Running Lean

Proven techniques borrowed from the manufacturing sector can help wastewater operations improve quality and efficiency

The expression “running lean” can have negative connotations — of operating on a starvation budget, overworking staff, cutting corners on maintenance. But there’s another definition of “lean” that connotes no such thing.

Generally written as “Lean” (capital L), this concept holds that processes can run better and give staff more satisfaction if wasteful activities are found and eliminated. The goal of Lean is that every step and every action in a process adds value, so that no time, material and talent are wasted and the desired result is achieved with the optimum quality at the lowest cost.

There is no reason why Lean techniques used in sectors from manufacturing to health care to hospitality can’t improve wastewater operations, says Charles (Chuck) Scholpp, director of Hach Integrated Information Management Business Development.

Scholpp, a senior leader with more than 10 years of experience managing professional teams, has been with Hach Company since 2003. His role includes developing integrated software, hardware and services to help water and wastewater utilities optimize their operations.

Before joining Hach, he was a process engineer and Six Sigma leader for an engineered composite materials company. He holds an MBA degree from Kellogg School of Management, a master’s degree in engineering management from the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University, and a bachelor’s degree in management engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Scholpp spoke with Treatment Plant Operator about opportunities to apply Lean concepts in the wastewater treatment sector.

TPO: In simple terms, what is the meaning of Lean in the context of improving wastewater treatment processes?

Scholpp: Lean is basically a methodology for looking at a value stream in a wastewater operation and removing activities that do not add value. Those are things that if you were a paying consumer you would not want to pay money for — essentially things that are not necessary to the process of physically cleaning water.

TPO: What do you mean when you say “value stream”?

Scholpp: The value stream is the set of activities done within a given process. It’s the steps taken to complete a task or to transform inputs into outputs. A value stream can be general or very specific. You could have a value stream across the entire organization from where wastewater enters the facility to where clean water exits. Or you might have a value stream specifically around aeration control.

TPO: Where does the concept of Lean come from?

Scholpp: Lean began in the Toyota production system in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the term Lean manufacturing was coined, and the concept has evolved since.

TPO: How prevalent is Lean in the wastewater sector today?

Scholpp: We don’t see it often, though I have talked to people in the industry who are familiar with the term. Today, we see a lot of siloed thinking where operations does its thing and the lab does its thing. As for systemic thinking on how to drive waste out of whole processes, we don’t see a lot of that.

TPO: Why is it important in these times for wastewater managers and operators to explore a concept like Lean?

Scholpp: Budget challenges with lower tax revenue and federal and state budget deficits are making the dollars available for wastewater scarce. So it is more of a necessity to know where to invest those dollars in the most impactful way. That’s something Lean can help with because you’re taking out waste and learning how to use the savings to drive whatever improvements you’re looking for. Another core Lean concept is building quality into the process. For wastewater managers, ensuring safe water is a priority, and Lean helps make sure a consistent quality is delivered.

On the regulations side, we continue to have permit parameter limits (or MCLs — maximum contaminant limits) getting tighter. Furthermore, a recent announcement from the EPA said there is a drive to go to all-electronic reporting. That will happen over the next year or so. And so the methodology for the way forms are filled out is changing as well.

TPO: Do Lean concepts help address the issues of retaining institutional memory as workers leave or retire?

Scholpp: Potentially yes. Lean concepts and technologies apply for workers of any age. The benefit of Lean is that processes get documented, analyzed, and standardized, thereby putting knowledge to paper and leveraging teams to solve problems, rather than relying so much on individual contributions.

With the change in the workforce, you can’t afford to have your institutional knowledge in one or two key people. There’s still a lot of value in what people have inside their heads. It’s simply much better also to leverage technology and leverage data so that institutional knowledge stays with the organization when senior people leave the organization.

TPO: What are some areas where you typically see waste in wastewater?

Scholpp: We see waste between laboratory and process operations — we often see tension between those two groups, where the instrument lab is primarily focused on driving regulatory parameters and the process lab is there to drive process control. We often see a breakdown in consensus on which data is correct.

Beyond that, energy is a key area of focus for wastewater today. Chemical consumption would be a close second. Third would be the regulatory arena. Some plants are operating right at the edge of their regulatory limits, and so the operators are stressed, worrying about whether they will have a spike that results in a violation.

The beauty of Lean is that it doesn’t matter what your operation is or what your unique problems are. Everyone has problems, and Lean provides a set of tools to identify what they are and improve the process.

TPO: What do some of those Lean tools look like?

Scholpp: An important one is value stream mapping, where you look at a process you’re trying to improve and bring a team together to map out exactly what steps are followed throughout that process. It’s really important for that team to be cross-functional because there are multiple inputs to any process. When you assemble a cross-functional team and start creating process maps and discussing the process, that’s where the real learning takes place. That is the time when the real wastes start to come into focus.

TPO: Can you describe the Lean technique known as the kaizen?

Scholpp: “Kaizen” is a Japanese word that means “improvement,” or “change for the better.” Many companies, such as Hach, regularly hold kaizen bursts. A kaizen burst is typically a weeklong process improvement event. You would typically assemble a team on a Monday morning. The members come prepared with a definition of the problem to be solved and the objectives they want to achieve, and some quantitative metrics around the issues.

There is usually a little training about Lean tools, including process mapping. There’s also training around what we call the eight wastes: Motion, inventory, waiting, quality defects, overprocessing, transportation, overproduction and unused creativity.

The group goes through a current-state process map to identify and quantify the wastes, then draws a process map of the future state — how they would like the process to look. By the third and fourth day they’re actually executing the new process. The last day is devoted to putting together action plans for anything that was not completed and developing a report-out that includes key performance indicators, who is responsible for each item, and how progress will be monitored over time.

TPO: What happens after the kaizen is complete? How can a team make sure the improvements last?

Scholpp: You can bring people together, do your value stream mapping, and create some great solutions, but if you take your eye off the ball, if you stop monitoring that process, things will go back to the way they were. To drive continuous improvement, you need metrics, you need goals, and you need a management team that cares enough to continue to follow up.

TPO: So Lean becomes more than isolated projects — it’s a long-term way of doing business?

Scholpp: Yes. What you need to do is create a Lean culture, and in my opinion it has to start at the top. A Lean culture is one that really wants to drive continuous improvement, where there is a willingness to work together and use data to drive decision-making, as opposed to opinions, or “the way we’ve always done it.”

TPO: What kinds of data are used to drive decision-making?

Scholpp: You need data around the process steps. Not only do you have to map out the steps, but you have to quantify what happens. You can look at cycle time — how long does a given task take? How many people are involved? How much material is used? What are the costs? What is the quality? As you drive data around each process step, you further identify where there is waste, and how much waste, and what level of savings is possible, so that when you look at the process, you can focus on the critical few parameters.

TPO: Do you find that people resist the kind of change that Lean implies?

Scholpp: That is often the case initially. There’s a high level of risk aversion in some organizations. To do something different from the way you did it yesterday always involves risk. It also involves change, and it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, change is difficult and often scary for people. It’s important to have a champion who drives the Lean culture and can help create a safe environment where people feel comfortable challenging the status quo. You’re not going to make improvements by doing things the way you’ve always done them.

That said, risks must be carefully considered. Lean thinkers regularly ask, “How can we mitigate risk?” A risk assessment should be conducted for each change that is planned and actions taken to mitigate any identified risks. Collaborative decision-making in place of authority-based management also helps mitigate risk.

TPO: What role does technology have in advancing Lean methods?

Scholpp: One of the most prolific areas of non-value-added work we see in treatment plants is manual, paper-based data entry. That’s an easy and relatively inexpensive thing to eliminate with appropriate technology.

We see people checking boxes, putting things down on log sheets, transferring data to spreadsheets and to regulatory reports. They’re doing it because that’s the way they’ve always done it, or they believe that’s the way the regulations say they have to do it. In reality, most data gathering can happen automatically. And then those same people can focus on what the data is telling them.

Too often, we hear people say, “We don’t have enough time, we don’t have enough manpower, we can’t improve this or that because we’re too busy.” The question is: What are you busy doing? If you’re busy collecting and checking data, you can solve that problem so you can have the time to do more value-added work.

TPO: Conceptually, how does that work?

Scholpp: The idea is that instead of having manual, siloed systems, you have an over-arching system that you can enter data into and that pulls automatically from lab or process instruments or your existing SCADA system. You pull all the data feeds together, and then you can automatically spit out a report or do your data mining from that one centralized system.

TPO: How would you summarize the benefits of Lean and a Lean culture?

Scholpp: Putting a Lean culture into place can fundamentally change the way you operate. It can produce breakthrough improvements because you approach problems in a completely different way. You can develop a changed perspective on the limitations and constraints you’re facing.

Lean allows you to do more with less. There isn’t a treatment plant out there that is not busy. The question is: How do we help people work smarter, not harder? Lean is a fundamental way to enable many things — purchasing a new technology, avoiding a plant upgrade, or keeping rates low for your user base. All these things can come out of Lean.


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