EPA Grants

Finding Solutions the Lean Way

By Travis Robinett

Having spent more than five months as a Pathways Intern at EPA Region 7, something I couldn’t help but hear about was EPA’s focus on Lean practices. In case you haven’t heard about Lean, it’s a method for process improvement. It’s about questioning the status quo of how you work, analyzing it, and making it better. And it’s becoming part of the work culture here in Region 7. We’ve already implemented more than 25 projects since 2013, and are currently working on several more.

It’s pleasant to see a federal agency take such a hard look at itself. It’s especially true here at EPA, because the more efficient and effective we become, the better we can fulfill our mission to protect human health and the environment.

EPA Region 7 personnel work with state partners during a Process Excellence event to improve the Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 106 work plan negotiations process for Performance Partnership Grants (PPGs) in Aug. 2016. Process Excellence (often abbreviated as PEx) is the Region’s process improvement program, staffed with trained facilitators ready to tackle employee-recommended Lean projects. These facilitators are trained in Lean Six Sigma, and by the end of the year, three Region 7 Employees will be certified Black Belts and 12 others will be certified Green Belts.

EPA Region 7 staff work with state partners at the August 2016 event to improve the Clean Water Act Section 106 work plan negotiations process for Performance Partnership Grants. Region 7’s Process Excellence program is staffed with trained facilitators ready to tackle employee-recommended Lean projects.

I saw it for myself in August 2016, when Region 7’s Chris Taylor and Doug Jones co-facilitated a four-day event to improve the Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 106 work plan negotiations process for Performance Partnership Grants (PPGs).

I was in the room with 16 participants and two facilitators. The Region 7 states of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska all sent leaders from their state water divisions, while Region 7 sent in managers and technical project officers from its Water and Wetlands programs, along with the staff who coordinate the process.

Going in, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Trying to find solutions as a team sometimes works pretty well, but sometimes expectations aren’t met and people can leave in disagreement. With so many state agencies and EPA staff involved, all with their own unique needs, I was curious to see if everyone would be able to put their issues on the table, come up with solutions as a group, and move forward satisfied with those solutions?

Laying the Groundwork for Lean

To get the best results possible, these events are highly structured using Lean Six Sigma methodologies. Trained facilitators use certain tools in a certain order. They manage the team, keep everyone on task, and find a balance between the free expression of opinions, while still following the regimen. For example, if someone proposes a solution when the team is focusing on identifying the problem, the facilitator asks them to save the idea for later by putting it in the idea “parking lot.”

The facilitators do their best to make everyone productive and engaged. And to make that happen, they need everyone in the room to buy into Lean. So Taylor and Jones got to work.

After a basic orientation and laying the event’s ground rules, they demonstrated Lean’s effectiveness to the group by taking 30 minutes for the “Dot Activity.” Essentially it’s a game of production, where the group is assigned different roles, working together to make finished products (paper with colored dots placed in a certain order).

For the first round, the rules say to stick to the script, which is purposefully inefficient. After the 6-minute time limit, zero products were ready for the customer. Before the next two rounds, the group collaborated to change the process. By the third, they had made a natural assembly line and streamlined the process, and efficiency exploded. They made 28 products, and only took a minute to finish the first.

The Dot Activity highlighted some of the general ways a process can get bogged down, and how easy fixes can drastically increase efficiency. Just shifting around the work space saw dramatic results. It also got people into the mindset of process improvement and working as a team. Most importantly, it built comradery before really getting started, and got the team into good spirits.

The Process of Process Improvement

lean-governmentOne of the main tools used in Lean is the process map. The process is drawn out step-by-step to visualize it, analyze it, and then decide where to make it better. But before mapping, Taylor went around the room and asked everyone what they did and didn’t want out of the event, making sure everyone had their say.

The four states made it clear that nothing new should interfere with their internal work. EPA’s project officers wanted a better way to track grants through the process. EPA’s Water and Wetlands program staff wanted to make a consistent process that works with all four states. With this in mind, the mapping began. Four different maps were needed to account for the different processes with each of the states, along with a fifth map for the general timeline of the process.

Taylor drew out the maps by hand, step by step, with everyone’s input. Then he recreated them on his computer after the day was over, printing them for the next morning so everyone could double-check the results.

Once the maps were checked and edited, Taylor asked everyone for their “pain points” in the process, where they felt the process was breaking down, and for one thing they liked about the process and wanted to keep. From this, the group made three goals for the new process map: better collaboration from the start, better tracking methods, and better documentation in the process.

Next, the group split up to find potential solutions. They wrote them on sticky notes, reviewed them as a group, and placed them on a “Difficulty-Impact Matrix,” which compares impact to difficulty. The ideal solution is one that makes a big impact and is simple to implement.

In my opinion, the best idea was to have a series of “kickoff” meetings between EPA Region 7 and the states to establish clear work plan expectations from the start. This way, the states know more about any annual updates from EPA headquarters at the beginning of the process, and have a better idea of what to prioritize in their grants. Another solution was to use a shared, online tracking system so work plan progress can be checked instantly.

The next day, they drew a new process, one that would work for all four states, with their preferred solutions mixed in and every step accounted for. But even after the map was finished, the group wasn’t done yet. They made a rollout plan and assigned everyone tasks so the new process would be integrated smoothly.

The final step was the Report Out, where senior-level managers and other staff members came to see the event’s outcome presented, followed by a Q&A session. And when the states were asked whether they maintained their independence in the process, they all resoundingly said “yes.”

So in the end, the team came up with realistic and impactful solutions, along with a plan to implement them, and no one left in disagreement. And ultimately, it’s going to improve outcomes for cleaner water across the region.

This is what Lean and Process Excellence are all about. With these events happening more frequently and having more staff involved, the word keeps spreading. EPA Region 7 is all in on Lean, continuously striving to do better, and collaborating to get there.

Additional Information: Exploring the Clean Water Act and PPGs

What’s a Performance Partnership Grant (PPG)? It’s several grants in one, dealing with water, air, hazardous waste, and other state and EPA priority activities. In the case of this Process Excellence event, the grants are focused on the Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 106, which encompasses a variety of CWA activities.

The CWA EPA Sealis complex. One of its main components provides for states to monitor their waters to see whether these water bodies are meeting different designated uses. For example, if a stream is not swimmable, or has poor habitat for wildlife, the states pinpoint the lacking water-quality metrics, then come up with a plan to fix the problem, known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). And that’s just one of many tasks involved in the CWA.

Just in Section 106, funding is provided for:

  • Monitoring and assessing water quality
  • Developing water quality standards
  • Identifying impaired waters and TMDLs
  • Managing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits
  • Ensuring compliance
  • Implementing enforcement actions
  • Protecting source water
  • Managing outreach and education programs

It’s not cheap to carry out these activities. So the federal government provides grant money to states with delegated programs. The states write the PPG work plans, which plan and budget for their fiscal year CWA 106 activities. These plans are then negotiated and ultimately approved by EPA.

About the Author: Travis Robinett has been a Student Intern at EPA Region 7 since June 2016. He is a second-year graduate student at the University of Kansas (KU), working toward a master’s degree in environmental assessment, and holds two bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English from KU. Travis has a passion for sustainability, public service, teaching, volunteering, and the great outdoors.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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New Online Resources Available for Local Leaders and Community Members

During my 38 years at EPA, I’ve had a chance to work here in Washington, D.C., in Research Triangle Park, in Dallas, and in Atlanta. In each of my roles, I’ve had many opportunities to meet with local leaders who are working hard to address concerns in their communities. So I know protecting environmental quality and public health happens most directly at the local level.

That’s why making a visible difference in communities is one of our top priorities for EPA. We are looking for ways we can support local officials juggling multiple responsibilities, as well as residents eager for information they can use to take action and improve local conditions.

So I’m excited about a new resource we’ve launched specifically for local officials and citizens. The Community Resources website gives visitors easy access to three unique resources that can help with a variety of local environmental and public health issues:

  • The Local Government Environmental Assistance Network (LGEAN) website offers information to help communities understand and meet federal and state environmental regulatory requirements. Developed in partnership with the International City / County Management Association, it’s one of several compliance assistance centers EPA supports. Along with media-specific information, LGEAN also includes information to help with issues ranging from sustainable environmental management to transportation to public safety.
  • The National Resource Network website offers practical solutions to help communities reach their goals for growth and economic development. Established by HUD in cooperation with the White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities, it offers local government officials a Resource Library to help with practical solutions and analyses, as well as a “311 for Cities” service that enables them to request and quickly receive assistance on a wide range of topics.
  • And EPA’s Community Health website gives users resources to help improve local environmental health conditions. It provides access to information about beach closures, fish advisories, toxic emissions, and other public health issues. Visitors can also find information about applying for EPA grants and technical assistance.

We hope you’ll find this new site helpful. We invite you to check it out and then, click on the link to give us your feedback. We want to hear how we can improve the site to help local officials and community members across the country find the resources that are most important to them.

The Community Resources site is just one way we are working to make a visible difference in communities. Let me share a few examples of work happening on the ground around the country:

  • In Lawrence, Massachusetts, we awarded a brownfields grant that will help the community cleanup and revitalize a neighborhood marked by abandoned and polluted industrial properties. Check out this short video that features Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and Massachusetts Rep. Niki Tsongas as they describe what this support will mean for the community.
  • In Wheeling, West Virginia, we joined local residents in exploring how it can transform an old apple orchard in an historic part of town into a regional hub for local foods. This work is part of the Local Foods, Local Places Initiative, which involves USDA and other federal agencies in helping communities develop local food systems as a means of revitalizing traditional downtowns and promoting economic diversification. Listen to what the Reinvent Wheeling’s Jack Dougherty has to say about this effort in this story by WV Public Radio.
  • In Fresno, California, we have been working with other state and federal agencies to help spur economic development and revitalization as part of the Obama Administration’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative. A new EPA report drawing on that work describes 30 strategies to help local governments overcome obstacles and encourage infill development, particularly in distressed communities. As many communities across the country have learned, infill development saves money through the more efficient use of tax dollars, increases property values, and improves quality of life. We’re excited about how it can help Fresno, and many other communities that recognize the benefits of reinvesting and restoring what were once vibrant neighborhoods.

Whether working on tools and information to help communities address priority issues or working right alongside community leaders, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and I are proud of the work EPA is doing to help communities build a greener, healthier, more prosperous future. We look forward to sharing more examples of how we are supporting communities in reaching their goals.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Are Mushrooms the new Styrofoam™?

By Gavin McIntyre

I started my career in advanced biomaterials after recognizing a problem that faces anyone who purchases items on the Internet, from frozen food to consumer electronics. Once you open your package, what do you do with all the bulky foam that’s not easily recycled?

Plastics and foams are ubiquitous in our everyday lives and serve a valuable role in many industries. But these materials are predominately derived from fossil fuels and most are not compostable. This creates a real problem when these materials are used in short-term applications like packaging, where their useful life lasts months at best. This is a concern for many municipalities since non-compostable synthetics continue to accumulate and fill landfills beyond their capacity.

Our goal was to develop compostable materials that are not derived from fossil fuels and do not require an exorbitant amount of energy to manufacture. In seeking to design an alternative, we took advantage of domestic waste streams that are abundant and rapidly renewable. These raw materials fit into nature’s recycling system and are beneficial to the environment once their useful lifecycle is complete.

Today our biomaterials replace the plastic foams used in the protective packaging and construction industries. Our technology uses the vegetative tissue from mushrooms, a vast network of unicellular filaments known as mycelium, as a natural adhesive to bind agricultural byproducts into a robust, foam-like material.

Our products are grown to the desired shape in just five days, and all the energy for growing the fungus comes from the agricultural waste. But most importantly these materials are safe (styrene was recently deemed a carcinogen), entirely home compostable, and comparable in cost to plastic foams.

Compostable packing for wine bottles.

A friend of mine, Eben Bayer, and I started Ecovative in 2007 right out of college to challenge this synthetic material paradigm. We needed a lot of support to get our nascent technology off the lab bench and into the market place. As two mechanical engineers, we first solicited the help of mycologist (mushroom biologist) Sue Van Hook.

We applied for an EPA Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant to fund our research, which was awarded in early 2009. This Phase 1 award allowed us to optimize fungal strains and agricultural wastes necessary to approach potential customers. Today we operate two manufacturing facilities in upstate New York with 70 employees.  We will be opening two additional facilities in the U.S. over the next two years with a commercial partner, adding many new jobs to the economy. Everyday we come to work we leave satisfied that the products we literally grow offer a “green” alternative for packaging.

So hopefully next time you unbox you new computer you can put the packaging in your garden rather than sending it off to a landfill.

About the Author: Gavin McIntyre was the Principle Investigator under a series of Small Business Innovative Research grants awarded by the US EPA between 2009 and 2012. McIntyre’s research focuses on the development of novel materials and processes that emulate nature using agricultural byproducts and fungal mycelium to provide low cost alternatives to synthetics such as plastics.

And for more information on how EPA supports research for innovative environmental solutions and “green” jobs, read: Investing in a Sustainable Future.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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