find seemed to work pretty well or adopted or you felt were really powerful as part of your curriculum?

E:  What I do is I take the traditional business methodology, like Lean, Six Sigma, change management, project management, but what I do is I combined them with some nature inspired toolkits. Biomimicry, which you may be familiar with, which is looking to nature to inspire a design for a product, service, or process. I use a lot of biomimicry, but I also use Ayurveda. Ayurveda is an ancient science or an ancient wisdom. Some people get a little trippy if I call it a science, but it’s a 5000-year-old wisdom and it’s pretty amazing in the fact that, back in the day, they already knew about circadian rhythms and they already knew a lot of stuff that’s being confirmed in Western medicine today.

What does that have to do with process improvement and organizations? What it has to do with is that there is an optimal way for human biology to work and when you follow the sun and you can catch on to what your circadian rhythms are during the day, you can actually work with clients to optimize the rhythm of the business to what’s best for human biology. This introduces some really easy to adopt concepts like when is the best time of the day to encourage employees to take breaks? should we really be having lunch meetings? When are the best times of the day for ideation and strategic thinking versus heads down, working on cranking out emails or working in a small group on a specific task? I think when organizations begin to understand that they are nature – that they’re not part of nature; they are nature – you have a bunch of humans working there that want to connect with a more meaningful way of living, then process improvement, organizational improvement looks different.

That’s the toolkit that I bring to clients. It’s one of those things, depending on what problem the client is looking to solve, you get more of one tool versus another. If somebody wants to do a process improvement opportunity versus a cultural transformation, there’s different tools that get brought in for different types of problem-solving.

B:  When you’re talking about the pollution projects, can you go and explain that a little bit more? I was just curious. The one in Bali, I believe, what was some of the work that you were doing there?

E:  That project is really about Change Management 101. A long time ago, before tourism became a main source of income for Bali, the trash was really organic, very plant-based trash. The Balinese culture had the tradition of burning the trash and it worked fine and then enter in tourism and you have a lot of plastic and a lot of waste and a lot of people in areas of the island that have these beautiful surf breaks but not the infrastructure to handle all those people, all the food waste, all the human waste.

A lot of the work that I did there was working with one of my favorite people in the world, Curtis and his team at Project Clean Uluwatu, to host educational events for people to come and learn and understand about how they could prevent pollution on the island. It was also creating some infrastructure for them to do their budget, funding, etc. Like that. The organization, as a whole, beyond me, has been there for quite some time working with locals and businesses to really understand what they can do better together. My time with them was very short. I received a lot of education and understanding from them on what it takes to make things work together on that island, but it’s taken a lot of time for them to really put together an infrastructure where there’s an organization that comes in and picks up the trash and that there’s actual recycling taking place.

It’s been transitioned, as I understand, to a local member of the community, so it’s been adopted and integrated. That’s the thing that is consistent, whether you’re doing work in another area of the world from where you live or even within an organization, any solution that you come up with has to be integrated and adopted by the people that are going to use it. This is consistent in Lean, it’s consistent in an organization, and it’s consistent when you roll up your sleeves and pick up trash in another area of the world. I think the key word there is integration. It’s not coming in with one solution in your mind thinking this is the way it’s going to work everywhere.

B:  Very cool.

E:  I haven’t talked to Curtis in a really long time, but he’s one of my favorite people because I went to school and I got this Master’s in leadership and organizational change and learned change management, but to me, Curtis embodies one of those personalities where his level of acceptance and understanding of the way different things work and his style of just kind of like flowing with it and not pushing was just kind of remarkable to me. It was one of those situations where like, “Gosh, I wish I could introduce Curtis to some of my professors.”

B:  Very cool. And so it’s doing more work in the US right now and what does that kind of work look like?

E:  I am. I work with organizations of different phases, sizes, industries, sectors. This is why I really love my new role and why I love Follow the Sun, because it allows me the ability to connect with different types of organisms, my new word instead of organizations. Right now, I have a big project with the local government here in San Francisco, again, playing a part in helping to design processes that are flexible, nimble, meaningful to bring holistic health care to the homelessness community here.

That’s kind of taking up some time for the short-term, but I also work with nonprofits. I have had several clients that are wonderful nonprofit partners where I teach them different ways to develop a fun development strategy for their organization. I have a unique way of activating different funding pipelines for those nonprofit partners so that they can create flexible funding strategies that allow them to activate different pipelines at different times as needed.

And then I work a lot with the private sector, so sometimes I work with CEOs individually one-on-one, sometimes I work with their teams, their leadership teams, their organizations. What I really do, really one-on-one with CEOs, is offering an executive insight approach, being a thought partner around how to manage topics like if you want to do a site transformation that requires a revamp of the technical and the people-related processes that make the organization run. I also work with them on cultural transformation, so maybe things on the technical side are doing well but there’s an engagement issue. That gives you the gamut of people that I work with.

B:  Very cool. Our volunteer group in Portland here, called Lean Portland, we’ve just been on the very beginning stages of discussions around homelessness because I think, like the Bay Area, it’s one of the most visible and challenging problems for our cities that we don’t know how we can assist. I think, kind of the same thing that you’re saying, is we think we can, we think we have a skill set that is needed. We just had some initial discussions there, but I think that’s something that we all have realized like we should figure out a way that we can insert ourselves into this discussion. What are some of the things that you’ve been involved with on that front and maybe just talk through some of those challenges?

E:  I’ll bring it back to Lean a little bit. In Lean, we always focus on the customer and, in this case, it would be a client. I think the more that groups can put themselves in the shoes of being in a population that is very mobile, that’s hard to reach, that has different needs, meaning the health needs, the personal needs, the living needs. They may require, in our infrastructure, multiple services, multiple agencies or service providers, I should say, to be involved, yet we have the structure everywhere where we have this Monday through Friday, make an appointment, come back when we’re ready to see you. We have that structure and what ends up happening so much is that a lot of these individuals get lost in the cracks of the system.

I think, for me, the best wisdom that I can impart on those that are looking at homelessness and how to be involved is to really understand their perspective. Think about if you’re an individual and let’s say you have a pet, let’s say you have a partner, you’re carrying all of your belongings with you, is it going to be an easy or a hard decision for you to give that up to go into a particular service, whether it’s detox or shelters? I think, for me, the term that’s used is “homeless,” but I think in a lot of their perspective they have their home. Whether it’s a tent or whether it’s their dog or a partner, they have elements of home with them. And so how can we engage with those individuals on a much more human level and a much more flexible level than what we have in our current systems of healthcare etc.?

I’ve worked with some wonderful and incredible team members here, in the local government of San Francisco, and one of the quotes from one of the team members is appointments are the enemy for the homeless community because there’s a lot of trust and human needs that really need to be understood in order for someone to say, “Hey, yeah, we’re going to leave all your stuff and the people you know outside and we’re going to ‘make you better’ here.” That’s a huge leap of faith and I don’t think people understand that. I don’t think people realize that they have a home. It may not look like yours, but they do and in order to get the help, sometimes they have to give that up.

B:  I’ve heard the term “houselessness” too, as maybe another way around I have a home, this is everything I have, I just don’t have a roof over my head or something that’s stable or secure, safe, or adequate.

E:  I like that. Another friend of mine also introduced me to a term, “our unhoused neighbors.” If you see someone on the street that appears to be an unhoused neighbor, if I can, if there’s a way to say hello with the eyes, connect with the eyes and smile, say hello. Sometimes I don’t have to change on me and that’s okay, you can just say hello. Sometimes when you do have change and you want to make a donation to them, that’s fine too, but it’s always important to maintain that human level of connection.

B:  Right. There was a report that came out by a nonprofit here around homelessness, in general, that’s kind of a recap and a where are we now and what are some recommendations. I went through that last weekend and it gave me a really good synopsis of some of the current situations. One of the things that they brought up was when people do decide that they are ready for help or ready to get better, so to speak, sometimes the answer was, “Okay, great. Let’s set up an appointment for a month from now,” and they said that’s not going to work. By the time they’ve actually decided they’re ready for help, they need to move really quick and so it can’t be something that’s, “Hold on, let’s wait.” What can be done right away to at least… The containment question, how do you address the immediate need and then give yourself some time to work through the deeper issues but put a Band-Aid on it for now and get them in and get them seen and do something to get them moving in the right direction.

E:  You know, Brion, have you heard that problem description where it’s simple, complex, and wicked problems? the simple and complex problems have solutions, and then you get into these wicked problems where it’s multiple systems that aren’t optimized, that are kind of producing an outcome that is detrimental. It feels like this is one of those wicked problems where if we look at the population, if we were to Pareto chart it by health or housing needs or things like that, there’s multiple things that are needed to be implemented in order to move the needle.

There’s the infrastructure around the service providers. This is where so many people are looking at mobile, kind of like a mobile wraparound service. It’s the type of housing that someone needs – if they have medical needs, health needs, what type of housing is right for that individual? And then you have these resources that are limited in cities. You have a fixed number of I’ll call it beds, for example, whether it’s in a shelter, whether it’s a medical provider. You have a limited number of resources so you get into these complex questions of how do you prioritize? How do you know who’s out there when it’s a very mobile population? What’s the right way to assess? How do we do this without having to have people come to different providers and repeat their medical information over and over again? Wait a second, some of these people don’t know their medical history, they don’t know their history.

It’s such a complex problem that it really involves having to work together and I think this is one of those situations where it’s like, okay, where can we scope the problem statement? Where can we learn from it and how many of us need to be around the table as we’re doing this? because this isn’t just a one department fix; it involves a lot of people, it involves a lot of systems. As much as it would be great to think that you can throw a lot of money at it, that doesn’t work either. It’s one of those wicked problems where it requires a lot of resilience to actually go through and see the needle move slowly and slowly. My heart goes out to those people that have been involved in this for many, many years, from both the nonprofit side and the public sector side.

B:  It’s not for lack of effort, I’m sure.

E:  No, it’s not for lack of effort. I think, in some ways, I think we also need to look at the problem statement differently. We had a little bit of that conversation where is it really an individual that’s homeless or is it just an unhoused neighbor? What is the real need here? I think it’s different for everyone, so it’s definitely one of the issues I’ve worked on. It’s definitely taught me a lot about myself. Like I said, for those individuals that have been involved in the wicked problems, and this applies to the environmental activists too, that especially with the plastic pollution issue, these are wicked problems and they require a lot of resilience to solve. There’s a lot of systems involved and we’ve got to look to nature to regenerate us.

B:  Yeah, right. And I think that, especially with complex systems that seem to be misaligned to financials, like it’s cheaper and easier to just throw something away and buy a single-use item. Our financial incentives are set up to fix you when you’re broke; not keep you from getting sick or ill or needing treatment or surgery. It’s all reactive at that point. The way it was described to us by Stephen Reichard, who had written this and put together this report, he said the challenge of healthcare is very difficult and the challenge of housing is very difficult and complex and, for the homelessness, put those two together and now you’ve got a very, very complicated situation.

B:  Yeah. It’s humbling to work on those issues. It really is, it’s humbling. I think, for those of us that are truly wanting to make a difference, I hear about your volunteer group in Portland and I work with a lot of nonprofits, both through Follow the Sun and, previously, before that. Whether you are a cause-based individual or a cause-based organization, I think it’s important to really take that time to celebrate the small wins. It’s really important and to really understand that you have human biology and that you must take the time to rest and rejuvenate and let nature take care of you as well. I’ve noticed that a lot with different individuals, especially, like I said, whether it’s on social justice, environmentalism, it’s important to celebrate the wins and to rest. That’s part of just maintaining health.

B:  Absolutely. I think that’s great advice for everybody. I think we get caught up in when am I going to get the big results and the big savings and the big benefits and you forget it’s those little stuff that keeps us motivated and keeps us going towards bigger outcomes and we have to stop and appreciate those, definitely.

E:  Yeah, we do. Change takes time. It doesn’t show up like a big present on your doorstep from Amazon or something like that; it takes time. We’ll see change in our lifetime and the younger generations will see that happen in their lifetimes and we’re all in it together.

B:  Awesome. I don’t want to take up too much of your time. We can go on for a long time, I’m sure. How can people connect or find you? Do you have a website or social media?

E:  I do. The best way to connect with me is to just email me. You can reach me at That’s F-L-O-W. Sometimes people think I say slow, but no. It’s I also have a website which you can check out, it’s, really simple, and you can also call me. My contact information is on my website as well, but my number is 310-694-1314.

B:  All right, cool. Thank you so much.

E:  It’s been fun, Brion. I really appreciate this.

B:  It’s great to hear what you’re doing. I was really excited when we met that, all right, someone else is doing something similar to what I’m doing. This is great.

E:  Exactly, that’s how I feel. It’s really wonderful to be connected with you and please tell your mom I said hello.

B:  I will.

E:  I look forward to connecting with you again, Brion. I really appreciate it.

B:  Hopefully, we can do some work together on some of these wicked problems.

E:  Yes, let’s do that. Let’s make a promise to do that. Perfect.

B:  All right, sounds good. Thank you so much.

E:  All right, thank you. Take care.

B:  Okay.

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