green-gears-machineLean manufacturing practices and sustainability are conceptually similar in that both seek to maximize organizational efficiency. Where they differ is in where the boundaries are drawn, and in how waste is defined. Sustainability expands the definition of waste to include the wider range of consequences of business actions including environmental and social consequences. Lean processes are inherently less wasteful and in this sense promoting lean processes can help organizations become more sustainable.

by Tim McMahon, Founder and Contributor of A Lean Journey Blog. Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimALeanJourney. Connect with Tim on Linkedin. Connect with Tim on Facebook.

Many manufacturers know the benefits of lean manufacturing: higher productivity, better quality, reduced cycle time, plus enhanced employee engagement. Lean is excellent at marshaling different groups and individuals into a high performing team focused on rooting out waste. [See our related post Lean is Green]

A Lean organization is commonly characterized by the elimination of the following seven wastes (Ohno’s 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.

In recent years many companies have established a fundamental goal to minimize the environmental impact while maintaining high quality and service for all business processes and products. This is commonly referred to as sustainability or green manufacturing. According to the Department of Commerce, “Sustainable manufacturing is the creation of manufactured products that use processes that minimize negative environmental impacts, conserve energy and natural resources, are safe for employees, communities, and consumers and are economically sound.”

As most manufacturers are starting to realize, the quest to become green takes them right back to Lean. Applying ‘Lean Principles’ – a systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste through continuous improvement – is one of the key ways to enhance environmental performance.

Our related post: “Facility Management the Unsung Heroes of Sustainability“, highlights how facilities management is an important, if often unsung part of so many businesses and can have a huge impact on the sustainability of a business.

Lean and sustainability are conceptually similar. Both seek to maximize the efficiency of a system. This is accomplished through waste and time minimization. The difference lies in where this system (or process) boundary is drawn and how, and in how waste is defined. Lean sees waste as non-value added to the customer; green sees waste as extraction and consequential disposal of resources at rates or in forms beyond that which nature can absorb.

When companies expand the definition of waste to include not only product and process waste, but also the business consequences of unsustainable practices, Ohno’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, waste from by-products that have not further usefulness
Energy waste
Waste of the unneeded (e.g., packaging)

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. Less waste is good for the environment — and the company’s bottom line — and reducing waste in both products and processes is what Lean is all about. So it makes perfect sense that in order to achieve higher levels of environmental performance, your organization must first adopt the principles and practices of lean manufacturing.

Lean manufacturing practices, which are at the very core of sustainability, save time and money — an absolutely necessity in today’s competitive global marketplace. While the pursuit of Green and Lean is not a destination but a journey it is clear that organizations that stretch themselves to build a culture around the values of Sustainability, Excellence, and Equity will ultimately have a big advantage those who do not. Isn’t the ultimate definition of “sustainable manufacturing” to be able to compete and not only survive, but thrive?

Our related post: “7 Ways To Get Employees To Change For The Greener“, explores the challenge of getting employees to change their habitual behaviors in ways that help the organization achieve its sustainability goals.

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© 2011, Tim McMahon. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Tim McMahon (2 Articles)

Tim McMahon, Founder and Contributor of A Lean Journey Blog that is dedicated to sharing lessons and experiences along the Lean Journey in the Quest for True North. The blog also serves as the source for learning and reflection which are critical elements in Lean Thinking. Tim is a lean practitioner with more than 10 years of Lean manufacturing experience. He currently leads continuous improvement efforts for a high tech manufacturer. Tim teaches problem solving skills, lean countermeasures, and how to see opportunities for improvement by actively learning, thinking and being engaged. Tim McMahon was recently elected to the Association of Manufacturing Excellence (AME) Northeast Region Board of Directors. He will also serve as the Vice President of Programs for the region in 2011. Tim has been supporting the AME Northeast Region as the Social Media Lead and National on the Social Media Council. This role is to identify how to best leverage social media tools for increasing networking within AME. Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimALeanJourney. Connect with Tim on Linkedin. Connect with Tim on Facebook.

  • Susan Aiello, LEED AP

    Anyone who doubts the value of “Lean and Green” would benefit from reading the story of Ray Anderson.  Although his primary emphasis since 1994 has been more on “green” than “lean” profits at Interface Carpet have soared and many of his methods have been adopted not only by his competitors but by manufacturers in other fields.

  • Bill Russell

    I completely support the article as it provoces readers to give some thought to implementing lean and journeying to become more sustainable. I think we tend to spend too much time distinguishing nuanced word meanings rather than agreeing to agree and moving ahead with more specific implementation case stories. Implementing lean practices seems so common sense, but is still an uncommon practice. Doing so from a sustainability perspective is even less common, but should allow the most innovative opportunities to emerge.