Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E109: Applying Lean Tools to Environmental and Social Challenges – Lean Global Connection 2023

23 min read

In this podcast, I share the presentation I gave virtually at the Lean Global Connection on December 1, 2023. It is a free annual online event put on by the Lean Global Network (LGN). The event took place over a 24-hour period. All the presentations were recorded, and I encourage you to check out all the presentations on their YouTube channel.

LGN is a “consortium of not-for-profit organizations dedicated to advancing Lean Thinking and Practice throughout the world to make things better.” They are currently comprised of 30 institutes and partners across the globe with an online community of over 300,000.

In this presentation, I share my examples of how Lean tools can be applied or slightly modified to help organizations reduce their impact on the environment and help address challenges in their local community. This topic is ideal for those working at a for-profit company with sustainability goals, nonprofit organizations (NGOs), public services (education, fire, library) or in a government agency.

I discuss the currest state of Lean improvements and how they differ greatly from the current problems in society. I share examples of Lean applied to better distribute food and medical supplies, and reduce water usage. I also give examples of value stream maps (VSM) focused on water usage, electricity usage and racial inequity. I share a swimlane map for providing aid to crime victims, gemba walks to reduce environmental issues and homelessness. I also show how lean has worked for deaf and Blind workers. I also share templates to help you green your 5s and kaizen events. Finally, I challenge the attendees to come up with their next experiment (modeled after Toyota Kata) to work towards a social or environmental challenge.

You can watch the entire presentation (without edits) below, or go to


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Have you ordered the book, “Lean Six Sigma for Good: Lessons from the Gemba (Volume 2)?” 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. Now available in audiobook as of Feb 2024. You can also order Volume 1 released in 2019.


John: OK, good morning, good afternoon and good evening, depending on where you are. Welcome to our segment here. Brion and I are both, we have a little team we call the Lean Sustainability team, and by the way, we’re actually on, thanks to technology, we’re on literally opposite ends of the world, right? Brion’s in the US, and I’m all the way in Singapore. We named our team Lean Sustainability because we did want it to actually be inclusive of the whole idea of sustainability, right? So not only environmental, but also the social and the economic parts, you know? And only when you have those three components in harmony, you really have sustainability. We have a few people on the team, they weren’t able to join the session with us, you know Marcelo in Chile, Alister in Australia, Bruno in Brazil along with Geandra and a few other people that we’re just bringing in. So part of a movement, and if you want to join, let us know so we can all, you know, learn and and grow and develop together on this. And it was really good to see, I don’t know about you Brion, but I counted at least 13 other presentations throughout LGC that have something to do with sustainability, either on the social side or the environmental side, which is really great. A few years ago there wouldn’t have been really much. And Brion’s topic blends well with the idea of sustainability as an overall theme, because he mentions environmental and social and bringing those in harmony. Brion’s amazing. When I started on this journey, I was looking for people that were involved in this, and thinking “I’m going to have to start some tools and stuff.” Brion already had resources, tools, website, an entire seminar set up. He was doing workshops, extremely passionate about lean, but also extremely passionate about sustainability and one of the most sharing, just good people that I know. I mean, some people are very protective of materials and stuff like that. Brion is completely opposite, he just wants to share. He wants to see this happen and he wants to be part of it. I’m just really happy to be able to be the host, that I can actually introduce you, Brion. With that, we’d love to hear what you have for your segment here. So I’ll let you go.

Brion: OK, thank you John. Appreciate that

J: Yeah, looks good okay, at least on my screen, everything looks good.

B: I wanted to talk about the specific tools. You know, sometimes we talk about the tools aren’t that important. It’s really about the thinking and the principles behind that. And that’s where, 15 years ago probably, I got really excited about sustainability and how it could help us address some issues. Not just issues inside of our companies and organizations, but really societal and environmental.

I started with tools. Looking at “how can I morph this or use this (as is) to help with that?” And some tools fit perfectly nice, and then others I’ve noticed that it does help to have a little bit of tweaks or adjustments or modifications to them.

I think sometimes the tools can help us get started and eventually we need to get to the point where it’s just around the principles of thinking because we’re going to run into lots of different situations. We might not have a good tool for everything so I think it is important that we kind of have this balance of tactical physical tools and techniques that we can use with also a better understanding of what are we really trying to accomplish, what’s the most important stuff. That kind of leads people into the the details of what really matters: respect for people and aligning to goals and things like that.

I wanted to walk through some examples of things I’ve run across or used or I’ve seen that I think could be really helpful for you looking at different challenges we have. 

I do have my own consulting firm, Business Performance Improvement. I spent 18 years in Aerospace at a company called Rockwell Collins, now it’s called Collins Aerospace and that’s where I learned a lot about Lean and Six Sigma. For the last seven years, I’ve been doing my own consulting, now getting to work with lots of different organizations. Currently, we’ve got a lot of these improvements that we’re trying to make are based on, I’d say, more economic factors like John talked about: cash flow, inventory, quality and defects in our processes, customer satisfaction, lead time, cycle time, injuries, accidents, productivity. Those are typically what we see in case studies. And because we see a lot of applications with this in for-profit companies and those are great and those have positive impacts to environment and social without even trying. They’re just kind of side benefits sometimes of these improvements and so that’s great, we need more of this of course. But when you step back, kind of look at what’s going on around the world, it’s hard not to see the wars of conflict and water pollution, political unrest, sea level rise, migration happening, people have to leave their homes for various reasons, natural disasters, unemployment, inflation, homelessness, all these different things are going on. How do we shift some of this effort towards these issues?  These are the things that actually matter that can make a huge difference. How do we bring lean thinking and principles and tools into that discussion? 

I want to show some examples where we can start to head in this direction a little bit more and hopefully at the end you have some thoughts or ideas on how you can get more involved in some of these types of challenges as well. Can lean thinking help? It definitely does and it can and we’ve got lots of examples and even this conference has got a lot of great examples already of some of these problems being addressed with these tools and methodology. 

One of my favorite videos is the New York Food Bank. After Hurricane Sandy, they had to distribute food and they were able to increase their capacity from 800 boxes to 1,200 and that allowed them to give more food out to people in need. Before they would often run out of supplies and food and they’d have to tell people,”sorry, we’re out”. Not only that but they were able to reduce the time to distribute. It used to be a really long line, taking three hours to distribute even with 400 more boxes to give out, they were able to cut the time down to 1.2 hours. I got a link there for the video you can check that out, that’s an awesome project.

Second one is AccraFab, they’re a company in the state of Washington here in the United States. They were looking to improve their output productivity as a for-profit business and through some efforts with their local Department of ecology that’s in their state that helps with environmental issues and tries to reduce impacts in the state. Along with some lean consultants they were able to reduce their water usage by almost 70,000 gallons and that saved them almost $200,000 just by looking at their processes in a new way and that water can be used for better purposes.

There’s another video you can check out, Project C.U.R.E., they deal with donated medical supplies and equipment. They’re a nonprofit organization and they’re based around Houston, Texas and they had some students from University of Houston come in, they were taking a course in lean. They were able to help them streamline that process, reduce the time by 65% so they could process them and get them back out and those supplies would go overseas to organizations that don’t have the funds or access to some of these supplies. They talk through what that sorting process looks like, how they change the layout and the flow.  

We’ve got lots of examples like that. Every year there’s more and more of these examples coming through so it’s really cool.

 Let’s look at your value stream map.

What really got me excited about sustainability was I found these EPA tool books and the EPA is Environmental Protection Agency in the US and they saw that these things can work and help us work with businesses to reduce their impact whether it’s water, electricity or chemicals, energy.  They started to work with businesses and capture some of these best practices and they noticed that one thing they could do is take a value Stream app and add in some of these Environmental metrics into the data box. You could put in water usage, electricity usage, amount of chemicals consumed or hazardous waste generated. And we could bring that forward as an opportunity because that’s what we’re trying to do with the map is we’re trying to expose all the problems so we can see where we need to focus. Without those metrics we don’t know that there are opportunities there in the usage or the efficiency of those materials. You can also use it as part of the lead time and overall calculation for efficiency, adding in the total amount of usage. I found that a lot of those metrics and utility costs and usage are not well known by the teams. They don’t know how much energy they consume, they don’t know how much water they consume. So a lot of times just bringing that information to them really gets them to start to be aware of that.

There’s a link there to those toolkits where you can see some of these examples. You can do the same thing with electricity usage. This time they used it as part of the timeline. Instead of the time and the lead times and cycle times, the process- they switched it and put the usage as a timeline so that’s another way you could incorporate that into your your mapping. You could also look at it from a social standpoint; how do we get more diverse candidates into our organization? And not only into the organization but how do we get them through the organization and into management level? How do we get them into our executive levels? How do we make sure that they have a great experience going through? Because I think a lot of organizations were trying to get more diversity into their organizations but struggling. And if you look at it from a value stream perspective of, what is the process for someone to go through into an organization, it’s not just recruitment. You have to hire them in and onboard them and get them through the organization over the years through promotion and coaching and mentoring and ultimately you hope that they stick around and retire from the organization because they had such a great experience and were enjoying the work that they were doing. That’s the value stream but we often look at the piece of recruiting or hiring and we said let’s try to reach out to other communities and candidate pools that we don’t normally go after. That’s great but that’s only the first step and we know in value stream map we have to optimize for the whole process. You can put together a value stream map for the whole process of an employee going through your organization and identify where do we have opportunities to improve that and become an anti-racist organization. 

Christopher D Chapman had done a lot of work on this. I’ve got a link there to his articles that he published on website. He’s done some really great work to kind of help us look at this from a different perspective. This isn’t something we normally would map out in this typical way.  

I also found a really cool Swim Lane map that was done to look at crime victims in Miami, close to where I’m living at.  They were looking at the challenge of how long  when someone reports that they are a victim and they need assistance. How long does that process take and I think it’s taking like seven days for them to get some money so they could get into a secure housing situation and get out of the danger they’re in. And they figured out that that’s too long. There’s a lot that can happen in seven days that puts that person at continued risk. They were able to streamline that process down to I think less than one or two days because they mapped out that process and figured it out: how do we get money and assistance into the hands of people who need it right away as soon as possible to get them out of that dangerous situation. Again, the applications of this is really powerful when we start to look at these other challenges that we have in our local organizations and our society. There’s a link to that project. 

You can also take the concept of Gemba Walks and apply it to different situations so I’ve done some activities called treasure hunts or energy walks and the idea is to go around and see firsthand what is the energy usage going on in a building or facility and we can talk about it and look at it but of course the best way is to get a cross functional team of people together to go around and see what’s happening. And what we see is people start to ask good questions and learn about how energy is consumed in that facility and how their equipment uses energy and how their processes use it. And they start to notice those things and come up with great ideas to solve that. So we can do that with energy. I’ve also been involved with some dumpster dives. So if we want to understand what are we throwing away to the landfill, we can. The best way is to go through all the trash, rubbish that we have and see what’s going into that dumpster. It’s literally pulling apart the bags and sorting and categorizing it, collecting data to see what is going on and then using that data to prioritize where we can make some reductions. And what I found also is sometimes these things were thrown away, it flags problems in our process. So not only do we reduce the amount going to landfill, it exposes problems in our process: Why do we have to throw that away? What is all the time that it takes to process that particular item? And there’s probably some good opportunities there. 

Then we could look at something else. This one isn’t something I’ve done but this is the concept that we want to bring in. Let’s say we’re tackling youth homelessness. There’s an organization, Covenant House, that performs something called a sleepout. Where they say you’re gonna come out and you’re gonna experience and walk in the shoes of a homeless youth. And you’re gonna live on the streets for onenight and that’s going to gain that you know empathy for the people suffering and struggling. And you’re going to understand better what their challenges are and what needs they have by going through that experience. It’s not nearly the same experience but it starts to move us in that direction of walking in the shoes of the people we’re trying to help. That concept of Gemba Walks can be done many different ways. 

There’s a links to all those to check those out. 

Also got an opportunity to go visit Lighthouse for the Blind up in Seattle. Brent Weichers was there at the time and he was working with deaf, blind and deaf/blind workers and the challenges of trying to embed lean principles and thinking into that organization were not easy. He had to change some of the tools and approaches that he took including the training that it was conducting. So on the left there is an ‘on’ light but for some of their workers, just having the light was not good enough. They needed to add vibration, they need to add sound to it and light and at different levels. Sound levels much louder than what typical systems are built for. So tweaking and modifying that to make sure that when there’s a problem there’s an easier way for them to flag the light system and for others to respond and hear it. They also had to change the floor markings to make sure that it was more tactile that you could actually feel the change in the floor because most tape is flat and you walk past it you don’t feel a difference when you’re stepping on it but for their workers they needed to feel a difference to know that they’re up against an aisle or an area that they’re not supposed to cross over into. In the training he wanted to help them understand new layouts so he used Legos and said, “Feel the layout, this is how we’re organized, where would you want to put this machine to get the flow to be better”. The small Legos might represent people. How do we communicate these principles in a way that people can understand and make it a better experience for them to engage them in the process. When maybe the standard diagrams don’t work. Definitely check that out. Brent published a chapter in a book I put together called Lean 6 Sigma For Good. He’s in volume one and you can read all the work that he did there. 

You can also take standard tools and incorporate more Lean into those. When you do a 5S, we can add in a checklist and things to consider that maybe we haven’t always done in the past. Are we including our environment safety and health people? Are we looking at our cleaning supplies and making sure they’re most eco-friendly? Are we getting rid of towels and wipes and moving to more reusable items? Or looking for eco-friendly tape or low toxic paints? Or asking around before we just buy new stuff? Or if we need some new racks to organize our work area, maybe another team doesn’t need theirs and let’s us not have to buy new stuff. I’ve seen a yellow tag system that flagged an environmental or a safety type issue. There’s a little document there for 10 items or tips for Greening up your 5S activities, check that out.  

Your lean event in general, how do we make that more sustainable? When we’re going to an event, do we have to print out everything? Can we have digital files? I think we’re moving in that direction much more than we were in the past. But does everything have to be printed? And some things need to be printed, then we can challenge and say is this something we can print on recycled paper instead of just 100% virgin paper?  Then we’re having a Kaizen event, what does our food look like? Are we ordering from local suppliers, local vendors, local restaurants?  And how are we selecting the room? Does it have natural lights or do we have to have the lights on all the time because the lighting’s poor in that area. Can we create a a space that’s close to nature, that allows people to be more relaxed and more productive. Things like that to consider when you’re having an event. 

I threw out a couple different ideas to think about. There’s lots of examples out there if you start with the challenge of, “what is something you’re passionate about’. I went through a list of things at the beginning. Does any of those resonate or really tug on your heartstring a little bit? What I would ask is, if you think that these lean tools and principles can be applied and can help with that, how do you take that next step? Because there’s a lot of us who are starting down this path and been doing this for a little while but we can’t see the change that we really need with just a small group of us trying to promote this. We have to get the whole Lean Community to move in this direction. I challenge you: what is your next experiment you can do to see if these work. That you can apply these to something a little outside of the traditional applications outside of the company you work at. So a couple suggestions I’ll give you is, can you look at your organization and say: Do they have a sustainability program? Are they working on some things? Are they collaborating with some Ngo’s or nonprofits? Can you get involved in that and volunteer or even get paid to go and help some of those organizations that they’re supporting and teach them about lean in those principles? If not, can you volunteer some of your free time with a local nonprofit or NGO in your community that you are passionate about or care about? And third, maybe this is the time where you look at other opportunities and look at your local government. Look at political office or start your own nonprofit and apply and bring these principles in to help address one of these challenges. Or maybe you have some other ideas but I think it starts with taking that first step. 

I’ve had different groups I’ve worked with earlier presentations in this conference were from a group I was involved with called Lean Portland. That’s what we did is we got together with other lean practice practitioners in Portland, Oregon. We said these are challenges we want to help with. We know we can be of assistance, how do we do that. It was taking a first step and reaching out to a local nonprofit, saying can we help you. This is our skill set, do you need help with any of these challenges you’re dealing with. If you haven’t started on this or tried to do any of this type of work, I really challenge you and encourage you to to take that first step. 

That’s my LinkedIn, that’s the best way you could probably get a hold of me if want to reach out and connect.  John, do you have any questions?

J: Great, thanks a lot Brion. This is exactly what I was saying. Brion has so much things he’s developed, also curated from other sources and sharing a lot of that with us. He put this together just for us at the LGC. Do reach out to us if you want to join this movement or want more resources. And like Brion said, a lot of us, we’re doing projects and we don’t even really because we haven’t been measuring this right. So look at whatever you’re doing but maybe put on a green lens you know, so then we’ll start seeing, oh wow there’s actually water or water waste or other energy waste and then you might actually be saving carbon without even knowing it because we haven’t been tracking it. So those could all be things you can actually add to your results to some of your projects just by simply measuring. 

B: I think measuring is a great first step, we have to know where we’re at.

J: And you know I also do sustainability training and I can tell you the sustainability movement in the world right now, they need guys like us in this community.  Whether you consider yourself a lean expert or anything, you know sustainability is still a lot of focus on reporting, on compliance and there’s a perception that it’s about charity and things and there’s going to automatically be a cost to do that. What they really need is people that can get things done. They need problem solvers, they need innovators, they need people that are going to challenge the convention and show that actually there’s benefits on the revenue side there’s also benefits on the cost side. As you reduce waste and you improve costs and be green and then it’s a win-win and then it winds up being a great thing.

I think we got some Q&A here.

B: The question on education; so on education I think that’s definitely an opportunity there and it could be just bringing in some of these thinking and tools and knowledge into the schools to teach them the skill set but it’s also working with schools to lean out their processes around enrollment and student engagement and making sure that people are efficient at getting the learning that they need and making sure that learning is effective. So there’s a lot of effort especially at the colleges and universities. I know University of Michigan has a program where they have a old department. And the University of California San Diego UCSD has efforts going on in their schools to try and streamline their operations and how they provide that education to students coming through. So definitely education is one of those other challenges we have. How do we continue to grow and give access to people who need education that aren’t getting it today or give them more effective and practical education that can help them in their lives. So that’s a great opportunity there as well. 

How do you shift from corporate attitude from sync sustainability compliance versus the central way of doing business? I think it’s these pilot projects, just like we would do with any kind of lean transformation, is we look to see where is an opportunity we can get started. For me, it was going to my organization at the time and saying I did some networking and I found out electricity was our highest cost driver. And I went to them and said have we tried applying lean or Six Sigma methods to this? Have we done anything where we’ve studied the data and dug through this process versus just throwing out Capital expenses, “we need to add solar, we need to spend a bunch of money”. Not necessarily, let’s look at the problem first, let’s study the process. That project was very successful and that started some effort to say there are opportunities here to save money in our organization and our employees are passionate about this and our customers really want to know what we’re doing. Those are important for business. It lowers turnover and it makes customers more likely to pick you as a supplier. Those are great for business, in addition to the cost savings you can get by reducing your impact and cutting out the waste. To get an early success story and share that, I think can be really powerful.

We’re at our time here but please connect with John or myself if you have some examples or case studies you know about. We would love to hear those too so we can spread the word. Like I said, I’m not doing all this work, I’m just trying to curate a lot of this so others can find it easily and we can share and learn from each other. 

J: Excellent. Great questions. Thanks so much Brion for addressing those. Like Brion said, do reach out to us if you want to join or if you do have cases. We’re sort of in the process of trying to get some cases together and get organized on this so that would be a great help you know and be part of this whole movement: do good and improve the business at the same time.  It doesn’t get any better than that, it really is a win-win sometimes we just have to paint that picture for the organization to help them see that. And then once they do, I think they will embrace it. 

We’re a little over time and there’s no other questions so I guess we’ll start closing out. Thanks everyone for joining, thank you so much Brion for sharing your experience, spending your time and great to see the interest in this very important topic, fantastic. So have a great rest of your day for Brion and any of you in the Western Hemisphere in Europe and Africa and then for us in Asia, we’re getting ready to wind down today. Everyone enjoy the rest of your evening, day or morning. Thanks Brion. Okay everyone, see you next time.

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