Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E077: Applying Lean Six Sigma to a Sustainable Business in Micronesia

19 min read

In this podcast, I share a presentation I gave at the IISE Annual Virtual conference on Nov 2, 2020. I explain how I helped apply Lean and Six Sigma methods to this small sustainable business making eco-friendly wallets, business cards and other paper products on the island of Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia. Supporting their business helps impact the UN SDG Goal 12: Sustainable Production and Consumption

You can watch the full video with slides here…

To learn more about Green Banana Paper, and watch my presentation from last year’s conference prior to my trip, along with my travel video of the trip, visit



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.


Brion (B): The first question that comes up is “Where is Micronesia?”
For those of you who are not familiar, it’s out in the middle of the South Pacific, sort of closer to Papua New Guinea. A series of island chains and very beautiful. It’s part of the US Territories. There’s a complicated relationship there, but I go through that last year at the annual conference, so you can check out a video on this link if you want to just see my explanation and details about the island chain and why I decided to go there. I’ve also got a trip video of how I got there. It wasn’t a straight shot like I planned. There were some mechanical failures of an airplane and some rerouting, but if you want to check that out, I’ve got a link there as well.

This will be a follow-up of the trip and what I did to help a sustainable business called Green Banana Paper implement some process improvement or Lean methods in their operations. They take the banana tree fibers and they rip them apart and turn it into a paper product. It comes out like a thick paper, almost like a leather they call it, and they turn that into wallets or rolling papers or business cards or some kind of corporate gifts, like at a conference, like nametags and badges. It’s very eco-friendly. They try to be as vegan as possible. I think they’re vegan-certified and they continue looking for more environmentally friendly dyes to use in their operations. Most of the product that they make is compostable, so if they have a scrape or rework, they just throw it into their compost bin, so that’s also good.

One of the owners of the company wanted to set this up so that he can provide good-paying jobs for the workers and a source of income for the banana farmers. Most of the trees would just sit and rot on the land or they would even burn the trees so that they could make room for more trees. A tree gets one big harvest and then it’s pretty much useless, so a really cool way of incorporating what’s available on the island and utilizing it for a way to develop the country. This is a specific island in the Federated States of Micronesia called Kosrae.

We’re under the UN goal of responsible consumption and production, number 12. This is some of the products they make. I’d really encourage you to check it out if you have a need for a wallet or think of a good eco-friendly gift, this is a great place to go.

I want to talk to you about what I’d worked on while I was there. These are the areas I’ll discuss: Understanding the customer, going to the gemba, what’s their production system look like, just some organization that we did, data collection and analysis, and then some training.

First off, the owner is Matt Simpson. He’s originally from the United States. He went over to do some teaching through the World Teach Organization in Marshall Islands, which is nearby. He loves to surf and he found Kosrae and said this is a great little island that could use some help. He’s just very entrepreneurial, so he found this opportunity and just started building this little factory out of nothing. It’s really impressive what he’s done. When I talked to him when I showed interest in coming over and helping him out, these are the things he told me about: Efficient, organization, communication, increasing production, sped of orders, reducing losses. All those things, little checkmarks in my head were like, yes, I can help. Yes, I can help with that. Yes, I can help with that. You can even see that we’re barefoot. For the first time, I’ve worked there in an operation. You take your shoes off when you come in and it’s very sweaty, as you can see. It’s pretty warm there in the tropics, though, but I loved it. It was really great.

The first thing was to go and really understand the operations. I had seen some videos going into it, so I knew a little bit of what they were doing, but I spent a lot of time just trying to understand the work and watch and observe and get to know people who work there. There is no language barrier. They do have a native language, but they also are all taught English because their school system is funded by the US, so it was not a barrier to talk to them directly.

Because of the problems we had with the flight, I got rerouted through Guam and I was there for three days. There happened to be an island fair going on where these products were being sold, and so I spent time at the booth and so that was my first exposure to the customer side of it to see what is the reaction from customers for these products, and it was very positive and people were very excited about it. That was on the left there.

On the right, was just observing the different operations. They try to use the product that they make as much as possible, so these little folders on the top are made from the banana fibers. Then on the bottom left is a booklet of items that will be sewn together. It goes through a sewing operation and so it’s all clipped together ready to go. All the pieces are cut out through a laser etcher. Then on the far right there, someone is using the paper cutter on some of the graphic design work. They actually have quite a bit of technology for their operation. They have computers, they have laser etchers, they have screen printers, so it was a little bit more moderate than I was actually expecting. It was just great to meet everybody and find out what they’re working on and what are some of the challenges they’re dealing with.

The first thing that I was trying to do is figure out how does their production system actually operate today and what can we do to enhance that or refine that. I think first is just trying to lay it out and understand it, so I sketched it out, here on the right, with the system, the folders going to a planning worksheet that goes into bins, and then the bins are used to determine the next work orders that were being issued, and then there’s a series of steps of handoffs with some electronic and some handwritten down on a clipboard and just trying to formalize some of the steps that were already there.

Some things I worked on were what is the inspection criteria for each type of item. It was all in everyone’s head, and so we tried to get it on a piece of paper like a checklist so that it was more formalized, and then just tracking what is going on at some of the operations. He identified the sewing room as a bottleneck, and so we spent a lot of time observing and coming up with a way of measuring the performance or output of that operation specifically.

A series of some electronic systems that he could access anytime because he wanted to be able to have flexibility to move off island or travel to build up more marketing for his products but also be able to see what’s going on at the production if he’s not physically there. We talked about standard work, we developed some metrics, and even some kanbans for how to better manage the inventory levels.

Here’s an example of 5S in one of the areas we worked on. On the left is before, so there were a lot of totes and storage there. Basically, went through all that inventory and really figured out what’s there and tried to figure out what to do with it. Some of it was outdated or defective. And then on the right, it just opened up a new space, including putting in a new window in. Then each of the areas were set up as little workstations, and so the stories behind it went with the workstation. And so on the right is multiple workflows versus, on the left, before, there was one station and everything was done by station and so there’s a lot of transportation and back-and-forth and very little workspace to do. Even just made the space nicer and you had airflow coming in, so just comfort on the workers was a big bonus in this new layout.

Some other organization is just looking to see how many stickers do we have. The stickers go with each delivery and order. They use the lighters to burn off the edges of the stitching, and then they also use envelopes in their process, but these were all spread out in different bins and so just trying to consolidate things and label them correctly. You can see little red cards there. Right here, you can see the little green cards there. We set up little reorder points, and so on the little card, I just made a little note card that had, “When you get to this card, then this is how many we want to order,” and where it comes from, who the supplier is, and stuff like that.

One of the things he was working on is trying to improve attendance, try to get people to show up for work, and so it starts with the time cards. He had an electronic timecard system, but it was manual. There was no connectivity to a database. They do have Wi-Fi, but it can be spotty at times, but the timecard system was not hooked to anything. Basically, I went through it every day, actually twice a day, I would take the timecards out and manually type in the time into a spreadsheet, and then that would help generate an attendance sheet so we can at least status what’s actually going on versus intuition or gut feel about how the attendance was, and then starting to track that. Nothing fancy, no control charts or anything like that, but just tracking that data versus a goal and seeing the differences day-to-day or week-to-week with the attendance. Also identifying people who are going above and beyond the hours that they were signed up for and some of them that are struggling and falling behind.

Transportation is a challenge there of getting to work. It’s not a very big island, but there can be barriers to getting around and getting reliable transportation. The other one was getting some metrics around productivity. We first had to figure out a way to measure productivity by establishing some standard times for different assemblies and different products, and then starting to measure that and build reports on that. You can see this are the weekly results. The blue dots represent the performance on certain weeks, and then you can see that there’s variability in different weeks. And so at least starting to look at it and say is this is a typical week? for week 17 to week 18, you would say that’s just normal variation. But when you see weeks 19 or weeks 21, you would see that there’s something unusual. And then the gray dots would represent individuals who had very high or very low productivity numbers, and so starting to separate those out and say this person is very consistently better than everyone else. What are they doing right or maybe they’re missing something and having more quality problems. Just trying to tie some metrics back to decisions and where to focus.

Then providing some training for the team is the next step. We went through and did two hours of training over two different days, so basically just went through and did some Lean 101 training. Basically, the way it worked out was we did a lot of just work one-on-one with different groups, and then towards the end, I got everyone together. When I went to the training, I had some actual examples I could share with them and talk about specific operations that might resonate with them. If I had started maybe with the Lean training at the beginning, I probably would’ve struggled with trying to tie it back to them directly. I think the fact that they starting to know me pretty well, that helped a lot, plus I had real examples I could share from their operations and I point out, “This is where batching occurs, and here’s how we might do one-piece flow.”

What they’re working on right now in this picture is the one-piece flow versus batching note card simulation. There’s two different teams going and they’re comparing to see who could do their note cards the fastest. We did two hours for one day, and then we split it up and did another two hours I think a week later.

My total time there on the island was, it was planned to be six weeks. Because of some problems, it only ended up being five weeks, but it was still enough time where I could get in there and really get to know what’s going on and understand the operation, and then also be able to go in and implement some of these ideas and help them. Versus if I was there for a week or two maybe, I probably would’ve only been able to provide some recommendations and then wouldn’t be involved with adjustments and trying things out. There’s lots of things that I worked on that never turned into anything that got implemented. When I worked on some things like a planning sheet to try to forecast out when the orders would actually get through the process and I didn’t quite finish that, and so there’s things that we started but didn’t quite get all the way through. I think the was a really good amount of time. I could’ve used a few more weeks, but definitely it was enough time to actually go in and implement some of these ideas too, so that was a good balance there.

I’ll leave it up for questions. We’ve get a little bit of time. Or we can open up for all questions, I guess, at this point. The last thing I’ll just add real quick is just they got hit really bad with COVID. Let me just go to this slide two real quick. They locked down pretty much the whole island, so you cannot leave if you don’t want to come back. You can leave, but if you do, they’re not letting people in basically. At the time, there was three flights that would come in over the week from United. There’s only one airline that serves them. Three times a week, the airline would come in, they’d open up the airport, download the passengers and supplies, and then close down the airport. I think they’re now doing that less, maybe only two or three four times a month. They really relied on these shipments and they’ve locked down and so nobody is coming in or going out of the island right now, so their orders have really shrunk and the tourism has gone away. They would usually tourists that come through and visit their shop and facility, so they’ve really relied on government subsidies to support them. If you are in the market for some eco-friendly products, check on their website and consider supporting them.

John Corliss (JC): Listening to your presentation, it’s like, first of all, I think we’d all love to get a consulting gig for six weeks in Micronesia. Well, I can’t complain. Like I said, I had a consulting gig for nine months in the British Virgin Islands, but that was a government project they were willing to pay a lot of money for, so I’m wondering how did you find them and how do you make that work for yourself, for being in Micronesia for five or six weeks? and a follow-up question to that is after the fact you mentioned, that we do have Wi-Fi and stuff, have you been able to do remote consulting with them?

B: The way it worked out is I first learned about Micronesia and I got really interested in wanting to visit there, and then I found this business and they had a call for volunteers. It wasn’t a consulting gig per se, so I basically took time off because I had the flexibility as my consulting job to go there and it gave me a good reason. I had a connection already versus just going there on my own and having to figure my way around. Part of it, it was mainly some work but also some travel. He connected me with all the people on the island, they showed me around and do a lot of the tourist stuff as well. So it turned into he gave me some product for exchange for my help at the end. It was pretty relaxed too, so it was like a half vacation, half volunteer work experience.

If anyone is interested in going over there and helping, it’s a great way to mix that in. It might be hard to get a couple of weeks off, depending on your job situation, but they’re always looking for help because not many people get out there. I think they get very few tourists that come through there because it’s very difficult to get to. I had really high expectations for that whole trip and it actually met all those criteria.

The plan was to go back this year, but that’s not going to happen and so we’re hoping maybe next year to go back and visit. They got hit pretty hard with COVID and their sales and stuff. The other option is to help remotely. I’ve offered that up a few times, but we just haven’t connected directly. I think we touched based on the spreadsheet I was working on a couple of times, but it could be done for sure. That might be what the plan will be for this year is to stay connected online.

I’m also working with them on some maybe some Fair Trade certification and they need to have a third-party person evaluate them, and nobody gets out that way. So I’m working with the certifying groups to see how I could become certified and then, on my next trip, go out and hit up maybe other businesses in that region that don’t get a lot of auditors to come that way. I think it’s going to open up some other potential things in the future.

JC: I worked with some guys in Fiji, and they were in the same area. It was very difficult to- even internet was difficult, just sending emails back and forth and simple things. Videos or other large files, I really couldn’t transfer them. It was something of a challenge to even work with them pre-COVID. I can imagine how much fun it is now.

B: It’s not reliable, that’s for sure, and very slow when it was working. Sometimes we’d lose it for a day and we’d have to go into town to his other shop and try to get connected there, and that may or may not work. Electricity would go out every once in a while. Those are barriers to employment and productivity that we just don’t deal with in more developed countries.

Speaker 2 (S2): Brion, I wanted to thank you because you are always in engagement in helping others in the IISE for a long time ago I know you. You are always great, this kind of engagement and helping others. Thank you.

B: It’s fun, especially when you get to visit cool places like this.

S2: Maybe sometimes we can go with you.

JC: Even though it’s a relatively advanced economy, it’s not all that dissimilar in that the power would go out at least once or twice a week, there were water issues. It was just, to the people there, that was just the way of life. You just sort of assumed that the power was going to go out a couple of times a week and you went with that. Unfortunately, right now, they used to be served by American Airlines and none of the major airlines serve the British Virgin Islands right now. You really have to go to the US Virgin Islands and take a ferry or you have to take one of the really small airlines, which I thought was very odd in that one of the smaller airlines that serve them is Cape Air.

Cape Air is actually based in Massachusetts. It’s the airline that goes to Cape Cod and the islands. They came up with a very smart thing, which was they realized that the tourist season in the British Virgin Islands is the opposite of the tourist on Cape Cod and the islands, so they basically shift about a third of their little planes from Cape Cod to the BVI and back-and-forth depending upon the tourist season. So two-thirds of their flights during the summer months are up here in Massachusetts, and two-thirds of their flights during the winter months are from Puerto Rico to the BVI and a couple of other islands down there. You can find some of those adventures without having to go all the way to the Pacific.

B: The island hopper flight is pretty popular just because you hit multiple islands. They basically land, they drop off supplies, pick up some passengers, and takeoff. It’s almost like a bus, a literal air bus. You don’t get off, unfortunately. I wish they had a layover of like an hour and let you get off and check out the beach and stuff or go into town or something. On that second video I posted, I’ve got my video from on my phone looking out the window. I had great views of the different islands you’re passing over. People sometimes will just take that fight just for the views.

There’s a question on the chat about other applications for the banana paper. They are looking at like they’re trying to get certified to provide the banana papers as rolling papers for cigarettes or cannabis. They’ve switched over and started doing masks locally. They’re, again, in preparation of having cases and issues, and then also sending those and selling those to some other customers in Guam and other parts of the region that do have cases or are using masks, so they’ve done some switching in that respect. And then just in general, I think he’s looking at other things for sustainability, like maybe growing his own food to be more sustainable and teaching people how to do that, so just looking for other ways to expand his business. He’s very creative and very entrepreneurial and basically built all of this up himself and just learned through the internet and videos and stuff how to do it.

Speaker 3 (S3): It just seems like the banana paper… You’re burning down the trees. Obviously, you’ve got this biomass that you’ve got to do something with, and it sounds kind of analogous to hemp where you’ve got these nice long fibers. You can do also some amazing things with them. I don’t know what the properties are banana leaves or the trees themselves. I don’t know if they have a good strength or it can be woven or something. It just seems like there ought to be more applications for them.

B: I’m sure he’s looked into a lot of different ideas on that because, yeah, there’s plenty of those trees.

JC: It looks like Angela Camilla asked how can we become involved in helping to support the idea of the Green Banana Paper?

B: I think go to their website and buy stuff. That’s what drives them, and so that’s the best thing you can do, or promote it as well. If you’re having a corporate outing someday that you’re giving out gifts, look to see what they offer that are eco-friendly gifts. That’s one option. I got business cards from them, so if you do still use business cards, they make really cool business cards out of banana fibers and they look nice and it’s a great conversation starter. Just check out their website and purchase some of their products. If you’re really interested in going and helping, I think he would be interested in helping you figure out a way to get there and spend a couple of weeks there and continue some of the work maybe that was started.

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