Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

Lean “Go and See” mindset also works on the environment

13 min read

I’d like to share another example of Lean and Six Sigma application to environmental issues. Let’s start with a simple approach for reducing energy that doesn’t require a lot of technical expertise or outside consulting. Sometimes we don’t see wasted energy as a problem on the same level as product defects, excessive inventory, or over processing work. However, once you can make that connection that wasting energy is a problem, then we can address it like any other problem.

When you have a problem, the best way to solve it is to get up out of your chair, go to the physical location(s) where the problem is occurring or being discovered, and observe with your own eyes. Find the people involved who know the most about the problem, ask a lot of respectful questions (to make sure you clarify what the true problem is), and make your own observations about what is happening. You’re not there to blame anyone, you’re there to understand, and assist them in solving the problem. Often times, people guess or assume they know what’s going on, because they’ve been to the “gemba” in the past (gemba is where the work takes place). Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho used the phrase “Go see, ask why, show respect.” Very simple approach but very powerful. Not only do you help solve a problem, but you engage your employees in asking their opinions, and listen intently to what they say. You are showing them how important this issue is to you personally, and you respect them enough to come talk to them in person to get the true story of what is going on. You are showing leadership that all problems are important to you, and you want to help them be successful. At the bottom of this article, I reference some good books about “Gemba” that you might be interested in.

We took this “Go and See” approach to develop a process to increase employee engagement and reduce wasted energy to help achieve carbon footprint reduction goals.

First of all, “Go and See” is a very simple concept. If you ever get confused or get overwhelmed with the approach, go back to the intent of this idea. This approach is very scalable. I am going to describe the more formalized process we use. But you don’t always need this formality. The simple approach is to go to your workplace during off hours, and walk around and take notes and lots of photos. That’s it! It only takes 10 minutes. Surely we all have enough time to do that. I would actually recommend doing that first, before you take a more formal approach.

The formal approach consists of these major steps.

1) Off hours observations
2) Case for change
3) Define the team
4) Prepare for event
5) Kickoff training
6) Run the events
7) Organize and prioritize opportunities
8) Review action items
9) Establish roles and responsibilities
10) Communicate successes

You can download a one-page summary of these steps for future reference.

In the rest of this article, I’ll go into more detail about each of these steps. At the end of each step, I also added some key questions to ask, to determine if you are ready to move to the next step.

1) Off hours observations: It’s Sunday night. No one is working in the building. Perfect time for a quick look around. You are trying to find out what the “current state” of wasting energy is within your building. Typically we find the following items left on: lights, printers, speakers, computer monitors, personal fans, task lighting, air conditioners, space heaters and cell phone chargers. In addition, especially on the manufacturing floor and in engineering labs, we find test equipment, battery chargers, process machines, industrial fans, and compressed air leaks. I recommend going at night, since it will be easier to see the items left on.

2) Case for Change: Assuming you found some opportunity, you now have some preliminary data (photos and observations) to share with the leadership responsible for the items left on. This helps us build the case for change. We need to explain how there is opportunity to save money, and drive good behaviors with the employees. If the photos and observations are not convincing enough, you may need to estimate some costs of leaving some of the larger items left on. Many of the office items are low cost (like monitors, speakers and personal fans), so you won’t be saving a lot of money turning them off. Focus on the larger items with leadership, like test equipment, HVAC equipment and process machines. Remember to include the soft benefits of this effort in your pitch, specifically that participation from employees in this activity will drive good behaviors, and they will be more likely to identify other types of energy waste in the future.

  • Decision to proceed: Decide if the leadership agrees there is opportunity for improvement, and they are willing to show support for it, and fund some time for employees to participate in a formal event. Estimate about 4 hours per employee, and 8 hours for individuals who help organize the event.

3) Define the team: You want to find a good mix of employees. Start with the employees who work in the area. They should make up the majority of team members. Include people from facilities, maintenance, ES&H and some employees who do not work in the area (outside set of eyes).  I would also invite managers and leaders in the area, so they can observe with their own eyes what is happening. I’m assuming you will facilitate the event, but if that’s not possible, you will need a facilitator. During the event, split the team into smaller groups, to make sure everyone is engaged, and each team should have someone who is familiar with the area, who can explain the work area to the rest of the team.

Consider selecting a few “cheerleaders” who will tell everyone about what they did (help communicate the event observations), and a few “nay-sayers” who may have been resistant to behavior change in the past. Remind everyone early on that they should not be telling people about the event, in case it causes others to overhear, and they change their behavior right before the event. We want to capture the true “current state” of behaviors.

  • Decision to proceed: Do you have the most critical people in the area available to participate? If not, you should wait until they are available.

4) Prepare for event: The major issue is availability of the right participants. The full event consists of five different time periods. You may find enough opportunity during the off hours observations that you may not need the others at this time.

1) Event Kickoff – explain the event, case for change, big picture of energy reduction, what their roles will be, review schedule and team, and answer questions
2) Off hours weekend – This will be a formal event, instead of the quick observation completed in step #1. Again, come in during a time when the fewest number of people will be working. You may need to pick a strange time (5:00 AM on a Sunday), if you have a lot of working shifts.
3) Work Start-up – You should be there an hour before the first people arrive at work, to see when things get turned on (as they need it, or right when they arrive), and if startups are staggered or done all at one (which affects peak demand).
4) Working hours – Anytime during normal working hours. Make sure you observe during break times and/or lunch shifts on whether things are left on all the time, or shut down when no longer in use.
5) Working shutdown/shift change – Observe the hour before, during and after a shift is complete or switches to the next shift. Determine if things get shutdown, or left on for the next shift to deal with.

Find a date and time that works best for everyone. Then get it scheduled as early as possible. The hardest time to schedule is off hours weekend, since it may impact people’s family time, so be considerate and thankful. Food and drinks are always helpful to encourage people to attend.

You also need to determine what area is being looked at during the event. Is it the entire building, or just a certain part of the building (2nd floor only, test labs only, offices and conference rooms, etc). This may depend on the number of team members you have, and how much time is available.  The scope can be flexible and adjust during the event, but we want the team to have some boundaries to begin with. Are there any areas off limits, locked or under construction that need to be avoided, or that require special access? Discuss whether those are “in scope” or not.

  • Decision to proceed: Has everyone confirmed whether they can attend or not, and are the key people going to be there? Is leadership agreeable to the boundaries?

5) Kickoff training: This meeting should not take more than an hour or two. You should give them an overview of the company energy reduction efforts (or lack thereof), explain why this area was chosen, how the event will be run, what their role is, and what the intended outcome will be. You should also tie the energy waste into any existing Lean, Six Sigma or continuous improvement initiative, to show that it’s just another form of waste that we need to eliminate, and it’s not something new.

The more specific data you can provide ahead of time about the specific area will be helpful. If possible, we try to gather or measure a week’s worth of data, to show them what opportunities might exist. For example, One group had a very high baseline load (lowest amount of energy used at any time). This showed the team that there was a lot of energy being used, even during off hours, so they should focus on identifying items being left on, or running on the weekends. Other reports might show spikes on certain hours of the day, or days of the week, that might warrant further investigation. The more specific data you can provide, the more meaningful to those in that area. Make sure you have the kickoff meeting as early as possible, to gain buy-in, and increase the chance of people being able to attend.

  • Decision to proceed: Do the team members have their questions and concerns answered? Do they agree the right people are invited to the event?

6) Run the events: As people arrive for the first day of observations, assign them to a group and explain which area they are to focus on. Review the list of observations they should be making during the walk through. This is not a race, they should take their time and study everything. Plan for two hours, but it may take an hour or less, depending on how large an area they have been assigned, and how much stuff is left on. Make sure they look under desks and behind equipment. Listening is just as important as watching, to identify things making noise, which means they are using energy. Each group should have a camera, clipboard, and checklist of items (to remind them what to look for). If you want to get technical, you can provide Kill-A-Watt meters, photometers, and temp/humidity sensors to gather actual data. Refer back to item #4 to see the different events that should be scheduled, and what the intent is for each of them. Again, the team may decide the other areas are not needed, or could be addressed by a smaller team.

  • Decision to proceed: Has the team properly documented with photos or notes the observations they made, and provided those to a team leader for compiling? Are there any other observations that still need to be made (secure or locked areas)?

7) Organize and prioritize opportunities: To compile the observations, I would recommend having an action item spreadsheet. You probably have something similar you use already, so stick with a format they might already be familiar with. Nothing fancy here. The goal is to identify 3 key actions that are the priority. The other items can be addressed later, and only after each top item is completed. This prevents the team from getting spread out too thin, and not fully getting anything done. Be diligent and stick to the 3 items!

In addition, not all of the top 3 should be big actions. There should be at least one item that is quick and easy to do. You want to have something immediate come out of the event, to show some early success and progress. Nothing is worse than waiting 6-12 months for something to get implemented, and losing momentum with the team. I would recommend scheduling a cadence the very next week, to take advantage of that momentum. Finally, a “report out” should be held with the leadership to go over the prioritized plan, and solicit feedback on what ideas they like, or have reservations about. Invite the entire team, so they can add their own personal observations, and hear what the leadership had to say. Encourage the leader to thank the team for participating and coming in during their off hours.

  • Decision to proceed: Has the team agreed that the top 3 actions reflect the observations they made? Is the cadence reviews scheduled out for the next few months?

8 ) Review action items: There should be weekly reviews for the first month or two. They can be pushed back to monthly reviews, if the actions are longer in nature. Most of the participants have other job responsibilities, so be flexible with some of the action item due dates. Help reassign some of the actions, or assign smaller portions of the actions to other team members, especially if some of the actions fall to a few key people. A monthly cadence should also be held with leadership to summarize progress to date. Preferably, the cadences never actually end, and this team becomes an active working group that is continually improving the energy usage in the area. In that case, the meetings should be led by someone who knows the area the best, and as new issues come up, they can add them to the priority list, and review it each week or month.

  • Decision to proceed: Make sure progress is being made during each cadence, and elevate any delays or lack of response from other groups to the leadership.

9) Establish roles and responsibilities: As you will realize pretty quickly, determining who is responsible for shutting things off is probably an issue. That might be the first action taken after the event. At a minimum, it should be documented, communicated and trained to the right people.  Consider adding these roles into the existing documentation and instructions that already exist, so you don’t create a new document or procedure that no one looks at. Signs and visual controls are always preferred to documents. This is where leadership should be most engaged, to help break down barriers between different departments and organizations within the company.

  • Decision to proceed: For the observations made during the event, is there a clear responsible person for shutting things off, and do they acknowledge and accept that responsibility?

10) Communicate successes: This is a common breakdown of any lean event. I would recommend having a communication about the event within one week of the event. After the first month, if there are any successes (no matter how big or small), this would be the 2nd communication. My personal experience is that many teams are hesitant to share their successes because they keep waiting for the “big” improvements to show up, and that often doesn’t happen. It’s the numerous smaller improvements that may actually be interesting to others. Finally, after about six months, if there are more tangible savings, a 3rd communication should go out. These are the formal communications, and could include press releases outside the company. However, that should not be the only communication taking place. There should also be numerous and more frequent informal communications. Encourage the team members to talk to their co-workers in other areas, and tell them what they observed. This can help generate interest and momentum for future events. Post some successes on the company intranet or social media sites.

The other part of communication is to identify actions that are relevant to the entire building or company, and kickoff an effort to address them across the board, not just in the area from the event. Common “systemic” issues are: leaving lights on in offices and conference rooms, leaving monitors on, leaving overhead projectors on in conference rooms, not communicating air leaks when they hear them, and turning off test equipment. A majority of the observations made will probably have some applicability to other areas. I would recommend having someone else lead those efforts, so you can focus on getting the team through their actions. Work with the leadership to find someone to assign to that broader task.

  • Decision to proceed: Has communication been put out to other parts of the company about the event, and is someone working to address issues that affect a broader audience? What is the long-term plan for energy management in this area?

Download a one-page summary of these 10 steps >>

Here are some videos showing Energy “Treasure Hunts” and Energy Kaizen events, to give you an idea what it should look like…

This approach works with other environmental issues as well. You can have a Waste “Go and See” to collect data on what is being thrown away. Gather up a couple days worth of trash, and manually go through it and categorize whether it can be recycled or not. You could also conduct a Water “Go and See” to see what items are using water during off hours, and trace the path of water coming in and going out of the building, and identify any possible leaks.

Here are some good books on the gemba “go and see” approach that I would recommend.

Have you tried this approach before? Please share your experiences with others below, so we can all avoid some pitfalls and mistakes.

Would you like to see how gemba walks can be applied to reduce water and trash? Check out our new video course, Reducing Environmental Impacts with WASTE Walks >>>

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