Posted by: productivityinc | June 1, 2009

Lean, Green, and Safe


Taking an integrated approach can start with ‘low-hanging-fruit’ — business offices.
By Mike Taubitz

Many companies, large and small, are working on the somewhat nebulous issue of sustainability. Additionally, leaders everywhere are focusing on creating a lean organizational culture that strives for continuous improvement resulting in “faster, better, and less expensive.” Being lean necessitates an integrated approach in any organization. This article explores how leaders can integrate “lean, green and safe” in a non-manufacturing environment.

The sustainability, or lean-and-green, movement is powerful and becoming more visible, as well it should. Lean-and-green organizations can improve profitability while being a good community citizen by introducing less waste into the environment. This is great for a strategic focus, but how do you apply it in non-manufacturing environments and improve safety?

Start with Taiichi Ohno’s seven forms of waste, which must be identified and eliminated in the pursuit of green office and business systems just as in production.

Understanding Lean, Waste and Safety

MIT defines “lean” as “production design that is aimed at the elimination of waste in every area, including customer relations, product design, supplier networks and factory management. Its goal is to incorporate less human effort, less inventory, less time to develop products, and less space to become highly responsive to customer demand, while producing top quality products in the most efficient and economical manner possible.”

Not only is the MIT definition verbose, but it constrains thinking to production. Let’s step back a moment for the sake of clarity. “Lean” is a term coined to describe the Toyota Production System (Womack,“The Engine that Changed the World”). Toyota further helps us when their top executive says rather succinctly that it’s all about 1) the identification of waste; and 2) the elimination of waste. The exact quote from Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho was in the magazine Business 2.0, Jan/February 2005 Issue:

“At Toyota, we start with 2 questions:

1. Where are we wasting resources like time, people or material?

2. How can we be less wasteful?”

If identification and elimination of waste describe the “what” for lean, then respect for people and environment are the foundations for “how” the lean tools are applied. This brings employee safety into the picture — as practitioners of lean, we can’t be lean without being safe.

“Waste” forms the hinge for integration of lean, green, and safe. Folks in the environmental end of the business think of solid, air, and water waste. Safety personnel are correct when they say that injuries and illnesses are waste. How do the different wastes in environment and safety link to things like non-value added work? How does one fit all of this together? Toyota’s approach provides the answer to that question

The seven forms of waste introduced by Ohno are
1. Correction
2. Overproduction
3. Motion
4. Material Movement
5. Waiting
6. Inventory
7. Process

COMMWIP was developed as an acronym to assist folks in remembering the seven forms of waste (Note: the COMMWIP forms are the same as those introduced by Toyota’s scientist, Ohno, but with different words and order). The good news is that tackling the seven forms of waste becomes the foundation for reducing the traditional safety and environmental wastes:

  1. Correction equals defects, which equate to injuries and illnesses, along with wasted materials that create negative environmental impacts. Reducing defects reduces human and environmental exposures.
  2. Over-production may increase ergonomic risk to employees and result in out-dated materials having to be disposed without being used.
  3. Motions that do not add value often create stress and strain for employees. Reaching, bending, and twisting not only do not add value to the customer, but increase risk of injury to employees.
  4. Material Movement increases exposure to moving materials on the factory floor and, to a lesser degree, in the office. Reducing exposure reduces risk to employees and potential spills impacting air, water, or solid waste.
  5. Waiting creates stress in the system, whether on the factory floor or behind a desk. Unbalanced workloads contribute to physical and mental stress.
  6. Inventory increases the risk of trip hazards and blind spots along with the potential that material may have to be scrapped at some point.
  7. Process waste often creates non-value added extra steps and errors in the system. Process is often a contributing root cause of injuries, illnesses, and environmental waste.

Leading the Cultural Journey — Everywhere

Lean is often thought to apply to the factory floor, engineering, or the supply chain, but it is not well recognized that lean applies to the entire organization. Moreover, it works for any size and kind of enterprise, including sales and service, health care, banking/investment services, etc.
Also, keeping offices lean provides leaders the opportunity to “preach what they practice.”

When top management takes on leading an organization to become lean, green, and safe, they are taking the first step in a cultural journey to continuous improvement. By leading the identification and elimination of waste in office and business systems, the leader can make any organization more efficient. Moreover, the office is low-hanging fruit. Leaders and staff alike will discover how much hidden waste constrains their own efficiency and contributes to waste further downstream in their organization.

Continued focus on waste creates the bridge to lean-and-green being practiced by everyone. When staff and employees begin to practice and think “lean” in the course of daily business, they automatically think about waste for the entire lifecycle of their product(s) or service(s).

Why focus on lean in the office? The answer is that to properly engage engineers, purchasing, HR, and all other staffs in a cultural journey to lean, green and safe, it is necessary that management and salary personnel practice waste elimination in their daily life. Unless leaders actively lead lean in the office, it becomes too easy to focus attention only on the factory floor or distribution of products and services to customers. This often results in those making key decisions overlooking critical issues that must be addressed further downstream.

5S, value stream/process mapping, one-page reports, standardized work, knowledge folders, and problem solving are just some of the tools and processes used in the office to identify and eliminate waste. These are all hands-on efforts that do not require technology, software, or travel. Results are immediate. Individuals and teams learn by improving their workplace.

Examples of waste in the office include:

  1. Correction: transaction errors
  2. Over-production: printing too many copies
  3. Motion: excess motion of personnel to complete a task
  4. Material movement: movement of material or information that adds no value
  5. Waiting: meetings start late and/or run over time
  6. Inventory: Ordering more supplies than necessary
  7. Process: Often cumbersome or non-existent (i.e. unnecessary reviews or approvals)

5S is a good starting point to learn how to identify and eliminate waste. An example is shown below. As part of a training exercise for an electronics sales-and-service company, one 5S team worked on the engineering area. Approximately one-half of the old space was freed up for new office space, allowing 14 new cubicles.

An estimated $10,000 of employee salary was devoted to freeing up over 1,400 square feet of business floor space in just a few days. The estimated cost avoidance for this project was $140,000 to $175,000. This benefit was a by-product of the real goal to teach people how to identify and eliminate waste.

When teams such as this continue to tackle lean wastes in their everyday office environment, the natural by-products of their efforts are reduced safety and environmental wastes.

Culture Change Isn’t Easy

Sounds good, right? It can be, but it all gets back to leadership and starting on the leader’s home turf – the office. Lean in the office is a dramatic culture change that will be resisted by some. Regardless of the overall benefits, some like clutter/chaos, and others will consider the necessary teamwork developing standardized work to be an infringement on their personal domain.

Like “wax on – wax off” in the scene from the movie, The Karate Kid, it takes practice to develop skills as a lean practitioner. Those who continue to use the tools will soon find that their thinking and approach to problems begins to change. We call this “acting your way to a new way of thinking.” On the other hand, if leaders dictate lean without respect for employees or the environment, they will soon find that lean is not producing the results they had hoped for. Like all superficial “program-of-the-month” efforts, employees will simply comply when forced without changing the way they really work.

For leaders who want to do the right thing for the right reasons, leading “lean, green and safe” will result in improved organizational performance. Your staff will find that work is easier and less stressful. And your clients and customers will be enthusiastic about their improved customer experience.

Mike Taubitz is chairman of the Lean and Safe Network. Contact him at

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