Management systems of various kinds take time and effort to put in place, but in the end they can pay off in smoother operations and better problem-solving.

The treatment plant manager steps to the front of the staff meeting. “I’ve got some exciting news,” she says. “We’re going to implement an environmental management system.”

And you can just imagine the groans and rolls of the eyes. “Oh, great,” team members are thinking. “Another bureaucratic exercise. The next flavor of the month.”

That’s easy to understand, because in the public and private sectors, many management fads have come and gone. The reality, though, is that some management systems have been well proven and, once put in place, can deliver benefits for years.

Case in point

One example is the environmental management system. It’s a concept promoted by the National Biosolids Partnership, and it has a number of adherents. As one example, the EMS deployed around the biosolids land application program in Fort Worth, Texas, has paid notable dividends (see the Top Performer profile in this issue).

Sure, putting an EMS together takes work. There are regimented steps to follow. Information to gather. Policies to adopt. Standard operating procedures to create and document.

Responsibilities to define and apportion. All this and more takes time from operators who already have an abundance of daily work to do.

One way to look at the extra work, though, is as an investment that will pay off later, through continuous improvement in environmental performance, regulatory compliance, quality management, and relations with community members and other stakeholders. The Fort Worth biosolids team can attest to those benefits.

Another advantage of an EMS is that it lays down a roadmap to follow when problems inevitably occur. Imagine showing up one day to find an overwhelming odor problem, a serious treatment process upset, or some other calamity. What do you do now? Where do you start? Who needs to get involved? An EMS sets out a procedure. It enables the team to say collectively, “Let’s not panic. Let’s work the problem. We can solve this.”

Clean-water agencies that together manage more than 12 percent of the biosolids in the U.S. have EMS certified by the National Biosolids Partnership. Surely there’s a reason — the system works.

Cutting out defects

An EMS or other similar management system isn’t the only way to drive process improvements. Others include quality programs called Six Sigma and Lean, which have brought substantial results for private-sector companies but are much less common in the public sector.

Six Sigma is a disciplined approach to driving out defects (variation) in processes, a concept that should appeal naturally to water-related utilities. After all, what’s more important to a clean-water plant than producing effluent of consistent quality and staying compliant with the permit? And what matters more to a drinking water plant than reliably high-quality product?

Six Sigma defines a defect as anything outside of required specifications. The aim of the Six Sigma method is to reduce variation through projects that rely on data and measurement, not intuition or “gut feel.” The basic process is called DMAIC: define, measure, analyze, improve, control. Projects are led by specially trained people called Green Belts and Black Belts.

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The Six Sigma Academy estimates that Black Belts’ projects can save private companies $1 million or more per year, but often the benefits go beyond savings, to include better quality products and more satisfied customers.

Trimming the fat

Lean, meanwhile, focuses on creating more value for customers while keeping waste to a minimum. This method also relies on projects, and the people in charge of the projects are called lean implementers. The ultimate (and unattainable) goal is to provide perfect value to the customer with processes that generate zero waste.

When successful, lean creates processes that use less labor, occupy less space, require less capital investment, take less time, and yield lower-cost products with far fewer defects.

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A common idea behind all these quality-enhancement approaches is that quality is built right into the processes — from design to raw material to finished product. While the approaches take time and energy to implement, the effort and expense can be well worth it.

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