Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

EC 051: Spreading Lean Six Sigma Nonprofit Volunteering Around the World

18 min read

In this podcast, I share a presentation I gave at the 2019 IISE Annual Conference in Orlando, FL on May 19, 2019.

For the past 3 years, Lean and Six Sigma practitioners in Portland (Oregon) have been volunteering with local nonprofits to teach and mentor them on process improvement. The focus has been on environmental reuse nonprofits primarily. The effort gained traction due to beach cleanup volunteer project started by the IISE Sustainable Development Division at the 2013 Annual Conference in Puerto Rico. I share best practices and key findings about applying Lean and Six Sigma principles with nonprofits.

I also provided an update on a new book called “Lean Six Sigma for Good: Lessons from the Gemba (Volume 1),” along with a plan developed by Royal Roads University (Victoria, BC, Canada) to expand the volunteer effort across the US and internationally.

You can learn more about nonprofit volunteering, personal benefits for volunteering, and learn how they can get involved with or setup local volunteering efforts in their city.



In this podcast, I share a presentation I gave in Orlando a couple of weeks ago for the IISE annual conference. It was a presentation on how to expand Lean and Six Sigma in nonprofit volunteering around the world, but I primarily focused on the United States. I share a project that I worked with some students from Royal Roads University. I asked them to help me put together a plan and they came up with some great ideas for help and connected me with students, volunteers for the nonprofit, and he nonprofit themselves. The audio from that presentation is available, but the video is also available through the website,, or also at Thanks.

Brion (B):  … how do you align everybody up to get the nonprofits on the board at the right time with the volunteers that want to be there. It’s been difficult coordination but we know they want the help and we know we have volunteers. I have like 40 on our list that want to help, but it’s all a coordination activity, so it’s there.

The turnover in the nonprofits is way higher than I imagined and that’s really disrupted a lot of activity where you have a lot of start and stop. Then just trying to match up people’s schedule with when the nonprofit wants the help, and so how do you fit that into… Most of the volunteers have regular jobs that are eight to five or whatever.

That activity really got me moving in this direction and saying this is something that could be done and we can scale this concept. This is what I found in the US that looks like there’s activity going on around this concept of process improvement or process efficiency, process improvement, Lean Six Sigma, that type of activity for a group. If you know of other groups, please let me know so I can connect with them and reach out to them and start trying to coordinate some of this activity as well.

My thought is how do you grow this concept, even though you don’t have it quite figured out in any one area yet, and there are challenges and difficulties with that. I posed that question to a group of students and there was a platform I learned about that was connecting students with businesses and trying to give them an opportunity to work on a project and so I said, “This sounds like something that students can go refine.” This is Royal Roads University in Victoria. They have a sustainability program for business students and so I threw out my project and they responded and said they want to help with this, so those four students worked on this project for about six months. This is the famous castle in one of the movies, I don’t remember which one, I’m sure it would Marvel or X-Men I think, something like that, so I put that up there. There were people, the whole time I was there to visit and to report out, that they were taking photos and stuff.

Female Speaker (FS):  I thought that was their school and I was jealous.

B:  It is the school.

FS:  Really? I am now jealous.

B:  Yeah, this is the school. We had a meeting inside the building there. It was only built in the 1940s or something. It’s not that old, but it looks really ancient. But again, it gave me an excuse to go to Victoria, and that was really my purpose.

I gave them some criteria and some ideas and this is what they came back with. Part of this is just getting some feedback as well on what direction I’m going with this, but I also want some input and if you’re interested in helping, that would be great too. They suggested that work with universities to co-host a nonprofit education workshop that would bring in students, the nonprofits, and then professionals who could provide the volunteering. For the nonprofits, it would be basically a chance to learn about process improvement or Lean or Six Sigma or one of these topics, which a lot of them seem to be interested in, so to learn something new and if like that, they’re really good at sharing that with other nonprofits and that would get some momentum going, so they’re getting some knowledge there.

This is a piece I really didn’t think much about but having the students think about it that way, it was really eye-opening. They said they want to learn something new as well, some did this as part of their training, some don’t necessarily get this. I don’t remember if that school had any… I think they had some elective classes on Lean. I don’t think they had an industrial engineering program, so it was something that was a new topic for them as well. They were looking for volunteer opportunities, and so there’s something a little bit more structured, and the opportunity to maybe get mentored by someone who’s already doing that work, which is some of the challenge we ran into with matching up the professionals having the free time to go work with the nonprofits, can the students, who have much more flexible schedule, and even maybe get course credit or class credit for doing that, can they do some of the legwork and work with a mentor who has time where they can meet at odd times when the person has a little more flexibility.

That was a really cool piece that I think has a lot of merit to it. For the professionals, they can come and teach and share their knowledge and experience and possibly mentor the student teams who are trying to get some work experience and they go out and do a little bit of the legwork but then, as much as they can, they can participate but they can maybe follow up and check in and keep the ball rolling with the nonprofits.

Working and maybe reaching out and starting with some schools that have an IISE background or an undergrad program or they have some Lean or Six Sigma teachings as part of their coursework, and then maybe looking for student chapters or organizations. Obviously, IISE have those but they’re not everywhere, so there might be other organizations that have those kind of partnerships and I’m sure there’s a lot of other organizations like that.

And then meeting space, that was something I brought too, is I’m happy to go anywhere, but if I have to pay $50 an hour to rent a space and we’re going to set up and tear down and then an hour or two workshop, there’s four hours of time. I’ve got to shell out $200 to donate my time to teach, that’s a little tricky. But if the student chapter or the student organization organized and set it up, then they would invite in the professionals to do the class and the nonprofits, then there’s no charge there, so I thought that was a good idea as well.

The next step is they provided some next steps and recommendations and that would be to find the nonprofit. There’s a bunch of nonprofit centers throughout the country and I have them scoped to US for right now just because that would be a little bit more feasible for me. The nonprofit centers have a listing of all the nearby or local nonprofits. Oregon has a Nonprofit Association of Oregon and a lot of contacts and those things for the nonprofits, so if you have a workshop put together, you connect with them and you can possibly share that out to their membership.

For me, is looking at Oregon State or Portland State as a connection point for this project. Portland, of course, closer, but Oregon State has an industrial engineering program and more qualified students and have a student chapter, so that one makes a little bit more sense. And then maybe some evaluation of the Portland program first and then maybe the next location after that.

They also came up with some ideas for possible locations. Some of the criteria… I gave them some rough criteria to think about and then come up with a scoring and a ranking system, and so how many nonprofits are in the state, how many professional organization memberships are there, and so looking up some of the professional organizations to see how many members they had by state, Google searches for Lean and Six Sigma by state. Then I got per capita number of people per nonprofit as a way to say maybe the ones that really need the help are the ones that don’t have any nonprofits, so they might be more in need of help to be able to do their work. These are the cities that came up on their list, so I need to go through and think about them a little bit, but I think this is a little bit down the line, not right away, but it was kind of interesting some of the cities that came up there.

These are the states in order of number of nonprofits, which kind of surprised me too. I don’t have the numbers in my notes, but Texas has the most, which doesn’t seem… It’s a little surprising I guess. Size-wise, it makes sense, but the sheer number of nonprofits… Maybe it does make sense, I don’t know.

Male Speaker (MS):  Is it possibly where they’re… Is it the actual physical address or is this where the nonprofits are set up for nonprofit reasons, for tax purposes? So is it really the mailing address or the physical?

B:  Good question. I don’t know, that could be it. California, Texas, Florida, New York, those large states, Illinois is a big state, so it’s interesting to think… My thought was if you had an idea of where the professionals are at and where the nonprofits are at and you merge them together; this is a first stab at it. That was my thought process and what I gave them to look at, and so this is what they came up with.

These were the nonprofit networks they found throughout the country, so it looks like there’s good opportunity to find a network to connect it to, so that’s the third piece of that is then getting access and finding the nonprofits.

That’s the plan. The other piece of this is going in another direction and pointing out these examples and case studies, experiences, that kind of thing. This book that I’ve got here is, I’m in the middle of it right now, it’s got six chapters written. The goal is to get 10 or 12 written and then publish it live on Amazon, but you can go and order the book now. Every time a chapter gets finished, then I just release it. I’m doing it this one chapter at a time basically, so it’s all digital right now. Joe has a chapter in there, and then Andrew Paris has written some articles for IISE Magazine a couple of times, Mark worked with us at Rockwell Collins or Collins Aerospace. I talked about some experience working in the nonprofit that I’m running in Portland and Run for Government, this one is for a flag distribution program in Iowa too, a friend of mine.

If anyone is interested in contributing a chapter with their experience working with a nonprofit, the idea with this book is to give you examples, just like Joe went through, “Here’s what worked, here’s what didn’t work, this is what I learned, recommending you this, try this, here’s best practices.” Hopefully, over time, it’ll give people some things to think about. When they’re thinking about going in to work with a nonprofit, “They’ll say are these the things I need to consider and think about?” I’m also trying to get some people who work in a nonprofit to write a chapter, so I’ve got two people right now who are doing process improvement in a nonprofit and they can provide some insights to add from that perspective as well as suggestions and ideas for people coming into the nonprofit, how they can approach it.

The idea is I want to put out a couple of different volumes of this with 40 or 50 different chapters of people with their experiences and that will be maybe motivating for people to read who want to take that first step or reach out or maybe set up their own organization, a group like one of these chapters, and take the lead on that.

MS:  And all the money goes to the nonprofits?

B:  Yes, I need to mention that. Each author gets to pick which nonprofit they want to fund. I’m working it out to try to be like two dollars a sale for each author, so every time I add a chapter, then I bump the price up two more bucks. But if you buy it early, then you get all the extra chapters for free, so you get a good deal!

FS:  Cool.

B:  So buy now. For a limited time only. I think the price right now is like 13 bucks or 15 bucks. What’s that?

MS:  Is there a secondary market where you can sell it later? Are there rights involved?

B:  That would be awesome, man. And then when I get the volume finished and I’ll put it on Amazon, so I don’t think you can really list it as half of the book. It gets really tough doing it the way I’m doing it, but it’s a smart way. If I waited until all the chapters are done, it wouldn’t be out there yet, so I’m just trying to roll it out one chapter at a time, one piece flow.

The local chapters, there’s a webinar we just did in April, so you can listen to that in that link. I tried to summarize what I did a much better job doing right now. And then Atlanta has started to work as well, so Greg Smith gives a little update on that and I go a little bit more in detail with what we’ve done in Portland, and then Stella has given a webinar in the past, too, about what’s going on in Los Angeles. There is a PDF as well and then there’s a webinar link, but the last time I tried to get on there, it didn’t work so I sent it out for tech support and haven’t heard back yet. I don’t know if you have a copy somewhere of that recording.

I’m putting as many examples as I can find on the website LeanSixSigmaForGood, where it’s trying to break it up into different categories. If I find an article or a video or a podcast or something related to process improvement with a nonprofit, and I’m putting it on the website. So if you find articles, just send them to me. Even if you think it might have it, I might not. The idea with that website was so that we can approach the nonprofits and say, “You’re a food bank, great. Here’s a list of a bunch of articles and videos about food banks and improvements, and maybe that will give you the idea of what kind of things we can provide.”

And then this book came out this March or something but it’s the St. Bernard Project. It’s a nonprofit that was rebuilding homes after Hurricane Katrina I believe and they worked with Toyota, who helped them transform and be more efficient about how they’re doing it. I just finished reading it and it’s a really good book about basically how they helped them change the way they operate. Then this book, Lean Startups for Social Change, is a good book for how to experiment with ideas using Lean startup method but applied to more nonprofit and community impact and social awareness issues.

Then this is a book around Lean and government aspect, which is another piece of this, is how do you change the way that our government agencies operate and so this is a book written about Denver’s Peak Academy Program, which is kind of like a Lean Six Sigma program they put it together. It’s a really short read but it’s a really good example of how the city is really going down this path and there’s a couple of other cities and states that are doing a lot of cool stuff, but there’s a lot of the same bureaucracy that nonprofits might run into as well.

Other ideas or thoughts, at least on this idea. Using the book to hit at individuals, trying to build some activity to try to go top-down, I guess, kind of set up some locations or target some areas for expansion of this concept, and then the website. So the website, book, and some kind of early stages of a plan, any other thoughts about expanding these concepts and ideas out.

MS:  It’s kind of funny because I don’t… I’ll acknowledge to the room that Brion has been asking me for probably a year and a half to write a chapter for this book. I’m actually on the board of an animal shelter that’s based in Arkansas and I tied something together with your presentation where you had the point about you need the team first. I think what keeps happening is we keep losing people on our team and we keep having to do the basics all the time and that’s why I never get to this thing of having a good idea that I can give you for a chapter. Your point was so well taken. Some of the speeches, you just can’t get the volunteers, you can only get the basics and we’ve got to clean out cat litter boxes and load the food off the truck.

B:  I think that’s part of it too. Most of the stuff I found, there isn’t any nice, clean case studies; they’ve all got issues and flaws and hiccups and this kind of worked and then this didn’t work and then we backtracked. Even the ones who worked in Portland, they’ll disappear for a year and then they’ll pop back in, “Hey, remember that stuff we were doing? We’re ready to do that again. We got this over this big hurdle,” on this financial problem. And so I think that’s normal and I think we can say that’s what you’re getting into. This isn’t smooth and clean and you can’t throw money at this. You’ve got to go at the pace that they’re ready for, so that’s okay and that’s what you’re getting into, but this is still good work and it does have benefit and it does help.

MS:  So making stories just about standard benefits or just the regular tools to keep the dog area tidied up on the other bases, those kind of things would be good enough is what you’re saying?

B:  Yeah. Any thoughts?

MS:  Are you connected to the Institute for Healthcare Improvement?

B:  No.

MS:  Okay. Because you were saying, though, you do a search for Lean Six Sigma or whatever, so that whole healthcare world doesn’t like the words Lean Six Sigma or industrial engineering. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement is actually a pretty vibrant place for addressing that whole volunteer-nonprofit world. They’ll use words like “improvement associated” or other words to get to the same thing. Certainly, Oregon, I know some of the leaders in Portland Care Oregon and so forth do a lot for that, so that’s one large sort of nonprofits that they also have means by which they give listings for those who might are able to help out and connect you to organizations.

That might be worth looking at that so we can better inject our industrial engineering people, using the right words, into those communities. Then also, government nonprofit, there’s a fair amount of places where you get government mandates for a group. Like here in Florida, there’s been a mandate that says cities and public entities, but every one, you need to do the Florida Quality Award (Baldrige Quality Award). So suddenly, you have all of these city managers who were sending their people for training in this kind of thing, so that’s another place where if you look can say what kind of mandates are there out there?

B:  Yeah, what states are doing some of that work already where…

MS:  Yeah, that our organization can address a particular… This “Baldrige-y” stuff is very big, but one of the first things they say is, “What’s your improvement system?” and we say, “Our improvement system? that’s on here.” So you can go in and say, “You’re mandated to do this kind of thing in your public sector area and we can help you with that.”

B:  Yeah, I don’t how that exactly works with working with the government on that. We’re not really a volunteer group, but I think even an advisory role to say, “If you guys are going to go…” I’ve had that discussion with a couple of agencies or quasi-government agencies that they get funded and they run their business, but they get most of the funding from the government. It’s, “We’re going to do an improvement program. What are some tips and tricks?”

MS:  What you end up doing is you may have a mayor’s committee, which is just going to be voluntary. Years ago, in San Diego, we had the mayor’s committee where they said, “Okay, let’s step in and help them figure out how we can improve San Diego and let’s volunteer resources for them.”

B:  Yeah, that would be good.

MS:  It’s another different way of connecting into those who are basically nonprofit, who could use some voluntary convincers.

MS:  I have a basic question. Could you go back to the Portland slide?

B:  Yeah.

MS:  In the last bullet point, what perspective were you talking about turnover, is it people who work for nonprofits or people who volunteer? What’s that experience?

B:  It’s been the staff level has been pretty steady, but the management and even the executive director have changed over a lot. Both people left that one, three executive directors have changed over. That’s been steady actually. We came on board after they had a new executive director that was there 20 years, so I would say that one’s steady, but this one, Restore, we’re on the third manager we’ve worked with on that one. So it’s been start-stop way more than I thought it would be and it’s really disruptive to momentum.

MS:  The very, very little I’ve read about that is when you’ve got someone in the industry where they don’t want to have a gap in their resume, they go and find a job that they will do for a period of time. If it’s at a lower salary than they expect, they will do it for a while and then find a new job. Or even within folks that want to stay in the nonprofit sector, they will look for better opportunities regularly. And so it’s an interesting research area.

B:  Burnout could be another one I’ve heard too. The work is so overwhelming and so much needs to be done and they’re passionate about it, but they’re understaffed and the processes are broke, so after a while, it’s like you can’t do this. I guess that’s maybe the norm or maybe we’re just bad timing on the ones we have worked with so far. Probably not. This is a long, ongoing thing, so keep the ideas coming. Thanks.

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