Is Lean Green?

Permalink   |   Post a Comment   |  

People often tell me that lean thinking must be “green” because it reduces the amount of energy, manufacturing space, and wasted by-products required to produce a given product. Indeed, examples are often cited of reducing human effort, space, and scrap by 50 percent or more, per product produced, through applying lean principles in a manufacturing facility.  I also hear that milk run pickups from suppliers reduce traffic congestion and energy consumption by letting one truck do the work of many.

This is all true. But what happens when lean production also reduces the cost of products and causes consumers to buy more?  My guess is that the total amount of energy, by-products, and congestion can even go up as lean production is adopted if product designs and production locations stay the same.

But lean can support green.  Just in a different way:  We’ve learned that consumers are resistant to paying higher prices for the same product just because it’s “green” and that they are equally resistant to giving up products like big cars and large homes that are central to their enjoyment of life. But it’s also apparent that many emerging product technologies and lean manufacturing and distribution concepts can dramatically improve our environment, if only they can be widely incorporated into products and production systems without needing to increase product prices.

For example, hybrid motor vehicles are available right away and fuel cells and highly compressed value streams with right-sized process technologies to locate production closer to the user can be introduced within a few years.  If these technologies and methods are fully adopted, there is reason to think that the burden on the environment can go down even as consumption goes up.

This means that lean’s role is to be green’s critical enabler as the massive waste in our current industrial practices is reduced to free up resources for improving product technologies and production locations for free. (That is, is at no apparent cost to the consumer.) You’ll remember how strange it first sounded when people began to realize that “quality is free.” To say that “green is free” if we turn production waste into environmental value sounds equally strange today. But not, I think, for long.

Is it just a coincidence that Toyota is the most profitable big car company, the leanest car company, and the company making the greatest efforts to introduce hybrid vehicles in the immediate future?  I think not, because Toyota can add technology to its vehicles to address environmental concerns without needing to raise prices to consumers, as it relentlessly reduces costs through kaizen and kaikaku in both design and manufacture.

Let’s hope that every producer soon masters the same tricks.  I’m convinced our environment is going to need all the help lean can offer.

Best regards,

Jim Womack
Lean Enterprise Institute

0 Comments | Post a Comment
Other Jim Womack Related Content



  • The Power of Personal Yokoten
    Personal yokoten to teach new mindsets and attitudes is an activity all of us can perform out in the world every day with every manager, team leader, and team we touch, says Jim Womack. He believes we can transfer new, lean ideas about management and leadership in our civic roles and even in our families as we think through tough issues.
  • The Power of Yokoten
    I’ve written a lot about yokoten in recent years – the practice of spreading good (lean) ideas horizontally between and across organizations from their point of initial success (“Yoko” means in Japanese horizontal.) It turns out that this is hard, even for the methods and tools needed to create lean value streams. Lean requires practice, even when the theory is clear and simple, and it’s hard to find enough teachers with enough experience and time to lead the cycles of practice needed for sustainable yokoten.
  • How A Complete Lean Production System Fuels Global Success
    In this article prepared for the 2007 relaunch of the seminal book The Machine that Changed the World, co-author Jim Womack correctly forecast Toyota's rise, and identifes the key elements of a dynamic lean production system.