Lean meets green


We’re burning the planet – I think we all realize that by now. We know the how – too much production of greenhouse gases, too much production of heat through energy use, too much use of natural rare resources. We fear the systemic tipping point where eco-systems go badly wrong. But I’m not sure we truly understand the why.

It’s hard to see an alternative to our product-driven global society. Products augment us. They make us free to do things only the elite of the elite had access to in the past. Just think of the banal luxury of owning a fridge:

  1. Ice cream exists since the early Persian empire where huge structures were built to keep ice cool into the summer for the kings and queens – now you can have it at home, for pennies.
  2. Your fridge accounts for a third of your household energy consumption and often emits greenhouse gases that add to our global problem.
  3. That’s only the tip of the iceberg so to speak, since it ignores what goes into making the fridge and producing the electricity – as well as dealing with the machine when you replace it because it’s broke.

Should we give up ice cream? Should we give up the entire cold chain?

Not likely.

However, if we stop thinking in extremes, we can look into the supply chain and figure out the real pain points. A common belief at each point of the chain is that if we produce as much as we can, we’ll sell more than others. Of course, this is tempered by a “stupid price”: if we produce as much as we can and products don’t sell, we lower the price to sell more than others but we hit a point where we’re purchasing sales by losing money on every extra item sold.

Produce as much as you can –> create unwanted stock –> lower the price until it hurts too much –> throw away what’s leftover

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The entire system is driven by financial business plans with unrealistic expectations (for finance, it’s only numbers), which make their way into crazy production plans, through a complex, fragmented, globalized supply chain that batches work and… throws away tons of stuff everywhere all the time.

The alternative is “make one only when you sell one”: think lean.

If you force yourself to only make one piece when you’ve sold one piece, you create a completely different supply-chain. People still get what they want, you get to be more profitable, and you take all the mind-boggling waste out of the system, steadily and step-by-step.

Make one when you’ve sold one –> make sure you have one ready in inventory but not a full stock –> dimension your resources accordingly –> develop your flexibility –> be careful about the use of every bit of material

This is a different way of thinking. Thinking differently about one thing leads to think differently about all. By looking into reducing waste and being frugal with material use, Toyota, the inventor of lean thinking, has developed the hybrid car which is a step change turn towards cleaner transportation and has set itself ambitious emissions goals – which it is currently holding.

It’s very hard to change one’s lifestyle without feeling that we lose out – no more ice creams. But we can also change our thinking: from careless to careful, from mindless to mindful.

Lean thinking is the first practical step to green thinking, as, indeed, the authors of Natural Capitalism have noted almost two decades ago. To change the behavior of entire supply chains, with a multitude of interlinked actors spread all over the world, first we need to change the thinking of supply chains: the purpose, the goals, the output indicators and the incentive systems.

To take the words of Alan Deutschman, a great author on how to change people’s attitudes, this is a case of change or die.

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