From Lean to Lean and Green

K. Zokaei

Operational excellence in manufacturing benefits from a mature toolbox which is underpinned by several decades of continuous improvement and dissemination of knowledge from one area to another. Lean is about “tomorrow better than today” and creating a learning organisation which pursues systematic eradication of all types of constraints to the organisation’s economic goals. Lean firms see every problem as an opportunity to surface limitations to competitiveness. In doing so, they have learnt to create engaging environments or a ‘bottom organisation’ where every employee is empowered to bring about the necessary change and to sustain it.

Environmental management, on the other hand, seems to be more concerned with technical fixes and top-down implementation. Lean’s greatest contribution to environmental management is in creating engagement and alignment. Lean offices across different industries have the potential to leverage a great deal of continuous improvement knowledge behind the implementation of the ‘green’ objectives. This is not about teaching green experts ‘what to do’, rather ‘how to implement it’ and then ‘how to sustain it’.

Nonetheless, the relationship between the lean and green functions has been an evolving one. A number of key stages can be stipulated to describe the relationship between lean and green as illustrated in the following diagram. This can be regarded as (and depends on) the level of lean and green maturity within the organisation. The ‘trade-off’ stage denotes the start of the journey for most organisations where there seem to be considerable contradictions between ‘leanness’ and ‘greenness’. This is hardly surprising when one considers centuries of one-dimensional economic growth at the expense of our natural and social capital.

But many companies have already started to find a better balance where leaner operations are not necessarily costing the environment. This can where leanness is separate from greenness. Many companies that I come across can be described to be in this ‘ambidexterity’ stage. These companies separate lean from environmental management and try to avoid any negative effects caused by thier economic success on the environment, but at the same time, they overlook the potentially catalytic relationship between leanness and greenness. After all, lean and green share a mantra which is ‘tomorrow better than today’.

A smaller number of companies, however, have leaped into an elevated stage of maturity where lean and green are seen to be mutually beneficial. These companies often begin to see how their lean tools and techniques which are aimed at eliminating economic waste, inadvertently benefits the environment. As such they begin to realise the synergies between the two and systematically pursue a two-pronged ‘lean and green’ strategy.

The final stage of maturity is where lean and green become part of the same continuous improvement strategy; they become one and the same thing. Arguably companies such as Interface Inc., Marks and Spencer and even Toyota are at this stage. Interestingly, Taguchi, one of the greatest contributors to the quality movement and then lean, described quality in terms of minimising “the loss imparted to society from the time the product is shipped”. This requires a systemic approach to the understanding of lean and implementation thereof.

Figure 1. Stages of Lean and Green Maturity

Adapted from Zokaei, Martinez, Vazquez et al, 2010

Companies who adopt a holistic approach to lean and green reap great benefits. In a recent example we deployed a bespoke lean and green toolbox on the shop floor to engage lean, green and engineering teams from a multi-national food manufacturer. In a single weeklong Kaizen event, the improvement team – which consisted of more than 20 engineers and the site GM – identified 16 percent of the site’s total energy consumption and 15 percent of water usage as potential savings. Continuous improvement teams were formed around the identified opportunities and A3 management approach was deployed to deliver the results. Needless to say, financial benefits where in the millions, but more importantly the likelihood sustaining environmental benefits are much higher when nearly the entire plant is actively engaged and people are taking ownership of the improvement projects.

Clearly, this approach needs NOT to be limited to a single firm or a single factory. In an extended value stream improvement project, representatives from across the supply chain were put together to map an end-to-end food chain from raw material to the retail shelf. This led to the identification of considerable economic and environmental benefits. That is in excess of £6 million in potential cost savings and similar figure in potential sales uplift as well as around 15,000 tonnes of CO2 and 40,000 m3 of water saving. But more importantly it showed how long-established lean techniques can be adopted to identify green opportunities provided that the necessary integration of lean and green is achieved.

Whereas the lean and green tools and techniques are context specific and the results depend on the problem at hand, one thing is certain: a holistic approach to lean and green will contribute a great deal both to the sustainability and the effectiveness of green improvements while, at the same time, providing a more ethical stance for lean as originally portrayed by gurus such as Dr. Deming, Taiichi Ohno and Dr. Taguchi.

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