Managing It by Measuring It: Sometimes Easier Said than Done

I’m not so bad after all…

I often coach process improvement professionals on the reality that sometimes the biggest breakthrough comes not from improving something but in figuring out how to measure it in the first place. Once a practical measurement system is developed, then sustained improvement, while perhaps not a slam dunk, becomes much more likely to happen.

An example is Vancouver’s consideration of a new odour bylaw. As reported widely last week, the problem is as plain as the nose on your face but measurement is quite another matter. The National Post’s Tristin Hopper writes:

As a late-summer heat wave bathes Vancouver with the stench of rotting compost and chicken parts, municipal officials have set to work drafting plans to rein in the city’s rankest offenders.

The only problem is, there’s no way to gauge stink.

“You can’t really regulate what you can’t measure,” said Bill Morrell, spokesman with Metro Vancouver, governing body for the Greater Vancouver area.

In the fall, Metro Vancouver is planning to give the public its first look at a new “odour emissions control” bylaw. With ever-increasing tonnages of compost and animal scraps flooding into Vancouver’s recycling facilities, Metro Vancouver managers told a regulatory meeting last month, it is high time to introduce smell standards and fine offenders.

This week, talk of the new bylaw was renewed after an estimated 30,000 East Vancouver residents were hit hard by the stench of built-up bones, fish heads and entrails caused by a mechanical breakdown at a local rendering plant.

“It’s kind of a chickeny, fishy, boiled-up stink,” said a Wednesday caller to Vancouver’s CKNW radio. “You don’t want to be at home at all,” East Vancouver resident Renata de la Parra told a CTV camera crew. Previous accounts have identified the smell as anything from “hideous” to “revolting” to “a combination between vomit and diarrhea.”

Despite the breakdown, West Coast Reduction’s signature stench is nothing new. As the region’s primary animal waste processing facility, it brings in truckloads of animal parts and used grease every day to cook them into tallow and protein meals. The plant began spewing foul odours onto adjacent working-class homes almost immediately after its 1964 opening. At the time, the plant only generated a paltry 25 complaints a year.

By 2007, residents in the newly gentrified district were picking up the phone almost twice a day to complain, urged on by “stop the stink” posters pinned up on utility poles. “You spend $1-million on a house, you don’t want it to smell like fish,” East Vancouver resident Lenore Newman told Postmedia News this week.

“Things have not gotten worse,” Ray Robb, Metro Vancouver’s manager of regulation and enforcement, told Vancouver radio on Wednesday. “It’s just a matter that expectations have changed.”

Still, nothing spurs municipal action like smell complaints.

In 2005, Maple Leaf Foods was fined $450,000 after residents neighbouring their Hamilton rendering plant complained of nausea, loss of sleep and “terminated social events” on account of the smell. Amazingly Green Products, an ethanol manufacturing facility in Collingwood, Ont., was slapped with a $300,000 fine in 2009 after neighbours complained of being unable to use their backyards and patios.

Odour cases “make people so angry and wretched” that municipalities are known to impose immense fines with almost no objective evidence, wrote Canadian environmental law specialist Dianne Saxe in a 2011 paper.

Just recently, regulators have been able to objectively measure another environmental disturbance: noise. The Noise Snare, invented by a noise-maddened Saskatchewan electrical engineer, was debuted this summer in Calgary to combat the city’s scourge of unmuffled motorcycles and throbbing car stereos. The $100,000 device photographs the licence plate of any vehicle louder than 96 decibels and mails the driver a $200 ticket.

So far, efforts to establish a similar “olfactory yardstick” have failed, although Metro Vancouver had briefly considered using an unorthodox European measurement called the “odour unit.” Approved by the European Committee for Standardization, odour unit technicians start by collecting air in inert plastic bags and then piping diluted versions of that air to laboratories packed with professional smellers. The concentration of rank air is slowly ramped up until the smellers can distinguish it from plain air.

In a 2007 decision, the British Columbia Environmental Appeal Board called the system “simply too flawed” to be used to draw up air quality standards.

By the way, if you’re curious, here’s a link to The Noise Snare site:

Noise Snare

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