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Greening Up the Gemba

by Tim Kane
April 18, 2014

Greening Up the Gemba

by Tim Kane
April 18, 2014 | Comments (4)

Image courtesy of Maro 2014

Kermit said it… for a while there, it wasn’t easy being green. It’s still not “easy” per se, but at least these days it’s hip. One reason for this cultural shift is the successful pairing of lean concepts with environmental concerns

I recall a time when both lean and green concepts were a tough sell to service organization leaders, despite widespread adoption by leading manufacturers. Back then, going green sometimes meant going rogue!

Once I was helping to build a house of quality at a reputable professional services company (this wasn’t my current company, but a former client). Introducing lean tools and techniques to the organization, I was eager to go after some quick-win opportunities. Soon I found myself facilitating a team of like-minded efficiency wonks – intrepid middle managers heck-bent on cutting costs and reducing the environmental footprint of the business. We thought of ourselves as a “black-ops” team because we started out with no official executive sponsor or charter.

Our journey began when one of our lot—we’ll call him “Fozzie”—from Finance showed me his collection of “off the books” spreadsheets. Among other things, Fozzie was tracking the amount of printer paper the company was purchasing each month as well as the amount of used paper discarded each month. His yet-to-be-validated hypothesis was that they were purchasing more paper than was needed, as most of it was apparently discarded right after printing. Fozzie, like his Muppet namesake, was quick on his feet and knew how to work a room, but his attempts to bring this problem to senior leadership’s attention had failed to elicit a call to action. Undeterred, he asked me for help, and a lean/green conspiracy was born.

We built a small coalition of the willing-to-gather-data with like-minded internal conspirators and a key external consultant, our managed print services account rep, “The Count”. After assessing The Count’s detailed cost and usage data, some themes emerged:

  • Many lengthy reports were being auto-generated and delivered as print jobs to designated recipients
  • It was costing us about 10 cents to print a page in color vs. 1 cent for black and white
  • Single-sided printing was the norm
  • There were no controls around color printing, and color-capable machines would automatically print in color if even the tiniest drop of color was detected in the document

Now armed with a more informed hypothesis, we were ready to go to the gemba and gather some actionable data. It would be impossible to do this adequately without blowing our black-ops cover. So we pitched the COO, “Mr. Hooper”, for sponsorship. He agreed to charter our little excursion. We did not enjoy the support of the other executives. To us they seemed a lot like the old hecklers sitting in the balcony at The Muppet Show, watching our little song-and-dance routine and cutting us to the quick with assorted taunts and zingers. But Mr. Hooper went out on a limb, enabling us to execute a quick company-wide survey to better understand current state printing practices and quantify actual printing needs.

We learned that:

  • Of those receiving the big, auto-generated print jobs, a majority did not need or want the information in hard-copy format and were throwing lengthy reports away directly upon delivery
  • Color printing was needed on a regular basis by only a few small, customer-facing departments
  • Virtually no one was aware of any cost discrepancy between color and black and white printing

We also did a quick and stealthy gemba walk to understand where printing machines were placed and how they were being used. We didn’t do any prolonged observation or spaghetti diagrams. We simply didn’t have time for this and needed to be careful not to invoke the ire of those execu-hecklers by snooping excessively around their turf. We learned that our current configuration of printers readily passed what we affectionately called the “spit test,” meaning that wherever you stood, you were within spittin’ distance of a printer. In other words, we had way more printers than we needed.

This was where our managed print services vendor really added value. Because we had adequately quantified the organization’s actual printing needs, The Count was able to propose several detailed reconfiguration options. The solution we eventually implemented involved:

  • “Retirement” of some older, less efficient devices
  • Removal (and donation to local nonprofit) of excess, stand-alone printers
  • Limited access-code entry requirement for color devices
  • Network print default settings to black and white, double-sided
  • Education, including simple “10 cents vs. 1 cent” signage posted at printers

The numbers looked great, demonstrating an immediate, positive environmental impact, significant cost savings, and a nice “quick win” from which the organization could build some lean/green momentum. When the implementation plan was presented for approval, executives couldn’t argue with the numbers. But, unfortunately, they chose to provide exceptional support to the initiative – meaning they supported all proposed policy, system and equipment changes except those that impacted the executive suite! Undaunted, we received their feedback with exceptional grace and adjusted our projected savings estimates accordingly. PKDCA – Plan, Kowtow, Do, Check, Act!

We vigorously communicated the success of our initiative across the organization and, slowly but surely, the lean/green movement gained momentum, even among the hecklers. The company is now regarded as a green leader for its commitment to energy efficiency, recycling, composting, and telecommuting.

Lean and green… it’s still not easy, but it’s possible. And sometimes, it can feel like the Rainbow Connection.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  gemba,  sustainability
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4 Comments | Post a Comment
Danielle McGuiness April 22, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
When I think about "lean & green" I often think about producing to demand, and mimizing scrap. I think about the manufacturing plants that have serious scrap problems that they can't sell or reuse which goes into a landfill. Can you imagine a world where we only produced to demand so that we didn't have scrap? What a win for that company and the environment.

Reply »

Tim Kane April 24, 2014
Amen to that, Danielle.

Reply »

Allen Mikles April 23, 2014

There was a great article recently about a teenage that calculated the ink usage between different fonts and could save the government millions by just switching to Garamond font. Link is:


Fascinating story on how we all could pay attention to the little things, to make a big difference.

Reply »

Tim Kane April 24, 2014
Love this story, Allen -- thanks for passing it along.

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