Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E098: Lean and Green Interview with The Lean Effect Podcast

41 min read

In this podcast, I was interviewed by Mark Dejong on his The Lean Effect Podcast back in June 2021 (episode 34).

We talked about my journey from statistician to Principal Lean consultant, and how Lean Six Sigma is beneficial for the environment, and applicable to our personal lives. We also discuss wastes we normally don’t think about such as electrical power being used when no production was happening, and discussed a range of areas for the application of statistical techniques including a carbon emission tracking system.

Mark’s podcast is no longer active, but you can find the historical link here:


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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.


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Mark (M): Our guest today is Brion Hurley. Brion spent 20 years practicing Lean in a range of industries, including – so gee, Lean and Six Sigma, both of them – in a range of industries. Brion, welcome to Lean Effect podcast. Where are you joining us from today?

Brion (B): I am talking to you from St. Louis, Missouri.

M: Excellent. Is the weather nice today?

B: It’s kind of like when I was in Portland. It’s overcast and it looks like it’s going to rain, so no, it’s not that great today but I think it’s starting to get to there, that point.

M: Since you’re from Portland, you can understand this. So we live on the wet coast, right? Like this region, it’s gorgeous. It’s a beautiful place to live, but I ask people the weather because I want to vicariously live through people’s sunshine because God knows we don’t get much of it out here, right. So I like that moment of sunshine somewhere in the world that I can enjoy vicariously.

B: Yeah, that was different living in Portland is you get used to the overcast and the light rain and drizzle, but it is beautiful. That’s the benefit you get from the constant rain.

M: You probably have the same as we do. People visit on a sunny day, “Oh, it’s beautiful. It’s amazing.” I’m like, “Yeah, this is like one of 60 days it doesn’t rain.” It’s like middle of September or August or something like that where it doesn’t rain too much, but anyways it is beautiful though. Have you traveled much at all?

B: Oh, yeah, quite a bit.

M: I don’t know, for me, I went to Europe and stuff. Then you come home and you’re like you do realize that this really is beautiful, like it is quite amazing.

B: Yeah, the best flight is the flight into Portland during the day and you fly through the mountain ranges, and you pass almost right by Mount Hood. I always recommend people fly in to come in during the day, and hopefully pick a day that’s warm and clear, and it’s one of the best flights.

M: That’s awesome. All right, Brion, can you give us a little background, what you’ve done for work, how you got involved with Lean Six Sigma, that type of thing, and what brings you to today, what’s the path?

B: Yeah, sure. When I went to school, I studied statistics because I didn’t know what else to study and I liked math, and so I just saw I’ll just stick with this and it feels like there’s some application versus more theoretical stuff at other math classes I took. And then I got done and I still didn’t really know what was going to do with that. I figured there would be statistician roles at companies, but I ended up going to grad school right away. I wanted to find some more applied methodologies and they had a program at University of Iowa called quality management and productivity, so I was like, well that sounds somewhat useful for a business. I’ll take those courses. It was a mix of engineering and business and statistics, which I look back, it’s just kind of a beginning of a Six Sigma Master’s program.

So when I got hired in at this company called Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I was backfilling a statistician role so I thought they must have lots of statisticians. Well, that was actually the only role they had in the company and they had 20,000 employees. And then so I was trying to look at where is all the data at, and I found that there was a lot of gaps there, so I was basically trying to bring in some of these methods and teaching classes. At the same time, the company was going through a Lean initiative. They were a supplier to Boeing, and Boeing had been getting some help from Shingijutsu and they were going through a transformation a couple of years prior. So they had a Lean program going, and I slowly started to realize that there’s a lot of overlap there, and so I started working more closely with the Lean team and getting experience and knowledge on that.

And then my role transitioned to more process improvement because I started in quality assurance, and then it just became a combined Lean and Six Sigma. I was learning Lean and bringing more Six Sigma in and going around the different facilities and teaching classes and coaching and mentoring. I did that for 18 years with the company and then moved around to Florida and Oregon, and that’s where I was last at, in Portland, Oregon for seven years. And then about four years ago, I decided to do my own consulting. I really wanted to get into a couple of the areas of application for Lean and Six Sigma outside of traditional manufacturing companies.

M: Excellent. So that actually brings us to some of the projects you’ve been working on. You have done some pretty interesting things. You have a couple of sites that you sent me to peruse, but one of the ones I found interesting was the Six Sigma and the environment and Six Sigma at home. What inspired you to even do that? what’s your goal with those projects? What are you working on?

B: Probably 10 or 12 years ago, I found the EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, in the US. They started to do a Lean and Six Sigma program for companies because they started to notice that if they help companies with Lean and Six Sigma, it actually reduces their hazardous waste, their water usage, their energy, and a light bulb went off in my head like that’s what I want to do. I want to provide what I’m doing but also for more impactful work. So I just absorbed as much as I could, I found as many examples, and I found that there really wasn’t much outside of that going on, sporadic books here and there on the topic. But I just started to pull all that together and just started posting it on a website just so I can keep track of it and then hoped other people would find those resources as well.

That kind of got me going down this path that I wanted to learn more about environment and sustainability, so I went back to school and got, I call it a minor, but it’s a certificate program in sustainability. That really got me more comfortable talking about the topics because I really wasn’t that familiar with them. I just knew that we have these environmental problems going on and I felt like the skills of Lean and Six Sigma could really help with that. And then that’s been my goal is to try to work with organizations and companies to show them that, yes, this can help your process yields, it can help lower your inventory, but it can also help you lower your cost, and utility costs, and lower your impact on the environment.

M: So then, typically, how do you go to market with that when you’re talking to customers? most folks, when they engage somebody on Lean and Six Sigma, they’re looking for hard cost savings. There’s already a challenge, at least in my experience has been, in not just being a quick hard cost win, but thinking about the long-term. Because for me, Lean specifically, you can create a culture that will have continuous improvement versus just blasting out a couple of BIPs right now. So what’s that conversation when you’ve added on the element of environment and meaning? I guess one upside right now is folks are more in tune with environment being an important part of their whole equation versus maybe 30 years ago where it was not even on the equation board, so maybe talk us through how does that process look for you, what kind of companies do you work with.

B: You’re right, a lot more companies are putting together corporate responsibility reports or sustainability reports and showing how they’re impacting and what their goals are, and how they’re trying to reduce their impact. So that definitely helps, that can point back to things in their reports that you committed to lowering your electricity. How are you going to do that? You just have a list of projects. How did you arrive at those projects? are those the best ones? are they data-driven or are you just throwing something on the wall and hoping that’s a good solution? We’ll just change the LED lights, but where is the data that backs that up and what kind of benefit could that provide to you?

So that’s one area I look for, and that’s where I’m looking to work with the companies that already have those things in place because that’s an easier sell, of course. If I’m going into a company that hasn’t really thought about what their goals are around that, it’s a longer sell, and it’s going to take a little longer. So I kind of target my work with B-Corporations or companies that have gone through some kind of environmental program. City of Portland had a really good sustainability at work program, so I would look for the companies on that list because I know that they were already thinking that way. Same with the B-Corporations. To go through that certification is a pretty lengthy process. It’s broader than just the environment. It actually covers governance and it looks at equity, and it’s just a really good holistic approach for doing business in a good way. And so those companies, I kind of gravitate towards first because it’s just an easier sell. I don’t have to convince them that this is good for business, it’s the right thing to do, so that’s part of it.

The other piece is there is hard savings there. The company I used to work at, they spent $4 million a year in electricity, so I could go to them with a potential project and say I can cut that by 5%, 10%. In one of the projects, we ended up saving $300,000 a year with a Six Sigma project where we looked at setting back the temperatures on the heating and cooling systems during the year based on employee occupancy. And so there were some hard savings there, but the other soft savings I tell them about is let’s engage your employees on these issues that they care about. They’re going to stick around longer if they feel like the company they work for cares about these issues, and they’re going to get excited about that, and they’re going to want to learn and participate, and they’re going to stick around longer. Retention is a huge cost to a lot of companies, that they have to replace really experienced employees because they go seek employment somewhere else. If you can hold onto them even just a couple more years, those are huge cost savings right there. When they feel their company cares about this stuff, there is an increase in productivity.

When you have these projects that are successful, you can get some good PR for that and you can get some kudos in the local paper. You can equate that to how much would it cost to run an ad versus you got a free article about your company’s green award that they got or some volunteer projects that you did in the community. That’s really good publicity and all those things lead to business line results. So sometimes they don’t see the direct connection to that or maybe it’s a side benefit that’s hard to quantify, but there’s definitely an impact to the business there, so that’s the way I approach it. And again, it’s a little easier for the companies that have already seen that, that I don’t have to convince them of that. I just have to show them here are some process improvement tools that could help you get there in a more structured, maybe more effective way.

M: Can you walk us through an example that you’ve done? What were their goals when you first started, what were they looking to do, and then when they engaged with you, what was the output, like where did you end up, and kind of give an idea as to what kind of actions and results you’re getting out there?

B: The one that really focused my attention on this, and proved to myself and to that company that this could work, was really the electricity project I talked about. As I started to understand where my skills could help and I found those booklets, they had one on Lean and energy. I went through there and I said I could do something like this. And so I reached out to our corporate team and I said, “Do we have a green team that we’re actively working on some of these things? I’d like to be involved.” They said, “No, not yet, but actually, we’re putting one together,” so I actually relocated from Florida back to Iowa just so I could be a little bit closer to that activity. I basically got a hold of the electric bills and said there is some opportunity here that no one’s really studied this data and looked at it with a new light maybe from the process standpoint versus just the utility side of it or the facility site. Because I think a lot of times, from the facility level, they’re going to look at big capital projects, changing out all the lights or upgrading the HVAC equipment or replacing certain machines that are older and more wasteful. Those are really expensive and you need a lot of money and you’ve got to budget for those things. When you look at it from a process level, there’s a lot of opportunity there, a bunch of smaller activities. And so bringing those both those groups together and saying let’s just look at the data and see if that can give us some guidance on that.

And so I said I don’t know what we’re going to find, we don’t always know when we dig into it, but if you haven’t really looked at it this way or studied the date, then I think there’s going to be some opportunity. So we got that, we got the monthly bills and we tried to figure out how detailed can we get. Talked to the utility company, found we can get five-minute incremental data. It’s not very detailed, but it does show patterns throughout the day. And so we pulled that data, started graphing it, and looking at it, and I presented some observations to them like do you know that over half the energy is consumed on nights and weekends? so it’s not when people are here consuming the usage. It’s happening overnight. That focuses our attention on the type of equipment that runs overnight. In that industry, it was thermal cycling chambers where it runs the product up and down through hot and cold cycles. It’s also the heating and cooling system. When we dug in, we found out right that runs 24/7. There was no adjustments made whether it’s daytime or nighttime or weekend. We found the servers run 24/7, so we looked at can we measure the servers? can we measure the HVAC equipment? can we measure lights and stuff like that?

So just tried to take a really structured data approach to it but also engaging the maintenance team, engaging the facilities and facility engineers, the electrical engineers, and let’s map out the flow of the electrical lines through the building. That was more complicated than I expected it would be because without data and information on the drawings, and that substation actually is not there anymore, it got moved a couple of years ago and no one updated the drawings. So figure out what does this substation power? does it power the cafeteria or not? let’s trace the path better and make sure we understand where everything is coming from.

We ended up basically with the same proposal that teams had pitched a couple of years ago. The problem is they didn’t have any of that background data and investigation to go and present. We also ran a pilot project that showed that here’s what the potential savings could be on a small scale, and we can extrapolate that out. So basically, what I felt that I brought to the table for that project was engaging a lot more people in that, leading with the data, and then showing the potential benefits of that project. Because when we pitched and said we could save $200,000, which ended up being more than that, it was an easy sell at that point because they were able to see that there’s a payback. Because there was a $50,000 investment in labor to go and install all these, to make all these changes to the equipment, but when you say you’re going to get that money back in a couple of months, that was a no-brainer. Before, they had pitched this exact same idea, but there was no data. It was kind of a trust us that you’ll get that $50,000 back, and that was a hard sell for management to pick up.

So they weren’t really big on the environment. That’s not what they did it. It was an easy cost savings project, and so we tried to keep it focused on that. Not that they didn’t care about the other stuff too, but it’s a lot easier when there’s really hard savings there.

M: For sure, when you have an obvious ROI like that, then it’s a much easier sell.

B: Yup. The other thing, like other clients I’ve worked with, they’re really focused on that type of activity. They’re already looking at their footprint, they’re already trying to minimize it, so what I’m trying to do is not necessarily work a green project with them but just implement Lean principles as another way to get lower costs. So maintenance of the washing machines, making sure that those are up and running because if you have to re-run a load through because it broke down, that’s costing you extra money, and so just looking at the quality of the process at that point. They’re already convinced that we want to lower energy. Now it’s showing them that flow is a good way to do that and not overproduction and doing things earlier than you need to, and hitting the higher yields and quality, and not washing things that you’re going to end up discarding later in the process so we’re wasting maybe an extra load or two or month for no reason. And so they’re just maybe more focused on that and they’re just not used to understanding Lean or Six Sigma concepts, so it’s brand-new for some of these B-Corporations and green businesses. It’s just not something they’ve been introduced to.

M: Interesting. I’m a bit amazed to hear the application and some of the results you’ve gotten, like the electric one I found very interesting. It’s a longer process. It’s interesting. To me, actually, it’s similar to when people apply it to a service business because it’s the invisible, like the power just happens. It takes a lot to make the invisible visible just so you can just think about it and find that data, find the information, track it.

B: It’s not really at the gemba really. You go there and you’re not looking behind the walls. You’re not looking at the pipes coming into it. It’s kind of this other part of the process, but it’s impacted by that process. But when you go to the process, you’re looking at how the equipment runs, and the people, and how the product flows. And so there is a little bit of gap when you do those go to the gemba activities is that you’re not necessarily saying where do these pipes come from, and what’s cooling this area and heating this area, and looking at where that water drains out, and where is that going. It’s there, but you have to look a little more closely for some of those other things that are more environmental related.

B: Yeah, literally though, excess production, in a way, is a waste. It’s like a giant leak in a way.

M: Exactly. It’s could we have used this better or more efficiently before we had to discard it, and then does it have to be discarded? I just started a program with the state of Washington actually. Got a small pilot going where we’re doing two projects with two companies and calling it Lean and Green. They’re looking at what they’re going to reduce and they’re looking at either solid waste for one company, and another one’s reducing chemical usage. We’re just walking through that same thing and part of it is not wasting it in the first place, but the second thing is are we discarding it properly or improperly, and maybe there’s an opportunity that there’s another avenue that that material can go. It doesn’t have to go to the landfill, it doesn’t have to go down the drain. You can treat it or you can process it or there’s maybe confusion about the rules that there’s a different option for that that’s a safer way of dealing with it. It’s the local ecology, it’s the Department of Ecology, but they’re the experts on all those types of decisions and they’re providing their guidance and I’m bringing the Lean and Six Sigma approach, and together, we’re helping the business go through and come up with ways to cut their usage and, hopefully, have a reduction on what goes into the environment.

M: When you work with these companies, what’s your– I would say there’s a part of you where you come in and you can fix it for somebody, like just basically utilize your own skill set and tools, versus where you do that, but you’re also empowering the people to understand what the long-term value might be for them to have the toolkit to do this on an ongoing basis, so how do you approach that? What’s your goal? What have you found successful? How does it look for you or do you just go in there and consult to do the job?

B: No, when I look at the opportunities that are out there and how much improvement needs to happen to hit our climate goals or to just lower the risks and impact to the communities, it’s massive. I couldn’t do this alone if I wanted to. The way I’m looking at it is we need to develop the people in each company to be able to do this themselves, kind of train the trainer approach, because it’s not scalable if I’m going around being the Lean and Green person. That’s why, on my Lean and Six Sigma and the environment website, I built out a little free course because I just wanted to get information out there and I don’t care who uses it. I have capacity myself, so I couldn’t possibly go help everybody. So that’s the idea is get this out there, and then if people want my help, great, but I can’t go around doing all the projects. So I’m really trying to, just from necessity, figure out ways to just be coaching and providing guidance for people so they can do it themselves. It’s going to stick longer and it’s going to be more successful that way anyway.

M: Why does it matter to you, the environment? Obviously, you care, but why do you care? I don’t want to sound like such an asshole, but there’s people who just say the environment’s important, and then they go and drive their whatever they want to do. There’s no correlation with their life and what they’re saying, but obviously, you put effort to do this, and a lot of effort. Why do you care?

B: I’ve had this discussion lately too, just kind of what’s the purpose? what are we doing? What’s the goals here in life? that’s a very deep question, but it was really, first, getting exposure to the environmental problem and that was really eye-opening to me. That was probably 15 years ago where I started to notice. I hear about climate change and hear about pollution and see the impact to visiting a landfill and just being overwhelmed with how much stuff gets dumped off every day, and then understanding and learning about the impact to smokestacks and coal-fired power plants and what it has on the local community with the mercury in the air and the pollution, and then what that leads to, asthma and medical problems and learning deficiencies, and it just hits in so many different ways.

When I lived in Iowa, taking those classes, I learned about the farming industry and how much chemicals get dumped in the river. That river runs all the way down to Louisiana and there’s a dead zone of chemicals that have just wiped out the entire fish life and marine life in that area, and to see the connections at a system level. We talk about that in Lean, systems thinking. So to make all the connections and start to connect all those dots together just became more and more convincing to me that we have to be smarter about the decisions we make, and I think that starts with us as individuals. And so I’ve been going through a transformation myself with looking at the vehicles I drive and our housing situation and my wife has been really helpful to educate me on a lot of those things.

If you like this topic, please check out Lean Six Sigma for Good: Lessons from the Gemba. Volume 1 is released and available through Amazon. We will soon have an Audible version coming out early 2020, and we’re working on Volume 2 as we speak. Volume 1 has eight chapters written by different authors who share their experiences applying Lean and Six Sigma to not-for-profit organizations.

B: And then I kind of took it and ran with it, and luckily, she’s been a great partner so we can try out things like living in smaller spaces, and we kept condensing our spaced down and down. We ended up, before we moved, we were in a mobile home at 400 ft.², so fairly small but it’s perfect for our size, and trying out electric vehicles, and just looking at the food you purchase. Going through that whole transformation has helped me understand it better and then make sure that if I’m talking to businesses, that I am walking the walk as well. But I think, ultimately, the world’s going to be fine. It’s the impact it’s going to have on people that going to lead to relocation. It’s already causing health problems for people, so I think, ultimately, it does come back to people and I feel like I’d rather help these types of problems than necessarily save a company millions of dollars for their bottom line or to give out more bonuses to the executives.

I think, to me, I just found it really rewarding to work on these types of projects that have a bigger purpose there, and I want to feel like the work I do makes a difference somewhere and it’s not just making more profits. I think when I made those connections, it really started to hit home for me that this is fun and this is exciting, and I felt really rejuvenated behind some of the projects when you see the potential impact it can have, and then just focusing on how do I get the word out and get other people involved. Because I know how it’s changed the way I look at things, and I think it would have the same impact on others. That’s why I’m always happy to have this discussion with whoever wants to hear about it.

M: Going to the home and application of Lean at home, and this actually applies to both, whether it be as an individual or in a corporation, there’s a lot of greenwashing. I’ve been involved with packaging and that kind of stuff and for over a decade, and the number of times that goodhearted sales reps will come in and say something. I did a biology and chemistry degree in university. I’m not a genius, not like a scientist, but the number of times that someone would come in to sell an idea and I would just ask a simple question.

I’ll give you an example, and I’m not saying this is the perfect example, but just no one has ever given me a good answer to that which at all made me feel good. Oxo-biodegradable plastics. About 10 years ago, they were everywhere in garbage bags in Canada. I don’t know if it’s true in the US, but in Canada they were everywhere. I remember asking right away, okay, but is it a good idea? It breaks down. Yeah, but so does Roundup, right? I did a little research with Roundup, and I don’t want to pick on them, in university, and motor oil was a better idea in soil in my little experiment. I’m not saying this is a giant coverup who’s not– I’m not going to get into a fight over this. But no one has ever given me a reason why breaking plastic to small pieces is a good idea.

Top of mind, that means everything can eat it and it’ll go into the waterways and everywhere else. To me, it doesn’t sound like a good idea. But in this case, having a basic understanding of biology and a basic understanding of some of the challenges out there made this these questions really easy for someone like me, but for lots of folks, they hear the word biodegradable and it feels like God just put his hand on it and made it all good, so how do you deal with that? I don’t want to debate those individuals as specifically right or wrong. I don’t really care. There’s so much of it. How do you know if the path you’re taking is long-term good?

B: That is tricky, and part of it is that those costs don’t line up with that. There’s a lot of externality costs. When a business makes a decision, they don’t pay the full price for those decisions. I think, especially in the US, I don’t know how it is in Canada necessarily, but the free market basically is if you can sell it, sell it, and then, later, we’ll figure out if it’s bad or not. There’s a very small list of banned chemicals and that hasn’t been updated in decades, and so basically, put it out there, and if it’s bad, then someone will sue you and then you’ll get a lawsuit. But they’ll probably go bankrupt by then and take the money and run by the time they figure out that it’s bad for the environment or bad for people and it’s a risk or whatever.

It’s just a very open approach, and I don’t want to go to the total opposite where everything has to be thoroughly tested before you even release a simple product, but there are some things that could be done on the front end to not allow any company just to put out whatever they want so that there’s a little bit more protection for the consumers on that. So that’s part of it, that we have smart people who understand these things but they’re probably brought in way too late and after the fact.

I think that also looking at it just from the Lean standpoint to say is this the right use of the material and value? What are we doing with this? where does it go? again, going back to the system thinking, what’s the full ramifications of this, and who has to pay for the extra emergency room visits for people with asthma because of the chemical that’s being dumped in the river or being polluted in the air from this factory or from this business? no one’s paying that healthcare bill for that individual. It’s just applied to the community and it’s going into healthcare costs.

One thing that would help would be if companies actually had to pay for all the costs that they were incurring. Until that gets figured out, then it just gets passed on to everybody else to deal with. So I think it would be a lot easier if we could tie those costs together so that if you have to deal with the fact that those plastics get out into the ocean and it gets into our marine life and you end up eating that and that’s bad for you, it would change the process. They would be held responsible for that and they would make better choices. But I don’t know if we’ll ever close the gap fully to be able to tie those costs directly to each business and say you owe this much and you owe this much for your impact.

So then it goes back to the consumers to have to be educated to know that’s not a sustainable option, and there’s got to be a better choice and I’m going to put my money and spend my money on the companies that are doing it the right way. But that can be tricky because you’re right, there’s a lot of marketing going on to try and make things look natural or 100% sustainable or just some other buzzwords or keywords that they use that tries to imply that this is healthy. But for the average person, it’s confusing and it is challenging.

Same as I was asking– we were trying to lower the amount of stuff going to the landfill at one of the sites, and I had a long discussion with the waste haulers about composting. I said, “If we switch to more compostable products, does that make a difference?” and he was basically saying no, not really. We’re still going to pick it up, we’re going to take it to the landfill, it’s going to sit there, and it’s not even going to biodegrade because we’re going to put it in a landfill and there’s no oxygen getting into it and you need oxygen for it to break down. So it’s going to sit there for the same amount of time. Even though it looks great, like this biodegrades, in fine print, you have to read you have to actually compost this yourself in your backyard or take it to a compost facility. If you don’t have the infrastructure in place for that, then these companies are even making worse decisions because they’re spending extra money to look good, but it doesn’t actually lead to any benefit because there isn’t the infrastructure in the community to be able to handle that. Those are the tricky things that make it really challenging.

M: I’m going to push back a little bit because I was thinking of the long-term trajectory or almost like blocking and tackling where you’re just doing chunks that make a difference. In Canada, actually, in general, we actually have a pretty good recycling program and we have pretty good composting programs now. They’re making good, big steps. Fully imperfect, which I love. I don’t love that it’s imperfect; I love that we’re doing it even if it’s not perfect.

I’ll give you an example of absolute imperfection. With composting stuff, there are different requirements. Sometimes the requirement might be 120 days in a composter. I think all of ours in this region are 60 or 90 days, which means everything that requires that gets dumped. It actually goes through it and it comes to the other end, it’s solid, it gets dumped. But here’s the thing, though, the question I ask myself, and because you’re in the business of this, it’s the direction is right. It’s the correct direction. And so is it perfect? No, but that product is still better, from my perspective, and I think you can do studies and figure out if it’s true or not, but if you have a choice between a plastic fork, for example, being in a landfill or one that could compost theoretically into something that’s not going to kill something, I’ll take the latter even if it doesn’t work perfect today because, eventually, you could have less stuff going to landfill, you could have better processes, better products because you’re heading in that direction.

This is where I’ve been a bit frustrated with some of the communication and marketing, whatever you want to call it, and then government interaction. I’m not a big government guy at all, but there are points where if it’s impossible for the corporation, and I’m not anti-corporation, obviously, but to just bear the cost, it gets very difficult, say, for them to bear the cost of all decisions. It’s very difficult. But in a larger system, say a country, it’s much easier to net those costs. Much easier. That’s why you have the EPA theoretically, that’s why you have certain government bodies. I don’t want government in everything, but I’m always shocked that there aren’t simple steps forward that are virtually mandated.

For example, in a world with lots of plastics, having governments invest creates massive structures. I don’t mean massive government, but I mean like recycling facilities for plastics in every region, private-public partnerships or maybe it’s a private business, but there’s a means and a mechanism of doing that, and just start recycling it. And maybe you start with the most common recyclable substrates, like PET is a good one or low-density polyethylene, the most common ones in the marketplace. Is it perfect? No, but you’ve removed a ton of stuff and you’ve created that process moving foward. Canada has done, I think, a decent job of this. The US seems to be–

B: All over the place.

M: Yeah.

B: It varies greatly by region and city.

M: So when you’re out there doing your work, if you were to choose a macro decision, what’s your thought on the whole process? What are your thoughts on my response to that? what are your thoughts on what you see in the marketplace? what do you want to see? What do you think?

B: No, that’s exactly actually the question I was asking is isn’t the material being used to create the compostable item, there’s some benefit there. Even if the end result is the same, that it doesn’t really get composted, isn’t it good that we’re putting in effort to create products that maybe are made from recycled material or more biodegradable material, which drives the marketplace for that that actually lowers the cost and makes it more affordable in the long run? Isn’t that good? So I think they did agree, yeah, that is good, but just know that, for now, the end result is going to look the same. So if we’re doing this for a purpose and saying we’re going to collect this and we’re going to keep driving forward even though we know we’re not going to be able to take advantage of it fully, I think that’s got to be part of this solution because you can’t just get there overnight, turn a switch, and say okay, now we’re going to start doing this.

In Portland, actually, they got so much compostable products, they had to stop collecting it because they got overwhelmed. They have to have a certain ratio of green, like dirt and the grass and the leaves, and they have to have a mix of that to go in with the compostable products like cups and to-go containers and silverware and stuff. The demand was so high for people that wanted to do that, it just completely wiped out all of the other greens that they had to collect and they couldn’t handle any more, so they cut off the entire stream of the compostable products. But it still continues and people still use them, but the demand on that side was so overwhelming that it would’ve ruined the system if they continued to collect it, so maybe at some point, they’ll get back to being able to accept those items. But you go to other communities and they accept those, and then other places, they don’t compost, and then others compost really well. And then some recycle certain items and then Portland doesn’t.

I know, in Portland, that was a big thing is they don’t recycle things if there’s no market for it. So that’s the other piece of it is great, we can recycle all of this, but if no one will buy the little pellets when we’re done, the recycle pellets, and use it in future use, we just created a pile of stuff that has no place to go, and so they were really always trying to tie back to can we do something with this. Yes, we can recycle it, but if there’s no marketplace, if there’s no stream that we can link into that can replace the virgin plastic and oil that’s going into it, then we’re just wasting a bunch of time and effort. So I think they were really trying to figure out can we either build a marketplace for this so that when we recycle, it’s got a place to go versus we just recycle it because we can. You can recycle lots of things, but it’s got to have a place to go. I really liked the fact that they were really conscious about that.

They didn’t want to jump around a lot and change it up because then it gets into behavior change and trying to educate the public. That takes a long time to do to get people to learn the rules, and if you keep changing the rules on them, you’re just creating more confusion. So they wanted to stick with long-term, consistent streams of material that they know has a market, and I think sometimes communities just say we could do this so let’s do it, or they just say we don’t want to bother yet or it’s not important to us. So in the US, it’s very state-dependent, city-dependent, county-dependent, so you’ve got thousands of experiments going on right now all over the country on what works well and what doesn’t. There’s some advantages to that, but also, it’s a little frustrating to go from city to city and have to learn new rules everywhere you go.

M: For sure. Can we transition a little bit to the Lean Six Sigma at home? I’d love to get into this one. I drive people nuts at home because I actually have this sign above the washing machine, the clothes washing machine, so if you put something in the machine that should not be put in the dryer, as you’re taking it off the wall, putting it on the washing machine, it says don’t put in the dryer and on the wall because there’s two giant red signs. But it’s so funny. It’s a simple little thing to try and mistake-proof the washing room process and the drying process because we all try and help out. But I’d love to hear this, what’s the Lean Six Sigma at home stuff? what are you running into? what are you trying to do there?

B: When COVID hit, I had a little free time. Everyone was stuck at home, and so I’ve been kind of practicing this myself, and also, when I would teach classes, I would bring up examples at home and I felt like people would resonate with that a little easier when I could talk about doing laundry, making dinner, doing chores. And so I actually built a little class called Lean at Home and I started teaching that and I got a lot of great feedback on it. During COVID, I switched over and made that another online course that I just put out there for free.

It’s pretty short, but I wanted to do two things. One is teach people some basic things, 5S and eight types of waste, and just understand some basic concepts, and then also the expectation is you’ve got to practice this. This isn’t something you just read about then, okay, I got it. You have to put it into practice. One of the common things I keep getting back from people is my company doesn’t report this or I don’t have time at work to do this, and so I keep pushing back to people to say you control what goes on your house, or at least you have to partner with your family to do this, but you don’t have to get approval from anyone. You don’t have to get your manager on board and you can apply a lot of these same concepts there. I’m just trying to find ways to remove the barriers for people to practice, and so at home is where they have the authority to do this. They don’t need that approval, so it’s just trying to show people some of the examples.

That website, Lean Six Sigma Homes, is videos I found online that people have put together on things that they’ve applied in their garage, when they’re making dinner. There’s a couple of resources that I recommend. Paul Akers and the 2-Second Lean. He does a lot of this Lean at home, and so he posts a lot of videos there. There’s also, on one of my podcasts, there was an interview with– Bradley Miller is a professor and he teaches supply chain classes, but he also has a Lean and Six Sigma program. Part of his Lean courses, he has the student do 2-Second Lean and then a kaizen event on something in their house. It could be a very simple thing like I made a hook for my keys or I put a little divider thing in between the seat and the console so that my phone wouldn’t keep sliding down in between the seats. Those are just little exercises and they had to create a video, and so I go through and I find the links to those videos and post them on that site too. I’ve got them categorized so people can look at different things like how to set up a diaper kanban for your child. A lot of people put some great stuff together; I’m just collecting all those into one place so it gives inspiration to people and what they could do to practice these things.

I felt like when I was learning about Lean, what gave me confidence in kanban was I made a little kanban for dog food. I set up 6 cans of dog food and I would order up to 12 cans. When I got below six, that was my trigger that I had to go buy six more so I would never run out, but I kept enough in stock that I didn’t have too much, but never too little either. The practice of me going and trying to figure that out gave me confidence to bring that back to work to say we can do this and this is how it works and here’s an example that I can explain to you that you’ll understand. Now let’s talk about these production parts and how that might work similarly. So I found that it’s good practice, and the concepts are easier to understand for people, and then you’ve just got to practice this over and over again where you get proficient. You have it in a safe environment where you can make mistakes and you can try things out, and then you’ll build that confidence to bring it to work. So that was the inspiration for that, and then I just moved it online this year just to try to get it out there.

M: That’s awesome. That’s great. Let’s get some fast-fire questions. What’s your favorite quote?

B: I really like the Fujio Cho quote, “Go see, ask why, show respect.” I think he really summarized it down to the basics of go out to the workspace, wherever the problem is at, look with your own eyes, ask a lot of questions, and do it in a really respectful way where you’re not pointing fingers at people but you’re trying to engage them in how, together, can we figure out what’s going on here. I think, as succinctly as he stated that, I really like that.

M: That’s the most succinct definition of Lean I’ve ever heard. That’s amazing.

B: Yeah, it is. It’s really well put together.

M: That’s fantastic. What’s your favorite business book?

B: There’s a lot of them. I really like Audible and audiobooks now. I can hardly even read a physical book anymore. I’ve plowed through as many ones as I can in the last couple of years. But actually, the book that I enjoyed the most, and I’ve never read it but there is a movie of it, it’s called The Goal by Eli Goldratt. He made a business movie about it, and this is from like the late 80s or 90s, I can’t remember. I think it was the 90s. He made a movie, and I found out you can rent the movie. It’s very expensive to buy. It’s a little cheesy, but it does a great job of communicating the idea of the flow and theory of constraints that he teaches and it’s very similar to a lot of Lean concepts. But I’ll try to do that in my classes, to show that movie. It’s about 45 minutes long, so it’s not too long to present. It’s a novel basically of how these things apply to his son’s Cub Scout troop, to his problems at work, and even they talk about his relationship at home. I really like that book, but it’s really the movie that I enjoyed and show and share with people.

M: Definitely the most referenced book on here, for sure. Is there a Lean leader you follow or study?

B: Yeah, there’s a lot as well. Definitely, the work from the Lean Enterprise Institute with Jim Womack. He actually came to speak at the company I was at, the aerospace company. He did a little tour and gave feedback to us, and so I got a chance to meet him. I like the work Mike Rother is doing with the kata principles. That really seems to be taking off. Paul Akers, I like his work and his excitement around Lean and the books he’s put out for free and all the resources he’s given away. I think that’s really cool what he’s up to.

And that I recently had a chance to meet Norman Bodek before he passed away and get to know him over the last couple of years because he lived just on the other side of the river from Portland. He passed away last year, unfortunately, but he’s just a wealth of knowledge on how he helped bring a lot of the concepts from Japan over to the US and get it translated into English. He gave our Lean Portland group, which is our little local volunteer group, a bunch of books and old material that we went through. He had these old productivity newsletters from the 80s and 90s, and so we went through and scanned all of those. That was another COVID project I worked on is I went over to his house and grabbed a lot of these books and materials because he was moving to Japan at the time, and we were able to scan those in and read through some of the old discussions that were going on and that was really cool. Just how much he’s always been looking for the next thing and the next technique to improve the way we do work. He’s been great to get to know, and unfortunately, he’s no longer with us.

M: What do you wish your 20-year-old self knew?

B: I think what I was surprised at, the job I have was a real job. I wish someone had told me that there’s this role that you could go around and help people with their processes and you could go in and you could learn and study the basics of how processes work, and you can learn to help them improve. I feel like I lucked into the role and I wish it didn’t have to be something I lucked into, and I find that with people I talk to. They’re surprised that this is a job, a Lean Six Sigma consultant role, and they like the idea that that sounds like a lot of fun, and it is. I love the work I do. So I wish that was something I knew about and I didn’t just happen to luck into it because I’m sure there’s a lot of other people that would be interested in becoming a consultant like that. So that, I feel, fortunate that I did find this role, but it shouldn’t have been as hard or difficult to figure that out, so I would’ve told myself keep on the right track. Just keep learning about statistics and data and processes and things like that, that there’s opportunities there.

And then the other part was really just learn to not dwell on things that go wrong. That it’s okay and you’ll learn from it, and that you don’t have to be I don’t want to say a perfectionist, but especially I did sports when I was in high school and college, and I really took mistakes badly. I think I beat myself up too much over it, and I feel like that actually hurt my ability to move forward and move on from those things. Now that I realize that mistakes are good and we learn from those and everyone makes mistakes, I think I would’ve had a different attitude about some of those things than I did and it would’ve been healthier, and I think it would’ve helped me a lot.

M: That’s good advice. How can somebody get a hold of you? what’s the best way?

B: Probably LinkedIn is an easy way. My name’s spelled a little different. It’s B-R-I–O-N. I don’t know how many Brions are spelled that way on LinkedIn, but if you type in Brion, I’m sure I’ll pop up pretty close, Brion Hurley. And then you can visit my consulting website is, and I’ve got some templates and links to those training materials I was talking about, those free courses. I have free downloads and videos and things I’ve put together. Again, I’ve tried to put a lot of stuff out there for people to get started. I hope they find something enjoyable because I think these techniques and concepts are applicable everywhere, from our own personal lives to our work and, ultimately, to societal problems that we have going on.

M: Brion, thank you very much for your time today, appreciate it. And thank you, everybody, for tuning in. For more information and show notes, please go to You can find us on Facebook and LinkedIn, The Lean Effect podcast, there’s a page there. Facebook, we have a Facebook group called Lean Six Sigma: People Pursuing the Perfect Process. You can join the conversation there. If you’re enjoying the podcast, please share with friends, colleagues, anybody you think could be helped with some Lean Six Sigma information. If you know of anybody that should be a guest on The Lean Effect podcast, please have them email me or yourself at I’m Mark De Jong. Thank you for listening, and have a great day.

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