Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E074: Setting Up a Lean Six Sigma Volunteer Group in Your City

21 min read

In this episode, I provide more details for anyone interested in setting up a local volunteer group to provide process improvement consulting to nonprofits in your area.

You can find a list of existing volunteer groups on

I cover the following recommended steps:

  • Find an organizer
  • Find a small organizing group
  • Hold kickoff meeting
  • Setup LinkedIn Group
  • Promote Group
  • Setup first group event
  • Partnering with college students

You can check out the video below with the slides, or go to



Have you ordered the new book, “Lean Six Sigma for Good: Lessons from the Gemba (Volume 1)?” 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. We are also close to releasing Volume 2, so check back for the latest news.


I wanted to get a little bit more effort around setting up these volunteer groups around the country, and actually around the globe, so I thought I’d put a little video together to explain my thought process. A little bit of explanation on the website, but I wanted to go into a little bit more depth here.

My name is Brion Hurley. I run a consulting firm called Business Performance Improvement. I’m based in Portland, Oregon as of right now, but I’m soon locating to St. Louis, Missouri. This is also part of the reason I’m putting this together is try to be more centrally located and allow me to reach out to other cities a little easier. This is being recorded in September 2020, just to give you some context because COVID’s been going on for about six months now, and I’m under the assumption that, at some point, we will start to come out of this and meet in person again or be able to connect a little bit more with nonprofit groups and meet in person for happy hours and things like that. There’s still some things that can be done if that doesn’t happen, but it makes it a little easier.

I first wanted to start off by talking about volunteering in general. First, it’s really good for your resume. Employers find it a benefit when they see you have volunteer experience, especially if you’re applying your own skills to volunteering. They see that as additional experience for the work that you do and it brings a different perspective and it gives them some insight about your mindset that you’re willing to spend your own free time to help. That’s always a good thing.

It’s good for your health and well-being. There’s some studies that show people are happier, healthier, relieves stress, so that’s good.

It’s good for your skill development. I found that I’ve learned a lot from the people I work with and volunteered with. The challenge of working with a new group in a new process in a new setting under different constraints is really challenging and really puts my skills to the test. It gives me a different perspective.

It’s really good for your network. A lot of the nonprofits we’ve worked with have good networks as well, so they’ve been able to connect us with job opportunities or other connections in the community or helping us when we’re trying to find resources for another nonprofit. I’ve also made a lot of great friends, so that’s been really good, and also just having good technical support. When I get stuck on a problem at my job, I can go to my volunteer group and a lot of them will have some good ideas or suggestions for me. I’ve learned that some of them have really good experience in certain tools that aren’t my strength.

It also really is helpful for the nonprofit and the mission work that they’re doing and the nonprofits are trying to improve our communities, and so the more we can help them, the more the can help the community. There’s lots of other benefits as well, but just wanted to really reiterate the importance of the volunteering itself.

To set up a volunteer group – and I’m modeling this based on the work that has been done in Portland under the group called Lean Portland. I wasn’t the original organizer; that’s Matt Horvat, but I was involved in getting the group up and running after a couple of years. From around 2016 I think is when we really got more organized, and now to 2020, so about the last four years. I’m sharing my experiences with that as a recommendation. We don’t have it nailed down exactly the best way to do it, but this might be some good ideas to go through.

The first step is to find someone who wants to organize and lead it. Since you’re watching this video, you might be that organizer and that’s great. This doesn’t mean you’re setting yourself up for a multiyear commitment, but initially getting going, there is some commitment involved. You might just want to be involved with setting it up for the first time, you might want to be involved with setting up and then running it and managing it ongoing. That would be great too. Or maybe you’d like someone else to help set it up and you just want to come in and help once that’s done. The only thing you really need from a skill set is just the passion to do it and the hard work of getting people together and organizing it and really getting the momentum going.

The second thing would be to find some people who are interested in this topic. I would recommend going to your LinkedIn group, going to the search function. If you click on that, you’ll see People. You can search by People. Under there, you can select the city, and I would pick the metro area that’s closest to you. That will get all the people who live in that city, plus the neighboring communities around it. Because you’re looking for people who would be willing who can get to the major city fairly quickly who aren’t too far away, so anyone within 10, 15 minutes of the city. They might be outside the city, but they’re still a good candidate. You could start with your first connections and see what that comes up. You might also look at second connections if that doesn’t give enough names for you. These are people that you might want to invite or talk to about this idea.

The next step is to really get a small group together and talk about this concept and see is there anyone else who’s interested in doing this. If there isn’t, then you’re stuck at that point. Reach out to those connections you know, message them. I’m using LinkedIn just because it’s a professional network and it’s probably where most likely you’ll find people. It doesn’t have to be LinkedIn only, but I would start there for sure.

When you get about five or seven names, then I’d actually set up a call. You can walk them through this concept and ideas and say, “We’re going to do this volunteer group. We’re going to go out and work with nonprofits. We’re going to see how we can help them achieve their mission, and at the same time, there’s other benefits that we’re going to get out of this. It’s going to be rewarding, it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be educational, and it’s going to be helpful.”

I’m also happy to help with this, so if you want to set up a call and invite me to that kickoff, I’m happy to go through and explain what the Lean Portland group has done over the years, give some advice or tips. I’ve done that for a couple of groups. Just let me know; I’ll make time for it.

What you’re really trying to do with this first meeting is find others who are going to help you get this set up. I’d say if you can find two other people, so three people total that say, “We’re going to help set up this group,” I think you’re on the right track. If you don’t find three people, then I’d go back to your list and keep asking.

Then I would recommend you hold the kickoff meeting and this would be the first formal meeting. This could be with the three people that have committed. Hopefully, you get more than that. If you are there organizer, then you should be the one setting it up. If someone else is going to be the organizer, then they should set it up, but I would definitely have somebody with an X on their forehead that they’re going to be the one in charge of organizing the meetings.

If you want to think about it in terms of an actual nonprofit, this would be the Chair or the President of the nonprofit and then what you’re basically building out is board members. We did not set up a nonprofit formally, but we’ve used some of that structure in our Lean Portland group.

The topics you want to cover is picking a name, whether it’s Lean Boston or Boston Improvement Consultants. You can use whatever name you want to use. I would also establish frequency of the meetings; how often do you want to meet. I would recommend twice a month to get started, so every other week, maybe just an hour at a time is good. You’re really just trying to build some rigor in there because what happens is if there isn’t that recurring meeting, it’s going to fall off the radar, we’re going to get busy. I would highly recommend setting up a recurring meeting there.

Also, talk about time commitment for working with nonprofits and for meetings, so there’s two separate activities. You’re meeting to organized the group, and you’re meeting to actually work with nonprofits directly, so talk about what kind of time commitment each person in the group can give or their expectations around that just so everyone’s on the same page.

I would recommend setting up a LinkedIn group if you haven’t already. That’s a way to promote events and start to invite people into the group. That’s how we had it set up. In fact, that group was set up for multiple years before it actually got going, so it started to build up a pretty large list. The same thing, you can start to post things, get the word out, invite people so they can follow along. Eventually, you’ll see some of them will start to get more involved as they see it get more mature.

I’d also try to make a list with the people in the group about who else should we invite or connect in with. Maybe they’re not on LinkedIn, maybe they haven’t responded yet, so you start calling them directly or emailing them directly. Some people don’t check their LinkedIn, so reach out to those people and make a connection with them.

Also, consider local colleges and universities. I’ll talk about that a little bit more here, but we want to start to connect in students into this effort. Again, I mentioned the twice-monthly meeting would be a good recommendation to start with, but at minimum, I would try to meet at least once a month. After you get going a little bit, you can always go back to once a month.

Set up a LinkedIn group. It’s very simple and it’s free. You just go to the Groups section and you just create it. For St. Louis, I already have one set up, so when I get there, I’ll try to build that out a little bit more. Let me know when you’ve got that set up so I can put a link on the website so that other people can find it that way as well.

Within the LinkedIn group, you can invite connections. You can go and filter and look for people and invite them to your group, and that will get them an easy invite into, first of all, that the group exists, and then they’re connected in by just accepting the request. You can also have other groups. You can set it up on other platforms, but like I said, LinkedIn is probably your best bet starting out. I wouldn’t recommend having multiple groups, so at least have one place. You can reach out to people on Facebook, but direct them back to the LinkedIn group.

Next, I would try to schedule some kind of activity. This doesn’t have to be a direct connection with the nonprofit, but you might start off with just a simple Lean 101 and open it up to people and target certain nonprofits or nonprofit groups in the community and see if they’ll attend and see what kind of interest there is. We always kept it open to anybody who wanted to attend, so you didn’t have to be from a nonprofit. You could just come to one of our workshops for free just to learn more about Lean, so we got a lot of people from businesses. We also looked at it as more of a community engagement and trying to introduce people to Lean, but what we’ll also find is people that attend want to learn more, but their companies don’t have much interest in me and they might become great future volunteers who are looking to expand their skill set or get opportunities to practice where they’re not getting that at their job.

Talk to the members to see does anyone have a strong connection with an existing nonprofit that we could connect with first. Maybe you know the Executive Director or the Chair or the President, and you can have a discussion and say, “We’ve got this group. We want to teach them about these Lean methods. Are you familiar with these techniques? Here’s how they could help you in your organization.” I think some key things we talked about was engaging their volunteers with processes that are simplified, engaging their employees, and trying to help them solve some of their problems so they’re not so overwhelmed. There’s a lot of burnout with nonprofits, so how can we get the staff to not be so overwhelmed by making the processes easier, and then really just tying it back to the mission. What are you trying to accomplish? What’s some of the outcomes you’re trying to achieve and how can we help you streamline that so you can deliver those outcomes faster with higher quality?

Once you’ve found a nonprofit to work with, what I would recommend is you first make sure that they have some background in Lean. You may have to do another Lean 101 training. That’s usually the first step with most of the nonprofits is we would do a kickoff training, usually an hour. We’d go through a video and talk about some of the basic concepts. I’m happy to share slides and training material we’ve used.

And then start talking about a problem, and that’s where you’re ultimately trying to do is nail down a specific problem that they want help with. You need to go to the gemba as much as possible to see it firsthand. Make sure that you understand their strategy and mission and where they’re going, and also the importance of the problem. In the past, we’ve done some simple projects like let’s just do a 5S in this little area that’s messy, but I think we’ve had more success when we’ve actually picked real difficult or challenging problems and tried to work with them on that because we know those are important. The things that are easy to do, just to show the example that it works in that nonprofit can be good. But usually, it doesn’t work out good because it’s not important to them. At first, I thought that our volunteer group was going to be the bottleneck in terms of being able to meet with them when they’re available or find the time to commit to meeting with them, but honestly, we’ve had more challenges from the nonprofits being available to us. I would say trying to pick something that’s really important so that you know it’s going to get the attention.

As far as meeting times with them, you’ll have to work it out with each nonprofit. Some are more flexible to be able to meet, but what seems to work was that late afternoon time, between 3, 4, or 5 o’clock. Sometimes they would stay a little bit later and people could leave their job a little bit earlier, and so that 3 to 4 o’clock timeframe was pretty common. I would also set up recurring meetings with the nonprofit, so again, it’s on the calendar, they know that there’s some time when we’re going to come back and work with them. When we have delayed and said, “We’ll set up some time later,” it never seemed to work very well. We would go months between meetings and we lost a lot of progress that way.

Once you’re in there and understanding the problem, now it’s up to you to figure out how to help them. We don’t have a set recipe. We did start to move to more of an event format where we try to drive things into a focused event, like a 5S or a kaizen event, so we can keep it very targeted and focused and follow a standard work around that, but like you see in consulting with the work that you normally do, the actual tools you’re going to need are going to vary and you want to be flexible around that, but what we have been working towards lately is around the structured event. We would say, “We’re going to do this kaizen. This is the planning, this is the activity time that we’re going to carve out,” for four hours or eight hours or a couple of hours a day for a couple of days, and then, “There’s the deliverables we want,” so it’s kind of like a small kaizen event or it’s a 5S event of some sort. We’re going to take this scoped out area and we’re going to walk you through the steps of the process and try to go from disorganized to organized. We’re not going to spend five days on it; we’re going to spend more like four hours one day and four hours a week later. If we can get that much time, that’s pretty good.

You’ve got to use your own experience and knowledge to know how to help them, but try to think about ways to make them very concrete with the start and the stop point so volunteers can come in, participate, and then know that they’re done; it’s not open-ended. What we’ve also tried to do is set up leads and co-leads that they would always be with that particular nonprofit ongoing or at least for a 3, to 6, to 12-month session. Then we would bring in volunteers for these specific event activities that they could commit to on a shorter notice, but the people who were working with that nonprofit ongoing would be at all the meetings and building up and planning the next activity.

Some things to think about with the nonprofits. The volunteer experience is really important to them. There’s a fear that we’ve run across that they think that Lean or process improvement or efficiency is going to make the volunteer experience worse and they’re going to leave, so we have to talk through that with them and why this is actually going to help, that you’re going to accelerate their time, the time that a volunteer can come in and be helpful and useful, and take some of that time away from your staff that’s tied up in doing the same training, very detailed training, over and over again because the processes aren’t very organized. If they don’t feel like they’re making an impact, they’re not going to come back again and now you’ve lost all that training and development you’ve put into the volunteer.

They obviously don’t want to work in a factory. There’s a perception that these techniques are going to drive the organization to become more like a factory and it’s going to be a sweatshop or something. I don’t know, but that’s a perception you might come across.

Always try to go in with the team. Life happens and we’re volunteers, so we always tried to have a backup person. We’d always try to get two people to a meeting so in case one person cannot make it something happen at work, something happens in their personal life, we have a second person that can make it, and then they’re always sharing information back and forth.

I might recommend you work with a donation-based nonprofit, like a Goodwill or a Habitat for Humanity or another organization that’s taking in goods and reselling them. The flow is easier to see, it’s easier for volunteers to see what’s going on. It looks more like a manufacturing operation, so it can be a little bit more tangible for people. We have done some work with office processes, setting up memberships online, very transactional. It can definitely be done, of course, but sometimes it’s a little harder to start with.

The last, I’d like to ask for help from anyone who wants to work with me on building these volunteer groups out across the world. That’s my long-term goal is to try to establish these groups in each major city all over the world. I’m doing it pretty much by myself and I need some help as well, so if you’re not interested in a specific city or you move around a lot or you travel a lot or you don’t have a strong connection in the city you’re at but you do want to help with this, maybe you’d like to participate or help me with this global effort. Just reach out to me and let me know if you’re interested.

I just wanted to touch base on this triad approach, I’m calling it, where we’ll take a look at consultants, nonprofits, and students. The consultants bring their expertise of Lean and Six Sigma principles. You might be a consultant who works for a company or you might be an independent consultant or you might be a professor at a school. In other words, you have experience and expertise on the tools and the concepts. The nonprofits, we’re trying to develop the nonprofit, so we’re going to try to find somebody that we can mentor, and we’ve got the team members that we also want to teach and help them learn about these principles. You need to have someone who is the sponsor of that project that you’re going to select. And educating the board members about what you’re doing and how you’re helping. And then finding the volunteers that want to be involved as well to develop their skill set.

Where the students come in is they might have learned something about Lean or process improvement in their classes and they want some real-world experience. They actually are the ones that have probably the most time available because they have classwork that requires them to do a project or get involved or find some application. Hopefully, the students are passionate about the nonprofit itself and they want to participate and want to help, they want to do something good. There’s also professionals, like I mentioned earlier, that are looking for real-world experience. Maybe they’ve taken a Lean class but their company doesn’t support them on that or they can’t find some projects at work to do. They’re looking to develop their skills, so we treat them almost like a student and they’re working with the professionals or consultants as a mentee.

Those are where we can maybe leverage some resources. The consultants can work with the students and the mentees to then work with the nonprofits on a more frequent basis, and then the consultants can touch base with the nonprofits and students to try to guide them and coach them along the way, but they might struggle to be able to go out there and do it all themselves. That’s the model we’re moving towards in the future, but if you don’t have the student connection, you can still just use consultants and nonprofits and work with them directly. It still works fine.

Some other benefits for doing this. For the consultants, it’s that real-world experience in a new industry allows them to practice the coaching and mentoring, help build up your network within the community, and feel rewarding by giving back. Sometimes, we have jobs that don’t provide is that same rewarding work. For students and the university, they can gain that valuable real-world experience for their class working and for the resume, helps them build a network for future job opportunities. Like I said, a lot of the nonprofits have a lot of good connections and strong networks, so a student comes in and does a great job, they’ll say, “I’ve got a friend over in this other company that I heard they’re hiring. You should go check it out and I’ll put in a good word for you.”

If the school can offer this type of connection to nonprofits, it can really build out the quality of their program and attract more students and help with the branding of the school and the university in the community. If nonprofits are seeing the same university students coming to help them, it’s really going to boost their feelings about that university.

For the nonprofit themselves, it’s really about developing the key staff and volunteers in new ways of thinking and ways of improving, help them achieve their cost or time savings, and ultimately achieve their mission or move towards their mission, and it increases their pool of future volunteers. I know a lot of our volunteers have helped them with process improvement but then later joined in on just a random volunteer activity. They say, “I really like this organization. I’m going to help them out even if it’s not only just improvement work.”

Some examples around this would be to check on the University of Houston with Bradley Miller. He’s got a supply chain management course where they go out and do projects either at their home and their apartments, or they have to go out and find an organization on campus, or a local business, or a nonprofit. I’ve seen a couple of the videos he posts on his YouTube channel where they have examples where they worked with Healing Soles or Project Cure or another group did a student outreach improvement on campus.

The James P Womack Philanthropic Scholarship Fund is a newer program where they are raising money to give to help connect students with nonprofits and a Lean coach. That’s done through the University of Oakland, which is near Detroit. One of the first projects they’ve done is with Humble Design. Again, it’s giving students that real-world experience. The coach is helping guide them, which could be the professor as well, and they’re helping the nonprofit be more successful. That model is something I think is the direction I really want to start to go.

Check out the website. You might have already seen it. This will be posted on that site, so you might be watching it right from there. The purpose of this slide is to connect up these different volunteer groups and make people able to find them easier, but the primary purpose was to capture all the examples I could find around nonprofits applying Lean and Six Sigma improvement methods. There’s 11 different topics and categories, and within each one, there will be different articles, podcasts, videos that you can watch. If you do connect with a food bank, you can go and search the food bank category and look through and say, “Here’s an example of something we could do with you,” or, “Here’s a case study that another group did.” That might really help the nonprofit understand what support they could be getting from us.

Here’s my contact information. Please reach out if you have any questions. If you want to set up a group, you need some help, I’m here to assist. Thanks for your time.

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