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Let ‘Lean’ Guide You To ‘Green’

I meet with too many organizations that are still addressing sustainability as if it’s something new, something different, when in fact many of them have been working on it for over 30 years. They just know it by a different name, Lean.

Many of those companies are surprised to learn that they can take the tools, systems thinking and lessons learned from the process improvement methodology, Lean, and apply them effectively to the operationalization of sustainability.

What’s Lean? It really does mean more than just being skinny. Some argue that Henry Ford really introduced the fundamentals of Lean when he established the manufacturing flow of Rouge River Assembly Plant in the 1920’s and predicted the intersection of sustainability and manufacturing.

Henry Ford, in a 1934 interview with Modern Mechanix, envisioned a world where, “We shall be able to get out of the yearly crops most of the basic materials which we now get from forest and mine. We shall grow annually many if not most of the substances needed in manufacturing.”

In other words, nothing was wasted, processes were streamlined and inventory was non-existent. These systems were introduced to accelerate and provide efficiencies for our Industrial Revolution.

But it didn’t stop with Ford. Production systems were enhanced and adopted to the Japanese culture of team decision-making and the elimination of Muda, waste, futility or purposelessness. In the early 1980’s, the Japanese exported improved products and processes through Just-in-Time, or Lean.

A Lean organization is specifically characterized by the elimination of the following seven wastes:

• Waste of overproduction (waste from faster than necessary pace);
• Waste of waiting;
• Waste of transport (conveyance);
• Waste from inappropriate processing;
• Waste due to unnecessary inventory (excess inventory);
• Waste due to unnecessary motion; and
• Waste due to defects.

What happens when a company adopts Lean? Processes are studied, problem-solving teams are established, process improvement methodologies are adopted, and employees accept new responsibilities and boundaries to improve their organizations and connect to customers and other stakeholders outside their traditional work responsibilities. Goals, such as “Zero Defects,” are adopted with tenacity.

We’re lucky enough to live in a time of a new Industrial Revolution. Sustainability is challenging us to re-examine everything, including the former linear model of Take-Make-Use-Waste and, instead, explore a circuitous model of Borrow-Make-Use-Return that will, theoretically, have no waste. Waste, by-products that are not inputs to another process, will then be viewed as a defect.

When companies expand the definition of waste to include not only product and process waste, but also the business consequences of unsustainable practices, Muda’s list of wastes takes a different form:

• Waste of natural resources
• Waste of human potential
• Waste due to emissions
• Waste from byproducts (reuse potential)
• Terminal waste, that is by-products that have not further usefulness
• Energy waste
• Waste of the unneeded (e.g., packaging)

When sustainability is viewed this way, it isn’t something new that has to be planned from scratch and agonized over. Instead, it can be integrated into existing continuous improvement programs – Lean, or even Six Sigma initiatives.

When the definition of waste is expanded and when it’s understood that the consequences of corporate decisions extend past the company parking lot, Lean can indeed be green.

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3 thoughts on “Let ‘Lean’ Guide You To ‘Green’

  1. I agree with the title of the post, that ‘lean’ is a guide to ‘green’, but it’s only a guide that can take us part of the way.
    Unfortunately, we do need real change if we are going to meet the challenge of climate change while keeping anything resembling our current standards of living. It requires technological innovation and fundamental behaviour change.
    On another level, we are in danger of falling into the trap of thinking ‘sustainability = environment’. Sustainability is the end goal of sustainable development, achieving economic, environmental and social progress at the same time.
    To get social progress while reducing environmental impacts does require new ways of doing things for big, centralised businesses. Think about all the bottom of the pyramid work Hindustan Lever are doing, the massive positive social, environmental and economic impact micro-lending is delivering. Fairtrade is an incredibly innovative concept in globalised markets typified by fierce WTO free trade negotiations and ‘race to the bottom’ strategies on the part of many MNCs.
    So yes, a lot of ‘green’ is about ‘lean’, but true sustainability does require innovation and real change when you consider how far we need to go to reach sustainability.

  2. There are at least two dimensions to reaching sustainable forms of consumption/production: efficiency (do more with less as this article lays out), and regeneration. Regeneration asks a very different question: rather than “can we do less harm”, it asks “what do we need to do to grow good” – that is , to remediate as well as to work as nature does: by harnessing the only input to our system – the sun’s energy – and working with materials and energy that grow. This is the more intriguing and creative question, leading to novel forms of production, and a different systems awareness. And that in turn carries the power to transform our production from take-make-waste to ensuring that all outputs from a process are feedstock for a new process.

    To do this we should take a leaf from nature – and recognise that the biological systems we are a part of have been evolving for 2 billion years. The closer we hue to these processes, the more likely we are to succeed.

  3. Good write up. It’s striking, and perhaps telling, the extent to which the “old AND latest emerging language of sustainability” — not to mention a good share of the conceptual framework and technical street cred — maps effectively to core supply chain / web terminology and best practices (e.g. Lean, TQM, JIT / Kaizen, LCA, TCO, Upstream / downstream, and so it goes). All the more credence for perhaps the most essential driver of them all — CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT! Incremental movement toward increasingly info-centric consumption models is another interesting offshoot, perhaps worth exploring in the future. reb

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