A Missed Opportunity

Introducing the Lean and Green special issue of the Lean Management Journal, October 2012

This article first appeared in the Lean Management Journal, Issue 8, Vol. 2, October 2012

K. Zokaei

This is the Lean Management Journal’s third special issue on ‘lean and green’. Yet, there are still too many companies out there that delay integrating of green into their lean operations, arguing that investment in green will disadvantage them against the competition.

If you are a manager and you still don’t have a solid plan for going green or, even worse, if you are in doubt whether going green pays off, have a look at companies like Toyota, WalMart, DuPont, Tesco, Unilever, Marks and Spencer and General Electric, all of whom have invested heavily in greening their products and processes over the past few years.

Unilever plans to double its revenue over the next 10 years while halving the environmental impact of its products. GE aims to reduce the energy intensity of its operations by 50% by 2015. Tesco has announced that it will reduce emissions from stores and distribution centres by half by 2020 and that it will to become a zero-carbon business by 2050. WalMart’s Zero Waste initiative claims that more than 80% of waste generated in its U.S. operations has been diverted from landfill while the company’s goal is to generate zero waste in the first place. In 2010, WalMart announced that it will cut total carbon emissions by 20 million metric tons by 2015. Toyota, in its Fifth Environmental Action Plan, announced that it will improve the average fuel efficiency of its vehicles by 25% in all regions by 2015 compared to that of 2005. In production, Toyota has already reduced emissions per vehicle by 37% between 2001 and 2012.

All these companies have elaborate environmental plans and invest significant time and resources in ‘green continuous improvement’. None of them, however, have joined the Greenpeace. So why bother? There are three simple reasons. First of all, cutting environmental waste and cutting cost are almost always aligned. Secondly, investing in green continuous improvement (CI) unlocks great amounts of innovation and vigour across the organisation which in turn underpins future success. Finally, with most industries there is a substantial and growing market for sustainable products.

But ironically, today economic and environmental CI are separate organisational silos that sometimes come into conflict with each other. This is one of the biggest opportunities missed across industries. There is a window of opportunity for lean managers to take on sibility in greening their firms. Green managers, at least so far, seem to be more concerned with technical fixes and top-down implementation of end of pipe solutions which hardly leave a lasting cultural change. Lean thinkers can provide valuable experiences, techniques and methodologies for engaging with the workforce, bringing about sustainable cultural changes and deploy proven tools for systematic lean and green improvements.

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