Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

Toyota Kentucky facility reflects parent company’s commitment to the environment

8 min read

I was fortunate to take a tour of the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky (TMMK) facility in Georgetown, KY. I say fortunate because it is one of the best manufacturing facilities in North America, and Toyota is one of the top companies in the world. When you want to benchmark how a company implements lean and continuous improvement, while minimizing their impact on the environment, this is one of the best places you can go.

I specifically asked how they address environmental issues, and how these issues get weighted against other important problems in the facility. They mentioned that their environmental team has approval over all new equipment and major purchases, to make sure it minimizes the environmental impact. Energy efficiency, hazardous chemicals, water usage and air emissions are all part of the buying decision. In addition, I observed many different communications boards that had Environmental measures (or Key Process Indicators, or KPIs) right alongside Quality, Cost, Delivery, Safety and Employee Morale measures. This supports research I’ve seen that environmental issues need specific visibility to the employees, or they will be easily overlooked. After the tour, we received copies of their famous Toyota Production System booklet. The most recent update (back in 1998) included specific references to the environment. First, they changed the cover to read “leaner manufacturing for a greener planet.” In addition, they added to the foreward in the beginning of the booklet. The first two paragraphs express their new attitude towards the planet (way back in 1998).

“Here is yet another printing of a booklet that we first issued in 1992 and revised extensively in 1995. The essential elements of the Toyota Production System are unchanging, and the content on the following pages is essentially unchanged from the material we issued in 1995. But we have provided the booklet with a new cover and with this new foreward to call attention to an important and often-overlooked aspect of our system: its role in safeguarding the environment. Manufacturers in every industry have a big responsibility to fulfill in ensuring a sound environment for future generations. Along with preventing pollution and other overt damage to the environment, they need to conserve resources by using material and energy efficiently. The Toyota Production System is a framework for conserving resources by eliminating waste. People who participate in the system learn to identify expenditures of material, effort, and time that do not generate value for customers. In other words, they learn to recognize waste. They also learn to take the initiative in developing measures for eliminating the waste and preventing its recurrence.”

This type of emphasis also seems to align with their stated environmental policy, which is “working hard to reduce waste, conserve energy and protect the environment.” They have also adopted the EARTH CARE policy, which is an acronym for their employees to remember. E=Provide Environmental Awareness to the TMMK team| A=Assess Environmental Impact of TMMK’s operations and strive to Kaizen R=Reporting of Environmental concerns by team members T=Train team members in areas of significant environmental impacts H=Heighten awareness to Pollution Prevention and Emergency Preparedness Programs C=Strive for Compliance with applicable laws, regulations and other TMMK requirements to protect the environment A=Perform periodic compliance Audits for assessing performance R=Respond to community and environmental compliance concerns E=Encourage Environmental Improvement through setting Objectives and Targets Here are a few examples from the TMMK environmental page of their website on the steps they are taking to move in the right direction:

  • TMMK achieved ISO 14001 Environmental standard in 1998, and more than 600 suppliers and 41 Toyota sites have been internationally-certified environmental management systems.
  • More than 45,000 light bulbs are recycled each year.
  • Solar panels were connected to DC powered batteries to motorize the gate controls for the on-site ponds. This has not only reduced energy demand, but reduced ergonomic issues with the previous 20 minute hand crank manual process.

Solar PV panels for pond gate controls

  • Have installed the best available control technology, such as thousands of top-quality air filters, to ensure that air emissions are kept well below legal limits.
  • TMMK is a zero waste facility, which is one of 10 Toyota North American plants that have achieved zero waste to landfill. Waste is incinerated to recover energy, to avoid putting trash into the landfill.
  • Total recycling has now exceeded 100,000 tons per year. They display nice visual controls by posting signs showing where the materials go, and how much money they save by having these options available to employees. Approximately $500,000 is avoided with their recycling program. Their ongoing waste segregation program requires team members to segregate the trash they produce daily into several different waste streams including aluminum cans, plastic bottles, paper and compostable waste. The compostable waste is fed into the company’s In-vessel composting machine that produces high quality compost used to enhance soils in TMMK’s greenhouse, garden, and planting beds.

  • At all Toyota plants, the use of returnable packaging serves as a major means of conservation, as wood pallets and cardboard boxes are being used less frequently in the shipping process. More than 95 percent of the North American parts at TMMK are currently received in returnable packaging. This direct reuse of containers helps to conserve their natural resources, and keeps the waste out of the landfill.
  • Environmental efforts even extend to their construction sites, where thousands of construction workers follow strict guidelines for everything from hazardous waste disposal and storm water control, to recycling of construction materials.
  • Designed innovative ways in which they handle paint, to ultra-efficient methods to use the metals in their cars, to keep the air pure, and the waters crystal clear.
  • Annual flowers are grown in the 900 square-foot greenhouse near the 508 Utility Building. The greenhouse uses waste heat and water from the chillers in the Utility Building, making it even more environmentally friendly. Site-generated compost is used in the greenhouse.

Greenhouse at Toyota Kentucky facility

  • Carbon absorbers, which trap harmful emissions before they get in the air, and thermal oxidizers, which destroy harmful paint solvents before they can hurt the environment, are also implemented throughout the facility.
  • State-of-the-art water “pre-treatment” of water discharge is performed to meet near-drinking-water standards, even before the water gets to a community’s treatment plants.
  • At the plastics shop, they are using the same pollution control equipment as is used by the paint lines. This type of equipment absorbs harmful solvents and extracts them before they end up in the atmosphere.
  • They use an intricate system that turns scrap steel from the stamping process 
    into reusable product. Nearly all of the discarded steel used in the manufacturing process is recycled or reused. Scrap steel — in the form of approximately 600-pound cubes — is returned to the mill and is eventually put back into the production process as steel coils. When doors are made in the stamping process, the steel from the window area is left over. These squares of top-quality steel are sent to sub-suppliers, who in turn use the steel as their raw material. From this steel, the suppliers make internal structural pieces for the vehicles made at the Kentucky plant.
  • In the on-site garden, they are growing cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, beans and squash to help feed the needy in our community. In 2009, TMMK donated from the garden 3827 pounds of produce to a local food bank.
  • TMMK also created the Toyota Environmental Education Center and Nature Trail, which is located nearby the main facility. Free education material is available for download at, which is geared towards elementary, middle and high school students.

TMMK is greatly influenced by the Toyota parent company, which has achieved the following benefits, as reported in their annual environmental report:

  • Recycling efforts at our North American plants have saved them millions of dollars over the years — so now they spend less for materials and waste handling.
  • Toyota vehicles are now 85 percent recyclable. Huge shredders allow steel and non-ferrous metals to be recycled, and new processes also enable the recycling of car materials like urethane foam, copper, glass and plastic bumpers.
  • Virtually 99 percent of all scrap steel generated by Toyota plants is now recycled. In addition, many waste materials, like plastic wrap, paint solvents, used oil, packaging materials and cardboard, are recycled. They even recycle engine block modules, which annually keeps 500,000 pounds of material from ending up in the landfill.
  • New eco-conscious vehicles: two within the Prius family – the Prius c and Prius Plug-in Hybrid – and the highly anticipated, all-electric 2013 RAV4 EV co-developed with Tesla
  • Exceeding requirements under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for U.S. cars and Canadian Car Company Average Fuel Consumption (CAFC) standards
  • Seven percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per vehicle produced (since 2008)
  • A 15 percent reduction in energy consumption per vehicle produced (since 2002)
  • In 2008, Toyota provided a $20 million grant and launched TogetherGreen™ with the National Audubon Society, which is Toyota’s signature environmental philanthropic program. The program trains environmental leaders and awards grants for conservation projects across the United States. The program has trained 400 conservation leaders who have inspired volunteers to give more than 333,000 hours to various projects, including nearly 900 volunteer events.

The following quote seems to summarize their overall perspective on the environment.

“Toyota believes sustainable operations go hand-in-hand with our core values of quality, innovation and good corporate citizenship,” said Dian Ogilvie, senior vice president and secretary, Toyota Motor North America, Inc. “We are committed to continuous improvement and finding creative ways to address the challenges of climate change and resource scarcity with dedicated leadership and the help of our partners.”

The recent 2012 North American Environmental Report (released December 2012) measured Toyota North American operations against one-year goals in compliance, air emissions, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, waste minimization and water use. Key partnerships, industry trends and insight on consumer preferences also guide Toyota’s efforts in serving both the planet and its people.

I don’t think it’s a big surprise that Toyota is so committed to the environment, is such a successful company, and is considered the world leader in continuous improvement. It reinforces how being a lean company is good for the environment, but having dedicated improvement around environmental issues is great for business. Have you had any involvement or experience with Toyota? Did anything on the list of accomplishments above surprise you?

UPDATE 4/18/20: Toyota has launched a new video series called Econohito, a story about their teams that are working to achieve Toyota’s Environmental Challenge 2050. They discuss fuel efficiency, certifications, and other aspects of designing an environmentally-friendly vehicle.

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