Lean and Sustainability

Senge waste 1

Graphic excerpted from Senge (2001)1

[click on image for clear view]

[Originally published 3/2/14 as “Lean is Part of the Story – A New Paradigm?”]

As a proponent and practitioner of lean methodologies, I can point to many benefits of pursuing lean initiatives, but there is another story as well.  In lean initiatives we typically work on reducing the “Waste From Production” component of the above graphic.  This is an important endeavor which saves the organization time and money and makes it more competitive, but we don’t address the “Waste From Use” or “Discard” waste elements.

 If we expand our paradigm to include the elements not typically covered in our lean initiatives, we enter the realm of “Sustainability” and “Green”.  These terms have, unfortunately, come to have a negative connotation for many due to high cost legislative mandates and blatant “green washing” marketing campaigns.

What if we could change our paradigm and embrace the concepts of sustainability and green in ways that not only benefit society and the environment, but at the same time make us more profitable and competitive?  I submit that this is not only possible, but necessary for our continued survival.

 So what is the “Paradigm” that offers not only profitability, but economic, social, and environmental sustainability?

 A concept discussed by Hawken (1993)2 and further developed by McDonough & Braungart (2002)3 is the sustainable concept of:

 waste equals food 

If, as in natural biological systems, energy is cycled through a systematic loop where the waste from one portion of the cycle becomes food for the next portion of the cycle, we get a picture more like this: 

Ultimate goal is 100 percent cycled through the blue loops = Zero Waste!

Senge waste 2

Graphic excerpted from Senge (2001)

[click on image for clear view]

In this paradigm, Waste From Production becomes “food” for other Goods In Production, and Waste From Use becomes “food” for other Goods In Production or returns to the Natural Resources biological system that has proven so effectively sustainable for millennia.  The result of this recycling of materials and energy is reduced natural resource consumption and pollution.  Mining of previously used resources from our downstream waste (or re-use in its pure form as raw material) results in reduced costs of mining raw materials and the associated extensive downstream processing costs, generating greater efficiencies and profits.  Reduced social and environmental degradation is simply a byproduct of this paradigm.

 Where is the leverage, and how do we implement this system?

The true leverage is in upfront planning and design so that all of our “natural resources” are preserved in a natural state and can re-enter the natural biological system, and all of our “technological resources” can be returned to a technological recycling system.  Implementation is possible with planning and communication among our community so we identify, produce, and link processes whose wastes can be used as food for other processing cycles.

1Senge, P. (Winter 2001).  Innovating Our Way to the Next Industrial Revolution, MIT Sloan Management Review, 24-38.

2Hawken, P. (1993). The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. HarperCollins Publishers. New York.

3McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press. New York.