Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Six Sigma techniques applied to environmental issues

One of the more significant industrial events of the last century was the quality revolution. Beginning in the 1950s, the leaders of this revolution, Deming, Juran and Crosby, developed a “six sigma” approach to quality that was both statistically valid and universally applicable. Leading edge companies like Motorola adopted these concepts and the quality revolution that regularly delivers three-parts-per-million and lower error rates is now a reality. In this case study six sigma quality tools are folded together to present a mechanism that can achieve a zero incident environmental culture in the workplace, i.e., a culture that does not tolerate upsets, deviations or failures.

What is Six Sigma?
The quality revolution focused on “Statistical Process Controls” (or SPC) for a number of years. As quality performance continued to improve, the quality “lingo” changed from SPC to “six sigma” as a means of communicating the desire to get to very low scrap levels, i.e., six sigma or three-errors-per-million occurrences. The same desire for very low injury rates has inspired a number of people in the safety profession to “piggyback” on the quality bandwagon and thus use the same six sigma lingo. This same approach is also applicable to resolving environmental issues.

The early leaders in quality struggled to convince others about a scientific approach to quality performance improvement. Attempts at “inspecting in” or regulating quality were ineffective. The quality leaders learned that more than rules and observations were needed if they were to ever achieve zero-defect operations. In more recent years a whole industry has sprung up training people how to use sophisticated analytical six sigma tools. Once a pupil is taught and has demonstrated the use of these mathematical concepts they can be awarded a “black belt” in process optimization. The difficulty with this approach is that only a few technically oriented professionals are typically able to master the intense math necessary to calculate standard deviations, curve skewness, Failure Modes and Effects Analysis, Design Of Experiments and the like. This in turn leads to long term projects that are focused only on large dollar issues. Meanwhile, the many day to day facility and organizational issues receive inadequate attention. This is analogous to a baseball team that is always trying to hit a few home runs rather than hitting many singles.

The solution to this dilemma is to use a subset of six sigma; the “kaizen” approach [Kaizen is a Japanese word that means small changes forever, i.e., continuous improvement]. Both hourly and salaried personnel can quickly learn how to use these simple, effective tools to solve any number of production, quality, safety and environmental problems. In so doing the whole work force can be unleashed to solve the many small problems that plague a typical facility or organization.

For a number of years my profession was that of a “turn around manager” for any variety of organizations. The assignments had many similarities: the organization was struggling in most of its performance metrics, personnel problems were endemic, safety was poor and frequently environmental concerns were neglected. After all, the organization that brought me in was struggling in its “core competency,” so many duties that were secondary to the main focus were commonly in even worse shape. This lead to nearly unlimited opportunities to develop problem solving skills and tools that are practical, quick and effective. As a consequence, six sigma continuous improvement team processes have become just a way of life for me.

One of the more interesting environmental issues occurred at an ammunition processing facility. The company had a consecutive string of financial losses that had gone on for more than a decade. The facility both built new munitions and disassembled a wide variety of obsolete explosive products. As a result there was well over one million pounds of various classifications of explosives stored in more than 100 bunkers located in an area spread out over some 43,000 acres. After being at the site for less than a month I was informed that one of the bunkers had “gone off” the previous night and that as a part of my new-found duties I should go investigate the crater. After all, this was “no big deal” since in the heat of the summer these events occurred at least once a year and had done so for years. Besides that, it was cheaper to fill in the hole than figure out a way to resolve the blasts. I quickly learned the difference between a “sudden deflagration” [a very fast burning fire] and a detonation [a violent explosion], but nonetheless was appalled at the indifference to what I considered to be both a serious ongoing safety and an environmental issue.

It was the ideal time to introduce those practical, quick, effective continuous improvement tools that were to become the organization’s way of life over the next three years as we solved innumerable safety and environmental issues that helped bring this facility from the verge of bankruptcy to industry dominance. The three continuous improvement process tools we implemented were:

  • Small volunteer focus team
  • POP statement
  • AIM tracking
Volunteer teams
This first step is mission critical to success in the Kaizen approach. If people are assigned to the team, they typically are selected without regard to their: 
  • Interest in solving the problem,
  • Time availability,
  • Enthusiasm for doing the task at hand
The end result is the wrong people in the wrong job at the start of the project. This is a formula for disaster. Yes, some team members do get spot assignments based on their individual talents and background, but full-time team members are those who volunteer to do the work necessary to solve the problem in less than 90 days.

This is a mini-mission statement. Why are we meeting? If it’s unclear, start with an open-ended question, “What is our purpose for this team?” If necessary, go through a process of recording responses on a flip chart until agreement is reached. Subsequent meetings by this same group need to restate the purpose and make sure it is still on target. If the meeting starts to wander or branch into a separate tangent, ask if this current topic is “on purpose.” In this case our team’s purpose was “To eliminate all explosive possibilities in all storage areas.” The newly formed all-volunteer kaizen team called itself the Triple E team [Eliminating our Explosive Environment]. Every member agreed to own the target and stayed enthusiastically engaged to the end.

What will be accomplished when the stated purpose is achieved? This is a brainstorm list of the issues the team is designed to address. It is also the metric for whether or not the tasks the group set out to do have been accomplished. The whole team participates in setting these outcomes and therefore seeks complete agreement as to definitions of success. Not only will you eliminate future differences, it helps eliminate discussions that stray from the desired outcome. These outcomes must be measurable – no “touchy feely” language, only solid results that are agreed upon are listed. The outcomes for this team included:
  • Zero explosive events forever
  • A quick inexpensive, reliable method to determine danger level of stored explosive materials
  • A zero-error inventory system
  • An effective, safe, legal transportation system
  • Environmentally safe and legal destruction of dangerous materials
  • Environmentally safe and legal usage/disposition of safe materials
  • A significant reduction in all stored dangerous materials
How will we accomplish our purpose and outcomes? Typically what follows is a description of how the team will work. Often this is to split up into small problem-solving teams that include volunteers to accomplish small tasks, as was the case with this team. Why volunteers? When people get to place themselves in performance zones where they are comfortable, they are much more likely to succeed. Conversely, quick delegation can possibly lead to having the wrong people on the wrong task. If there aren’t enough volunteers to do all the work in the time allotted, it may be necessary to increase the time and/or resources. This is not a crisis team; it is an improvement team that works the continuous improvement process. If no one wants to work on the needed tasks, then either the leader does them, or other people are asked, or the task goes undone until a later time when people, resources and time are available.

Use an Action Item Matrix
There are often a significant number of tasks needing to be accomplished by a variety of people in varying time frames. To effectively manage this wide spectrum, use an Action Item Matrix (AIM). This AIM is a simple five-column spreadsheet. The columns (from left to right) are:
Item number – A number (1 through N) for each item on the list. As action items are completed, they are moved to the bottom of the list, but not discarded. In this way there is always a record of what has been completed, as well as what still needs to be done.
Task to be accomplished – This is a simple, succinct statement of what the problem is. Each task (action item) is a small, bite-size chunk of the bigger problem that is the purpose statement of the team.
The team – This is a list of the volunteers who have agreed to accomplish this action item. Use initials or first names of the team members to conserve space. This column will show no names for the future items that are not ready to be worked on.
The date – This is the next report date for the task team on this action item. Sometimes it is a completion date, sometimes a progress report date.
Comments – This is a field in which to succinctly write down whatever is pertinent to the action item, e.g., “awaiting vendor quote” or some such appropriate comment.

A condensed example of an AIM form for the Triple E team is:


Target DATE

Research DOT permits and requirements
Should be no different from our normal
Perform a thorough Preventive Maintenance on incinerator, electrical, mechanical, controls system, environmental systems
Scheduled for week of 10-14
Review Incinerator operation permits
Should be OK, no difference from normal
Review and improve inventory system and perform thorough inventory
85 bunkers and numerous satellite storage areas, various classifications
Research auto sampling Gas Chromatograph
Must be able to run unattended  Must accurately determine stabilizer levels.
Arrange for capital to purchase GC
Work with HQ VP
Develop thorough sampling plan
Better than  95% certainty
Develop contracts to legally sell off safe inventory
We will loose $ on this

The team now had its two initial critical success factors in place: 
the POP statement (its marching orders), and
the Action Item Matrix (its progress tracking mechanism) 

The next question is “How often should the team meet?”  Sub-teams meet more frequently, as appropriate to their individual work and task (action item) schedules. These sub-teams are the problem-solving units. The whole team should meet to review progress once every two weeks. More frequent full team meetings don’t give the sub-teams time to do their tasks. Less frequent meetings don’t keep enough pressure on the sub-teams to close their action items. A partial list for the explosive environmental elimination team is shown above.

The “Triple E” team met every two weeks for two months as they worked through the various action items. It took 3 ½ months to spec out and procure the auto sampling GC. In the meantime we used the old manual GC to work through our extensive inventory. The purchasing group found a customer to “purchase” the safe inventories of the various classifications of explosives. We were paid $0.01 per pound, which was no where near our cost to get rid of all the materials. However, in less than 18 months we were down to only usable inventories and had emptied and closed more than 60 bunkers. Since the start of this continuous improvement team there have been zero explosive events on the site. This simple six sigma process with its practical, quick, effective continuous improvement tools worked well. It can help you to focus and resolve your environmental issues as well.

The Doc

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