Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

EC 037: Lean Six Sigma for Good – Interview with Iowa Lean Consortium Radio

26 min read

In this podcast, I share an interview I had with Steven Wilson, who runs Zoned Strategies consulting, and hosts the podcast show, ILC Radio. ILC stands for Iowa Lean Consortium, which is a nonprofit organization that promotes Lean, Six Sigma and process improvement within the state of Iowa and surrounding regions. I have been involved with them for a long time, including a workshop I co-led with Iowa State University CIRAS called “Lean and the Environment.” I welcome any feedback you have on my podcast. or you can rate my podcast on iTunes.


ILC Radio #17 with Brion Hurley

Iowa Lean Consortium

Holly Duckworth and Andrea Hoffmeier from Sherpa Sustainability Institute

Lean and the Environment workshop videos (from 2012)


Brion (B): In this episode, I share an interview I did with Iowa Lean Consortium Radio, which is hosted by Steven Wilson who runs Zoned Strategies, a consulting firm and he hosts this podcast and interview for the Iowa Lean Consortium, a nonprofit organization that helps coordinate and promote Lean Six Sigma process improvement throughout the state of Iowa. I’ve been involved with the ILC for a couple of years. As early as 2012, I did a Lean Six Sigma in the Environment workshop (Part 1Part 2Part 3) for them and that went really well. It was partnered with Iowa State CIRAS organization, Iowa State University. I have a video of those available; I’ll post those on the notes for this episode as well.

In this interview, we talk about the Lean Six Sigma for Good book, we talk about some of the nonprofit work I’m doing, and then also how we could incorporate environment and plan it into activities we’re doing and tie it to the real stakeholders that are affected by those issues. So, again, another interview I have, but hopefully, there’ll be something new you’ll take out of each of these interviews that isn’t just a repeat of the same thing. And then, hopefully, some of the things I’m saying, you’re hearing over and over again and it’ll start to sink in or maybe I say it in a different way that makes more sense to you or you might resonate with people you know more than the previous interviews I’ve done. So hopefully, you’re not getting bored of hearing me being interviewed, but I thought I would just share those anyways. Thanks for listening and talk to you later.

Announcer:  You’re listening to the ILC Radio Network brought to you by the Iowa Lean Consortium and Zone Strategies. Here’s your host, Steven Wilson.

Steve (S):  My guest today on the ILC Radio Network is Brion Hurley. Brion is the founder and owner of Business Performance Improvement, a consulting firm in Portland, Oregon, whose mission it is to help businesses and organizations achieve triple bottom line performance using Lean and Six Sigma. Brion, welcome to the ILC Radio Network.

B:  Thanks. Thanks for having me on.

S:  You bet, my pleasure. Brion had sent me and introduced me to a book of his that he recently wrote. It’s called Lean Six Sigma for Good with the subtitle How Improvement Experts Can Help People In Need and Help Improve the Environment. Brion, I’d like you to take a few moments, if you can, and just talk about starting out with where you’ve been and then how did you get from big corporate out to what you’re doing now? So take it away.

B:  Sure. A little bit of background, I started at Rockwell Collins at a school at University of Iowa, so I’m based out of Iowa, and that’s how I followed a lot with your podcast and the Iowa Lean Consortium. I worked at Rockwell Collins starting in 1999 and I got pulled in doing some work around Six Sigma and then Rockwell was going through a big Lean initiative and I was learning about that at the same time, so I kind of worked on blending Six Sigma into our Lean initiative. Then I worked at a couple of different locations around the US in Florida and then now out here in Oregon. I’m in Portland, Oregon right now and about a year ago, I left Rockwell and started my own consulting. I really just saw this great opportunity to look at Lean and Six Sigma tools more holistically, beyond just helping a company save money and improve customer satisfaction, but how do we tackle bigger problems in our communities and then global problems around the environment and social issues.

I saw that these tools work really well for that too and that got me really excited, like there’s so much opportunity there that we’ve got to start working on this. I started looking around and there really was not a lot going on. Toyota has their own consulting firm, it’s called Toyota Production System Support Center, and they had put out a couple of really cool videos. That’s something we could maybe send a link to. They show how they’ve gone and worked with food banks and other nonprofits and helped them streamline their processes and be more efficient, save materials, save money.

S:  They had a big issue with Hurricane Sandy, didn’t they?

B:  Yeah. That’s a video I show every time I talk about Lean is I show that video and how they were able to reduce the size of the boxes and get more boxes put on the pallets and delivered to the people in need faster and faster with less frustration and less struggle they went through. It’s a really inspiring way of showing how these concepts apply and work on, I guess, more rewarding type of work than just saving money for the business.

S:  Why does Lean and Six Sigma work as a process improvement methodology? What have you found out, and I guess, from a corporate, how it translates over into nonprofits etc.?

B:  I think the number one is that it’s engaging with people who do the work and it’s getting their input and ideas on how to make the processes that they deal with every day run more efficiently, less frustration, and with a focus around the customer and the end customer and saying are they getting what they are asking for and what they need? I’m a part of that, but sometimes people don’t see how they fit into the bigger process. At the heart of a lot of these discussions with process mapping and brainstorming and data collection, it’s getting people interested in seeing how they fit in and how they can improve their work to meet those objectives.

Then with the data piece, obviously, there’s a lot of Six Sigma tools on what to do with that data once you collect it up. Then on the Lean side, it’s looking at my work and how do I prioritize the work I’m doing and what should I be working on next and how large of a batch should I be doing and trying to reduce those down so that I can get feedback and move things along form my work area faster to the next person. Some of those basic concepts, I think, are very applicable when you get…

What I’m experiencing, getting into the nonprofit world, is they have lots of tasks to take on and they have volunteers and they have a staff that has not enough resources to be able to handle all that and so sometimes they’re just struggling to try to keep up and to show them new ways of looking at the process and not try to make them work harder but really smarter about how the work is done. A lot of times, they just haven’t been exposed to what we would call “normal” manufacturing principles and basics around process controls and data collection and flow. These are new concepts, what I’m finding. So when you go in there introduce things, like eight forms of waste, and look at 5S, and look at One Piece Flow, and Statistical Process Control (SPC), things like that, this is brand-new to them, so there’s a lot of opportunity in that respect.

S: In Chapter 2 of your book, which is entitled Beyond Profits, you give some examples there of Toyota Production System and the support center. Do please send me that link because when we put this up on the ILC site, we can go ahead and include that link. You talk about Big Brothers, World Vision International, other things there, but then you go into talking about that there are two ways that individuals can help in this and you highlight a couple of different areas – help improve the environment or help address societal or people issues. Can you share some examples of those and some of the work that you’ve been involved in or that you’re aware of?

B:  Sure. When I think of the term sustainability or triple bottom line, it’s really taking what the normal focus for a lot of organizations is is about the money – where does the money come in, where does it go, are we making more money or bringing in more money, or are we cutting our costs. A lot of the focus for most of your audience would be… That’s the emphasis for a lot of things. The idea around the triple bottom line is that we have to look at more than just financial dollars. That’s obviously important and organizations need to make money and do well, but are we looking at the environmental impact of some of the decisions that companies make and are they considering the environment in terms of what their customers want? Is that part of the requirements, what they have for greener products or services?

The other piece of that is the community in which they operate. Are they good stewards? Are they good partners in the community? Are they running a respectable business that people think highly of? Are they providing good paying jobs? Are they providing volunteer opportunities for their employees and giving them time to go do those? Those are the types of things that they look more broadly, we want to make sure that they’re making decisions looking at all three of those areas.

The two that aren’t looked at as often – and again, it depends on the company – is to look at the environmental piece of that, and then the social community piece of that. When you’re looking at environmental stuff, it may be what activity is an organization doing to reduce their energy usage? What are they doing to reduce the amount of hazardous chemicals that they produce or have to dispose of? How much water are they consuming? Those are things that an organization can look at and also understand how they impact the whole community. Are they the biggest contributor to certain areas? If they’re consuming a lot of water, is that taking away from others from having access to that water? This type of things from the environment side.

On the social side, just looking at it from what are the big issues in the area and can the organization… Do they have resources they can provide or help with to solve some of those problems? Even the ability to volunteer and give their expertise in some of these issues is really powerful. When I was with Rockwell, a couple of years into it, we got pulled into a grant project through it’s called Cedar Rapids Healthcare Alliance. They were looking at improving how one of the healthcare clinics operated, and so Rockwell donated myself and a couple of other colleague’s time to go work with them and try to implement some Six Sigma and Lean concept into their clinic.

To me, that was a good example where the organization, they don’t have expertise, Rockwell didn’t have expertise in healthcare, but they had some people that could help and assist with that. Giving away that time to help the broader community, I think, is that type of example that we’re looking at. There’s a lot of great companies doing stuff like that, but I just want to continue to promote that idea that there’s a lot of issues that impact the employees and there’s a lot of employees that would go to that clinic, and so if the clinic is not running very efficiently, maybe they’re gone from work longer or maybe they have complications that come from there and they’re out sick longer, so it does actually benefit the company’s bottom line in an indirect way.

S: How does one initiate this conversation with their employer? How do they do that?

B: I think the first thing I would recommend if I was talking to someone about their organization is to look at what the organization already has done. Most companies and the larger companies, the larger they are, the more they’ve got at least a strategy or some activity they’ve started around corporate responsibility. They publish a corporate sustainability report, a responsibility report, so I would say start there. See if they’ve published or promoted any programs that they offer, whether it’s education and community, like STEM (Science Technology Education Math) support or some kind of volunteer activity. Look for what the company is already doing and figure out is there a way to leverage that relationship and expand on that as a volunteer, or maybe it’s even part of your role in the company could become to work a little bit at a time on that initiative they have.

So I would say start first looking at – is the company doing anything around those areas. If there’s something in particular that you really get excited and like, then I would say reach out to the internal contact person and say, “I’d like to get more involved. What can I do?” A lot of companies will give up some of your time in volunteer time, even paid time, to go and support some of these initiatives.

If you find out that they really haven’t started too much, then that could be something you approach them with and say, “I think this is an area that we should, as an organization, be involved with. It aligns with our values, it aligns with our vision of where we want to go, it’s important to our organization.” If you can link that back to the organization itself and say, “By helping out in this community project, it’s good for our business and it’s good for the community,” a lot of the organizations will at least give that some consideration and start maybe going down that path. They just need to see that their employees are interested in that same topic, so you have to step forward and say, “I am interested in this. This is important to me.” They see that as an important thing because if you’re engaged within the company on things that are important to you, they feel like that’s more likely you’ll stick around in the company, and they don’t have as much turnover and that, again, will indirectly impact their bottom line.

S:  Our guest today on the ILC Radio Network is Brion Hurley. Brion is the founder and owner of Business Performance Improvement, a consulting firm in Portland, Oregon. Again, as I mentioned at the beginning, mission is to help businesses and organizations achieve triple bottom line performance using Lean and Six Sigma. You can find out more about the organization as well as the book, Lean Six Sigma for Good, at

Brion, as we talk about sustainability and, as a matter of fact, I just had a meeting earlier today with someone, we were talking about sustainability but it was sustainability in the terms of long-term results, how do we make sure that we sustain the gains in that. But when you talk about sustainability, you’re not ignoring that, but you’re talking about something more than that, aren’t you? Can you elaborate?

B: Sure. That’s the, I think, what most people think about when we talk about performing a Six Sigma project, I want sustainable results, 12 months or longer. When we implement process improvement or Lean techniques, we want that to last, and so that’s definitely a piece of that. The broader topic around sustainability is that for an organization to be successful, they need to be able to last decades into the future. If they’re not thinking about that and they’re depleting the resources that they’re consuming, and there’s no long-term plan to move away from that particular resource, then where does the company end up in a couple of decades? Are they struggling because now what made them money today is no longer available?

And so it is really kind of broader is how does the company live for the next couple of decades out to the next hundred years, to even thinking thousands of years in the future? I know it’s difficult to even get some organizations to look three to five years in advance, but when companies that really get serious about this start to look much, much further out and look at where is our community going to be in the next 30, 40 years and are we aligned to that, or are we involved in that discussion? If we don’t think that way, we’re vulnerable and then we won’t be able to survive in the long run.

S: How do you, I guess, begin to engage a company or organization? How do you engage with organizations and what services do you provide?

B: I think what really excited me about this combination of Lean and Six Sigma techniques with sustainability is that if I go in straight to, “Let’s go solve your environmental problems and let’s go address some of your social issues in the community,” sometimes there isn’t as much excitement right off the bat with that. There’s a set few number of companies that that would really excite them right away, but a lot of times they’re saying, “That’s great. We’d love to do that, but we’ve got real business problems going on. This is not really the number one problem we have to deal with.”

I think, where I see it, a great thing is I can get started by looking at those business problems. For example, let’s say that one of the problems is they’re struggling to get enough of their materials processed per day and they want to improve efficiencies and run more effectively there. We can look at the evaluation of that process and find out that there’s a lot of time being wasted by packing and unpacking the materials. They’re sending materials from different spots in the facility and they have to wrap up product to make sure it doesn’t get damaged, and then the next person has to unwrap that material. We could look at that and say “is there a way we can cut that waste out of the process?” Can we go to reusable containers of some sort so that I can just place the product in a pre-cut foam cutout and it’s protected?

The other question would be why is it traveling so far? Why are we so spread out? Should we bring those two groups together? Maybe I don’t need the box or container at all in the first place. By looking at the waste in the process, naturally, you’re going to address some of the materials that you’re throwing away in the landfill, and you’re paying somebody to come pick up and you’re going to get charged for. By taking out the time, we’re getting more productive, you can do more with the same number of resources, and by accident almost, we started chipping away at some of the landfill costs and some of the materials that are going to the trash. Or maybe we find a home for the materials and say we can reuse these or we can recycle them, in fact, and save a little money that way.

I feel like if I can get my foot in the door and say, “Let’s look at those business problems with a lens around looking at the sustainability piece; not just focused only on the business part of it,” I think it opens up much more opportunities and potential issues in the process than if I’m just purely looking at it from a time perspective or a quality perspective. I think starting out by going after those business issues and then when I’m looking for waste, I know that if I can cut down inventory, that cuts down materials and that’s good for the environment. If I can get engaged people, they can take some of these ideas. If I can teach them concepts, they can take some of these ideas home with them and if it helps their own personal life, that’s a good thing and that helps our community.

I think it still has to be this first discussion around how do I impact the business in a positive way and maybe then steering the conversation a little bit or at least helping them identify those other opportunities that are either side benefits of the improvement, or other things they could bring in using the same approach. If they do decide we should cut down our energy cost, it’s actually impacting our department budgets, then we can use some of these topics surrounding analysis to do regression modeling of the energy usage. Or we could do a gemba walk and start to look around for when are the equipment being left on, and when are the lights being left on, and what happens during breaks and changeovers that we could cut down the amount of energy being consumed. So it’s kind of wrapping the core principles of Lean and Six Sigma around that, but expanding the opportunities that you might see.

S: Can you share, not necessarily identifying organizations, but what are some of the things that you’re currently working on right now?

B: Sure. I’ll talk about one of the groups that really got me going down the path of the book, it’s a group called Lean Portland. We are different Lean and Six Sigma practitioners in the community that get together, and we all decided that we’d like to do some volunteer work and share the knowledge that we’ve gained over the years. We all have many different years of experience in different industries from healthcare to logistics to small business to aerospace, like myself. We realized it’s really great to work together on some of these things. We start to learn from each other, but the bigger thing is we can go and teach this to nonprofit organizations.

We’ve gotten our foot in the door with some reuse organizations where they receive in donations, and then they process those in some way or evaluate them, and then make them available for sale, and what they sell they keep, and then they use that [money] for their ultimate mission for the organization. That’s very much like a manufacturing process except you don’t really control your supply chain very well. You just are receiving whatever your suppliers, in this example, are providing to you. The concepts work fairly well, but you have to also tweak it a little bit and say what happens when you don’t have the ability… You don’t decide what your suppliers are bringing to you, you’re just recipients of that? So you have to have a very flexible and agile receiving process and it has to run fairly efficiently so you can quickly move things in and out and process things, and do that with people who might be volunteering for the first time. And so you have to make processes that are very simple for people who are just starting off to walk in and quickly be able to tell – from the visuals, the color coding, the signs, and how the process is laid out – that they can be very productive and useful right away instead of having…

A lot of the challenges we were dealing with is it takes so long to train up somebody for volunteering that we get very little value out of them, and they don’t have a great experience because they didn’t feel like they contributed very much, and then they don’t come back. If they have a good experience and they can jump in right away and feel like they’re contributing, they’re more likely to come back again, which cuts down on the amount of training you have to do next time. That’s been really exciting trying to get in and see the nuances and changes that you have to adjust for with a nonprofit.

That group, anyways, has been going for about two years now and we’ve worked with about five or six different organizations. Each one is a little unique and different in what they’re trying to accomplish, but that’s really trying… A lot of it has been around partly social, because their organizations are trying to deal with big problems like homelessness and housing opportunities and shelter, and another part of it is just keeping things out of the landfill and reuse and reselling of materials, so we’re not consuming as much materials.

S: One of the challenges that you put forth in the book is you asked the question are you willing to help set up or join a volunteer group in your local area. How does one get started? I know you talk a little bit about it in the book. For those that might not have the book at present, what’s a way for someone to get a group like that set up?

B: On that Lean Six Sigma for Good website, they can download the book for free, it’s available for PDF or an audiobook version. That was the idea, I just really wanted to get the word out and message out. On the website, I have a link of any cities that are making some progress on this, and there’s not very many right now. My vision is that, basically, every city would have their own little volunteer group going on. Of course, your Cedar Rapids and Iowa Cities and Des Moines should have these types of groups in my opinion, but it’s also the small towns. As long as you have some people that are willing to get together, there’s no town too small that couldn’t use some help and benefit there. So to me, it’s kind of unlimited in terms of how much we could spread this kind of model or idea around.

I’ve got a couple of tips in there about trying to set up a LinkedIn group, perhaps, because that’s where a lot of professionals network and you can find them locally. Then as you start to build up that group, and you reach out to people you know and share the group, then you’ll start to build up enough people who say, “Maybe we should get together and talk about this,” and maybe somebody in the group has a connection with a nonprofit already that they could start the discussion. It doesn’t really require too much work except that first step of saying, “I’m going to be the one that will take the first step and try to coordinate that.”

What we’re trying to do here in Portland is to try to capture what is working well, and try to share that with these groups as they’re getting set up, so they don’t have to go through the same struggles and learning curve that we do. We’re still definitely learning as we go. We don’t have this figured out by any means, but it seems like anyone else hasn’t really figured it out either, so we want to build some kind of community to start sharing with one another, and saying what works well for these organizations because they have their own struggles and challenges and we want people to be successful and help these organizations that are doing a lot of great work. I don’t know if that helps answer the question there.

S:  Yeah, absolutely. As we wind down here, I wanted to ask you about the Sherpa Sustainability Institute. How has that been beneficial with the work that you’re doing?

B: That’s an organization that was set up, very similar idea but they were really looking at it from taking these principles, heavier on the Six Sigma side of it, but looking to say there is a structure in which you can go through, as an organization, and apply the concepts and principles to your sustainability program. The way they look at it is taking the DMAIC model from Six Sigma and expanding that out and doing a lot more upfront work.

As you reach out and start looking in your community, you start realizing we have a huge number of people who are stakeholders to an organization. It’s not just the employees and the suppliers and customers; it’s the community leaders and the nonprofit organizations and government officials. All those different areas are stakeholders and so when they are considering a plan, they want to involve as many voices as they can upfront. That will allow them to get that feedback to same where do they feel the organization needs to focus? Is it on providing education opportunities? Is it in terms of providing better-paying jobs? Is it assisting with some of the struggle areas with homelessness or lack of housing?

Depending on the organization, they’re all going to have different things that they can actually influence that actually fits into their skill set. And so getting that feedback from many different stakeholder groups will allow the organization to tweak their sustainability efforts to something that is most impactful that they can actually impact and affect. That’s the first step. Instead of starting with a problem and putting it into a project charter and a problem statement and doing the business case on it, their model is promoting this stakeholder initial review to get everybody on the table together before we start going down specific problem areas, and then tie that effort back to your organization and the goals and objectives you have.

Somewhere, there’s going to be a nice fit that if we address this issue that’s a little bit external to our organization, it actually does help our business. This is what our customers have been asking us for as well. They want to see that we’re doing the right thing. They don’t want to pick up the paper and read about something that happened to one of their suppliers; it makes them look bad. And so when they see that organizations are being proactive and going after these things, they feel more confident and more likely to award business to those organizations. I think you’re seeing that become more and more important. It’s not just about who’s got the lowest priced product, but are you also going to create problems and bad publicity for us down the future? Those are becoming more and more important criteria for businesses.

So that’s the idea is that they’re promoting this modified DMAIC model to incorporate sustainability and going through and teaching these tools. I went through a program with them and it was developed by Holly Duckworth and Andrea Hoffmeier. Some of the times, they’ll be working with nonprofits and sometimes it’s for-profit businesses.

S: That’s interesting because we oftentimes talk about the stakeholders and the customer and the community, but to what extent do we really develop that out and truly pursue and find out the impact on the community, not just in a financial or simply in financial terms.

B:  Like the Native American tribes, those are groups that are really big in Iowa and out here in Oregon as well. They are stakeholders in how the land is used and maybe their voice hasn’t been heard or adopted recently, but how do we go back and try to pull them into some of those discussions again? When you start looking at it, it’s a huge number of people involved. Not to be overwhelming, but then at least just start to consider these different areas and different stakeholder groups and figure out how can we get their voice heard so when we do go down this path, we know that there’s a lot of people who will be excited to see about the progress we make as an organization.

S:  As we close down here, if there’s a few points that you want to make sure are driven home for our listeners, what would they be?

B: Let’s see. I think the first thing I really tried to focus on with the book was think about what are the problems and issues that really get you excited or you feel really passionate about. There’s so many things to look at, whether it’s the cure for a disease, or problems going on in other countries, or pollution in your own backyard to, like I said, the social services, making those more available to people or improving healthcare and access to that for people. Whatever the issue is that you feel most passionate about, I would say start there and look for who are the organizations, if your aren’t already involved with them, that are trying to do the same kind of thing.

A second thing would be then look at what is the skill set you have. I focus on Lean Six Sigma because that’s the people I work with a lot, and that’s what I know, but you could easily say Lawyers for Good and insert any other job function in there. There is a need out there for your skills and services and to first connect with that organization and go in there humbly and say, “I’m here to help. I’m here to learn.” Later, you’ll find out that there’s some problems in there that your skill set would be perfect for them, and they need that help, and then you can start to guide them and coach them and teach them what you know, so they can run more effectively, make best use of the money that they do get, and use it more effectively. It’s going to be really good learning for you and experience, and you get to maybe try out some things that you don’t get to try out your normal job, and so I think you’ll find it very rewarding as well.

S:  Brion, how is the best way for folks to get in touch with you or to communicate with you?

B:  Thanks for mentioning the website link, Also, LinkedIn is probably the easiest way to find me. My name is spelled B-R-I-O-N, it’s a little different, but Brion Hurley. I don’t think there’s any other Brion Hurley’s on there, if there are, look for the one in Portland, Oregon.

S:  Brion, thank you for, again, being a guest on the ILC Radio Network and I appreciate your time in sharing with us your experiences and also how other individuals can get involved in things, as you were talking about, with these nonprofits and moving beyond just the dollars and cents and seeing the benefits of taking these tools, these methodologies beyond the dollars and cents. I appreciate you taking your time to visit with us about that today.

B:  Anytime. Thank you.

S:  You’ve been listening to the ILC Radio Network, appreciate. And be sure to reach out to Brion as well as go to the website. Again, that’s LeanSixSigmaForGood, spelling out F-O-R. We’ll put some links on the program as well. Thanks again for listening to the ILC Radio Network.

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