Getting Green in the Lean Conversation

This article was originally posted in the Lean Green Institute website by Sasha Neser.

If you were to think of ‘lean’ as a pair of glasses you wear to view the potential to increase value and engage the people in your organisation, then ‘green’ is the same pair of glasses with a slightly different tint to the lens (green tint of course). They are intrinsically linked.

Why is this? To borrow some words from world renowned environmental author, designer and architect William McDonough… ”waste is basically stupid”.

This is not a particularly amazing revelation. Intuitively, it sounds about right … so whether it’s waste through a lean lens or waste through a green lens, waste does not make sense.

Beyond opinion, academically speaking, there is nearly 20 years of research to support the notion that organisations adopting lean are more adept at achieving green outcomes. One of the first pieces of research supporting this was back in 1996. Richard Florida surveyed hundreds of businesses in the USA and concluded:

“these findings suggest that the efforts of firms to improve manufacturing processes and increase productivity create substantial opportunities for environmental improvement”

Since that preliminary research, there has been a constant stream of academic literature investigating every facet of the relationship between ‘lean’ and ‘green’ improvement philosophies. The research evidence strongly suggests that lean and green are positively coupled. If you would like to check some of the research you will find a good list in the literature review by Garza-Reyes (2015).

Beyond academia, there are great organisations leading the way on reducing their environmental impact using lean as a framework. Toyota are world leaders in this regard and are actively seeking to reduce their emissions and resource consumption. Not just in manufacturing but in their designs and through the full life cycle of their products.

Interface Flor lead by the environmental crusader Ray Anderson (who sadly passed away in 2011) passionately implored business leaders to see that lean and green were inseparable if you are a long-term thinker. Google, Nike, Tesco, Unilever, DuPont and many other prestigious organsiations have committed to reducing their environmental impact whilst employing lean methodologies (as well as agile, six sigma and other established improvement methodologies).

So why is it, that despite 20 years of research and an abundance of great companies employing lean and green, managers and leaders of everyday organisations embrace lean but treat green like a poor cousin that they often forget exists?

Unfortunately, in my experience as a lean systems coach and facilitator, very few of the conversations I have had with clients involve using lean systems to reduce their environmental impact or vice versa. Whilst lean seems to be firmly embedded, all too often, green just isn’t on the radar.

This is not the case in every single organisation I have been involved with, but certainly a large majority of managers and leaders I have engaged with may speak with enthusiasm and passion regarding lean but the link between lean and green is not tangible for them. Getting them to embrace lean and green equally is like mixing oil and water in a jar. You need to shake the jar really hard to mix them but if you stop shaking for just a short while they quickly separate once more.

Even the well intentioned, environmentally conscious managers that have embarked upon some measure of green initiatives still associate going green with turning the lights off to save a few bucks in electricity. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s a good start, but start trying to delve into deeper green concepts such as carbon accounting, the circular economy, product lifecycle management, sustainable design or even corporate social responsibility and you may as well be speaking another language. Long term environmental impact reduction never seems to enter the conversation in a meaningful way.

I have worked with clients that over time will do amazing things in the name of lean. They will personally transform the way they think as well as their behaviours and work tirelessly to lead their business through remarkable changes. Would they have done the same in the name of becoming green instead of lean? Most likely not.

So as advocates of lean and green, how do we get lean thinking and green thinking inseparably linked so that common practice does not consider one without the other? It’s a tall order and to be successful it will require a long-term view and a significant amount of education. In the short term however those of us with the opportunity to coach and mentor at the coal face must be proactive in getting the right conversations started. Getting the right conversation started is not really that hard once you understand some of the key synergies.

I have found the following three questions to be good conversation starters and enablers for giving green thinking a foothold in lean conversations.

Is green part of your purpose?

True lean thinkers are typically long term thinkers and whilst lean can deliver short term results, it is the long-term alignment to a meaningful purpose that makes it such a powerful business improvement philosophy. Lean’s foundation in respect for humanity is shared with greens respect for the environment and so one key to success is to make the long-term green objectives of the organisation explicit and meaningful alongside other objectives.

By way of example, I once visited an automotive parts manufacturing business called Aisen on a study mission to Japan in 2008. The leader of the organisation told us that his vision was ‘zero impact manufacturing’. When asked what that meant, he placed a mechanical doll (a karakuri puppet) dressed as a maid on a table in front of us. A full cup of tea was placed in the arms of the maid and it rolled to the other end of the table. When the cup was removed, the doll turned around and returned to where it started. No batteries, no power, just a clever mechanical device converting potential energy to kinetic energy.

The leader pointed and said “that is my vision”. From that vision Aisen have assembled a large team dedicated to creating ‘wisdom technology’ that eliminates and reduces the dependency on electricity or pneumatic power sources. They have created some amazing powerless technology and it was a poignant lesson that green initiatives must be explicitly defined to drive real outcomes. No meaningful purpose means no meaningful action.

Are your problem solvers tackling green problems?

I remember speaking with some managers at Toyota in Kentucky in 2012 regarding their environmental initiatives. When asked about their approach to reducing their environmental impact the response was simple. “Environmental issues are just another problem to solve”. They apply Toyota Business Practices, the 8-step problem solving methodology to close environmental gaps in the same way they close gaps in safety, quality or productivity.

I have had the same conversation with people from Toyota here in Australia with the same response…if it’s an important problem to solve then then they will work methodically at solving it. The big hint being that the environmental problem must be important to you and your organisation.

There really is no need to segregate or isolate your green initiatives from your lean initiatives. Yes, you will need some additional functional skill sets down the track once you get serious about reducing your environmental impact but that is no different from having functional expertise in any other area of the business.

Let your lean problem solvers loose on some green problems and watch what happens.

Are green metrics part of your business metrics?

Most if not all lean businesses have great visualisation of metrics at both process and system level. They can tell you if they hit the required safety, quality, delivery or cost targets and have evolved systems in place that allow that data to be used for improvement or problem solving. Environmental data should be right there with them.

Carbon emissions, electricity or water consumption are useful business metrics just like time, speed, space or efficiency. Ultimately costs are an outcome of these parameters and green metrics are no different. Reduce your carbon emissions and you are most likely going to reduce your cost. It amazes me that improvement initiatives that impact the business in a green way are rarely if ever framed in terms of carbon emissions or resource reduction.

The conversion of power and gas data into carbon is not complicated and there are frameworks like the Greenhouse Gas Protocol that make sure measurement of carbon emissions are consistent. At the end of the day, if you are serious about lean and green you will need to start tracking green metrics at all levels.

When you really start to consider the synergies between lean and green it seems odd that more companies are not actively engaged in merging their lean and green activities. For whatever reasons (and I am sure there are many) in many organisations going green is an optional ‘nice to have’ or something that can be focused on later. However, the time for allowing environmental sustainability to be optional in organisations is passing quickly as pressure on natural resources and climate change continue.

As lean practitioners, it’s up to us to reverse this trend at ground level in all businesses where lean has found a foothold. Getting this trend reversed can start with having our conversations on lean become conversations on lean and green. I hope the three questions proposed above provide you with a starting point to get the green conversation started in your organisation.