Lean meets Drinking Water


By Jason Turgeon:

This week is National Drinking Water Week! If that doesn't excite you, think about the Lean implications of this dreadful story about the deaths of 80 children last month in South Africa resulting from a breakdown in the local drinking water treatment plant. While everyone involved is busy pointing fingers at everyone else, I think a little digging would turn up plenty of opportunities for Lean–error-proofing, anyone?

Drinking water and wastewater treatment are the two crowning achievements in public health for our species–arguably more important than vaccines and antibiotics. We tend not to think about these plants until something goes wrong, which is fortunately not very often here in the US. But just because our water infrastructure tends to stay out of the news doesn't mean there's not plenty of room for Lean.

A story brought to me by my subscription to the SafeDrinkingWater.com newsletter this week illustrates my point nicely.

Where was the Lean approach in Arizona?

The state of Arizona recently handed down a fine to a local water company after an important water-purification system broke down and the company failed to act quickly to remedy the issue. The background is that Motorola and other unnamed companies managed to contaminate the local groundwater supply with TCE, a carcinogenic solvent used to clean grease off machines, several decades ago. The water utility is supposed to remove the TCE down to an acceptable level. The TCE-removal equipment failed, and the alarm that was supposed to let people know about the failure failed, and no one noticed for 16 hours. To make matters worse for the company, management decided not to notify the authorities until 9 hours after that, and in the subsequent investigation it came out that they were just dumping the TCE they'd removed back into a storm drain. The state cited a poorly designed system (PDF) and ordered changes to make sure it didn't happen again–a very Lean approach. Motorola, on the hook for some of the costs of the cleanup, says it was human error:

Operator error is blamed for a malfunction in January at a plant owned and operated by the Arizona American Water Co. that treats groundwater contaminated with trichloroethylene, a suspected cancer-causing chemical.

That is the conclusion of an investigation conducted for Motorola Inc. and other companies that were the source of the TCE contamination decades ago. The companies are paying for cleanup of the contaminated groundwater, including the treatment facility.

A separate investigation done for Arizona American concluded that the plant's systems and components were not designed or operated in an optimal manner.

So what's the solution? Well, the first thing I would say is that the most holistic Lean approach would be to reduce Scottsdale's water use to the point where they could discontinue use of these two contaminated wells. That's the most environmentally friendly thing to do, especially given Scottsdale's location in the middle of a desert. Coming down a level, Greenpeace has been hammering Motorola recently for continuing to use toxic chemicals in its products, although some of the more recent news (PDF) shows that the company is making some progress towards a toxin-free product line. As I noted in my last post, Lean practitioners can play a big part for the environment by urging their clients to get away from toxic chemicals. Finally, it looks like the state is pushing the facility in question to be a bit leaner, but I'm sure there is plenty of additional work that could be done to make this facility both more Lean and more green.

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