Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E079: Lessons Learned in Applying Improvement Methods to the Public Sector with John Corliss

14 min read

In this podcast, I shared a presentation that I moderated at the 2020 IISE Annual Conference. I am the Sustainable Development Division President for 2020-2021. Due to the pandemic, we originally delayed the in-person conference from May to November, but ultimately had to go 100% virtual. It was originally scheduled to be in New Orleans, and we had a volunteer event scheduled with SBP that had to be cancelled, so that was disappointing.

John Corliss created and established the SDD back in 2012. He shares his 40+ years of experience applying Industrial and Systems Engineering tools and problem-solving methods to the public sector. This focus on government and public sector is often overlooked for new graduates or Industrial and Systems Engineering students looking at potential job opportunities. He shares nine different examples of lessons learned over the years.

You can watch the full video of his presentation here…



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): So first, starting off, we have John Corliss. He is the Vice President and Chief Engineer with PEER Consultants out of Massachusetts. He’s also the one who put together the Sustainable Development Division, and so he is the new award winner too. What was the name of the award, John, last night?

John (J): The Fred C. Crane Distinguished Volunteer or something like that.

B: Yes, so congratulations on that award. With that, I’ll hand it over to you to kick off the session.

J: Okay, thank you. Okay, good afternoon. As Brion said, my name is John Corliss. I’m Vice President and Chief Engineer for PEER Consultants. PEER Consultants is a minority woman-owned environmental engineering firm based in Washington DC. I’m actually in Massachusetts, and I’m going to talk to you a little bit about my career and getting involved in sustainability, and some of the lessons learned that led to that career. What I’m going to do is a brief introduction, and then some nine lessons learned, and then my thoughts on breaking through some of the limiting beliefs.

What I kept hearing is, “Industrial engineers do manufacturing and time studies and profits,” and when I would say, “But what about corporate policy or public policy or sustainability?” I’d be told, “Well, what do industrial engineers have to do with that?” You know, these are comments that I’ve challenged throughout my career because I believe that an ISE education is ideal for developing corporate policy or public policy and being involved in sustainability.

I had never heard of industrial engineering when I went to college, but based on my childhood experiences, I was looking for a major that would help me improve people’s lives. I was an undecided engineering major; I wasn’t sure what I was going to major in. I was born in the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and at the turn of the century, it was considered the worsted wool capital of the world. This was, at the time, the largest mill building ever built in the world. It was soon surpassed by another mill building, the Pacific Mills, which had buildings stretching over a mile and producing products sold to more than 59 countries.

But by the time I was born, worsted wool was no longer fashionable and the water power that caused industrialists to buy land and build the city of Lawrence was no longer a prerequisite for activities, and so these huge buildings that I was delivering newspapers in the shadow of were either underutilized or vacant, and many of the businesses then moved south or to Asia. Several generations of my family have been very involved in the development of Lawrence as architects, as builders. My father was a very respected political activist, so I became acquainted with mayors and congressmen, senators, governors, and several presidential candidates.

So I went to college with my favorite subjects being both science and history and I considered political science or pre-law, but I really wanted to go into engineering because I thought that it would give me the tools to deal with the urban issues that I grew up with. When I was going through all the materials, one of the things that I noticed was that the school I was at had a industrial and systems engineering program that had a Bachelor of Engineering and Economic Systems and that really struck my interest.

One of the first courses they recommended was Operations Research, and I took Operations Research. In the very introduction of the book, by Hillier and Lieberman, it talked about how operations research and I sort of assumed industrial engineering combined history and its World War II applications, problem solvings, multi-disciplinary teams, and how to deal with public sector issues like financial institutions, government agencies. This was an a-ha moment for me and really set the road map for my academic career where I ended up getting a Bachelor’s in Urban Systems Engineering, and then a Master’s in Industrial Engineering, and a Master’s in Public Policy, and then for my professional career as well.

I ended up doing work for the city of Detroit Productivity Improvement Office, for the US Department of Energy. I ended up going back to my hometown and leading the renovation of the Canal District. I wanted to get people to come into the downtown and I created a labor day heritage festival celebrating the labor history, and then got hired to create a community foundation. I did work for Emerson College on process improvement and ended up becoming Director of Financial Aid for a while. Then I went on to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, where I was Head of Wastewater Planning, and came up with some award-winning approaches.

Then I had the best view from my office ever when I was leading a project in the British Virgin Islands. I also did some work developing a strategic plan for the West Africa Water Initiative, which was a coalition of over a dozen philanthropic and non-governmental organizations trying to deal with waterborne illnesses in the poorest parts of West Africa. I also led a conference of UNICEF Country Leaders in Senegal, led recovery planning in New Orleans and two other parishes after Katrina and Rita, have led the development of solar systems on 19 municipal buildings in Washington DC, and as I said, right now, I am Chief Engineer of PEER Consultants.

Now, for some people, this may seem like a whole mishmash of things, but to me, it was all about public sector problems and how do you address them. The tools of industrial engineering allowed me to be successful even though I didn’t know anything about energy, I didn’t know anything about water wastewater, I didn’t know anything about recovery planning, but I was able to quickly learn and get into those. So I want to just touch on some of the lessons learned, especially early in my career, that allowed me to do these things.

First of all was that, in that Hillier and Lieberman book, one of the things that it said right off the bat is, “One problem is a tendency for many components of an organization to grow relatively autonomous empires. What is best for one component is frequently detrimental to another, so they may end up working at cross purposes.” More recently, that was stated in a Harvard Business Review as the efficiency trap. It said, “Unfortunately, most organizations fall into the same trap. They look at isolated metrics but fail to see the whole system. They optimize each part of the business separately and fail to consider how they interact. When we see an operation as a set of isolated metrics to optimize, we can lose a sense of context and overall performance. A paradox.” Simply explaining that to some of the governmental clients, that it’s okay for some of these systems to be sub-optimal if they contribute to optimizing the whole system, is a great relief for them.

The second factor was systems thinking. In the book Urban Dynamics, Jay Forrester tried to set out not a final set of answers to guide urban policymaking, but rather to contribute to an understanding and provide a method to attack the pervasive sense of failure and frustration among men concerned with the management of urban affairs. I find that often and that’s because, as he points out, a corporation or a city or an economy is a compound, complex system and, in many ways, complex systems are counterintuitive. That is, they give indications that suggest corrective action which is often ineffective and even adverse to the result, so you really have to look at how all of the pieces fit together. That has helped me a great deal, just that mindset, throughout my career.

Another thing I hear, especially in business, is, “We have to be billable. We have to keep everybody busy.” Well, at a queueing theory class, one of the things that was pointed out was that the higher your capacity utilization, simply because things are random, people are going to have to wait for inputs, the longer your queue gets and the longer your customers are going to have to wait and people are going to have to wait, citizens are going to have to wait for you to provide the service. That violates the most fundamental requirement, which is to provide service when they are needed. So it’s okay to have everybody busy two-thirds of the time or three-quarters of the time. It’s actually better. It provides better service.

As an intern, I got a job in the Mayor’s Office of Productivity Improvement in the city of Detroit. First of all, the fact that there was a Mayor’s Office of Productivity Improvement was quite a revelation and very encouraging to me given where I wanted to go in my career. One of the projects that was pointed out really brought home a message to me, which was that they did a classic time study of DPW crews. What they discovered was, out of the four people in the crew, never was more than three people working, so they made the recommendation that we would all make of, well, decrease the crews to three and increase the number of crews. You’ll get more work done. Or eliminate some of these jobs and you’ll save money.

Well, that recommendation was never heeded and they kept going back and reminding people and, finally, a manager pulled them aside and said, “You know, you’ve got to understand. We’re not just in the business of filling potholes. If a constituent who’s been having problems, down on their luck, goes to the City Council or the Mayor, they say, ‘Go see some people at DPW. They’ll give you a job.’ And so we’re the employer of last resort and there’s a policy, informal as it may be, that we feel that it’s better for these people to have a job and a paycheck than a welfare check. It may help them get their lives back together, but at the same time, we also know that they have addiction problems, health problems, and so we have a 25% absentee rate. That’s how come we have an extra person on every group because, on average, one of those four people isn’t going to show up for work.” So I’ve always, from that day on, made it a point to find out what is the truth of the organization and not assume that I know what it is.

Another example from that time was even if the champion, I know what the problem is, you really need to involve the stakeholders. They tried to automate the Community Development Department and they brought in some people who said, “We know how to do this.” The people were used to using their index cards and their paper system, but three months later, they came back with computer screens and monitors and keyboards and a mini-computer in the corner and gave a real quick training and the people went, “We really don’t understand this. We don’t buy into it, but we’ll try it. But just to be safe, we’re going to keep using our paper system,” and of course, it gets busy on overtime. You’re relying on the paper system, they never used the computer system fully, and eventually, those monitors came from on top of the counter to under the counter and never was used.

When people went back, they even said, “Well, if you’re not using the system, why is the mini-computer still out in the corner?” and they said, “Well, nobody ever told us how to turn it off.” So you really need to involve the stakeholders and they need to have buy-in. This really helped me, like when I was in the BVI and I put in an extensive public participation program. Even though they were skeptical because they said, “Well, we never have public participation until the end when we tell the people what we’re going to do,” they found that this really worked well and people were very excited about it and, now, they do that for many things.

Another lesson was we did this whole study where we were asked to collect all of this information on the purchasing department and stuff from all of these different receipts. At the end of the process, the leader of it was putting together the metrics that they wanted and realized there was one piece of data they hadn’t asked us to collect and asked us to go back through these thousands of records and get that one piece of data. My first boss at the Department of Energy had a very different approach where he would sit down with you and map out what it was that the final result was supposed to look like and then have you go off and do it. Now, oftentimes, we couldn’t find the data or it was hard to collect or more expensive, but as IEs, we have the skills to figure out how to modify those metrics, how to come up with something defensible. That’s one of the skill sets that we have.

Another thing is that system thinking allows me to become an expert. As I said, I didn’t have any training in energy or in water wastewater or in financial aid or in how to produce a folk festival, but I was trained in dynamic simulation modeling and so I quickly came to understand how the model worked. Suddenly, two years after my first job, I was an expert in world oil and I was giving US government conversations with officials from Pemex and people were finding insights in what we were doing simply due to an ISE’s understanding of how systems work. Throughout my career, I’ve been able to reinvent myself on the full understanding of systems in general and system dynamics in particular.

Another thing was that sustainability is, you know, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, in 1962, was very controversial and it’s been credited to what started the modern-day environmental movement, but Donella Meadows’ Limits to Growth conversation around sustainability and sustainable development. And so that, despite the harsh criticisms, we’re now seeing this today and it helped me in going to that first job at the Department of Energy because that course I took in dynamic simulation modeling for policy analysis helped me get that job and that job was for one of the graduate students who wrote the book Limits to Growth. That really shaped my thinking and made me realize that the skills that are trained in industrial engineering are very similar to the skills trained to people as to what sustainability is.

The final lesson learned is to know the key decision-maker. When I was facilitating that conference in Africa, one of the country leaders stood up and explained, “You know, I find it very discouraging, or found it very discouraging, because I would work with the Health Minister and the Health Minister understood how water programs and water waterborne diseases had a decimating effect on children and how we were trying to save them, but we never could get buy-in from the government until I realized that it was the Finance Minister who makes the decisions, not the Health and Safety Minister. And from the Finance Minister’s perspective, saying we’re going to save the lives of a lot of children simply meant there were going to be more people needing services that he couldn’t afford now.” If we reframe the whole program as this was a way to create healthy workers who were going to attract industry and tax money, that changed the conversation and, suddenly, I got business. Again, going into projects now, I always look for who are the decision-makers and how do we frame the project so the good work that we do has an impact?

Which brings me to my last point, which is going back to what I said at the beginning. Despite the fact that many IEs say that we really should be focused on micro-level and that the IEs have strayed too far away from the fundamentals of the profession, if you look at industrial engineers, a lot of them are senior managers and some, like Tim Cook, are managers of Fortune 500 companies. They’re applying these skills not just to profit but to policy and how we go about doing things. ISEs only value improving operations for non-profit corporations is a limiting belief. The power of our education provides us with all the skills to be successful at all levels and in the public sector.

And, you know, I’ve heard other disciplines say, “We’ve got the perfect engineering solution if it weren’t for people.” Well, people are an integral part of the systems we work with, I think the most interesting systems that we work with, and you know, we can make lives of the individual workers safer and more productive. We can also model the world, we can create social-environmental systems. We were the ones who identified the existential threat of our era of climate change and proposed policies to address that and this isn’t new.

John Muir, who was, before the profession was even founded, was listed as working as an industrial engineer in sawmills. He went on to become the founder of the National Parks and the Sierra Club, so we’ve been doing this for a long time. As ISEs, the tools that we have to create a sustainable world can also create a sustainable career because we have the ability to adapt to changing needs, to consistently bring value of an ISE perspective to emerging issues. As an IE, I have been able to make the difference in people’s lives that I was seeking back then when I was an undecided engineering major trying to figure out what major to take.

Thank you for your time.

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