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Lean Manufacturing and Environment

Environmental Benefits and Shortcomings

Through its systematic focus on the elimination of non-value-added activity, lean manufacturing substantially improves the environmental performance of organizations. Reducing common types of manufacturing waste - defects, waiting, overproduction, movement, inventory, complexity, and unused creativity - yields a variety of environmental benefits, including less use of energy, water, and raw materials; reduced generation of solid and hazardous wastes; and lower emissions of hazardous air pollutants. Lean methods, however, often fail to consider two types of environmental waste: the environmental risk of production processes and products and the life-cycle impacts of products or services.

Environmental Benefits "Ride the Coattails" of Lean Manufacturing

Even without explicitly targeting environmental outcomes, lean initiatives can yield substantial environmental benefits. Lean methods focus on improving resource productivity and production efficiency, leading organizations to continually reduce the materials, energy, water, space, and equipment needed per unit of production.

Table 1 lists seven common types of waste that lean works to eliminate and the environmental impacts often associated with each of them. Reducing these manufacturing wastes through lean implementation correspondingly decreases the environmental "footprint" of an organization's operations. For example, reducing defects eliminates the environmental impacts associated with the materials and processing used to create the defective product, as well as the waste and emissions stemming from reworking or disposing of the defective products. Similarly, reducing inventory and converting to a cellular manufacturing layout lessen the facility space requirements, along with water, energy, and material use associated with heating, cooling, lighting, and maintaining the building.

Table 1: Environmental Impacts Associated with Manufacturing Wastes
Waste Type Environmental Impacts
  • Raw materials consumed in making defective products
  • Defective components require recycling or disposal
  • More space required for rework and repair, increasing energy use for heating, cooling, and lighting
  • Potential material spoilage or component damage causing waste
  • Wasted energy from heating, cooling, and lighting during production downtime
  • More raw materials consumed in making the unneeded products
  • Extra products may spoil or become obsolete requiring disposal
  • More energy use for transport
  • Emissions from transport
  • More space required for work-in-process (WIP) movement, increasing lighting, heating, and cooling demand and energy consumption
  • More packaging required to protect components during movement
  • More packaging to store WIP
  • Waste from deterioration or damage to stored WIP
  • More materials needed to replace damaged WIP
  • More energy used to heat, cool, and light inventory space
  • More parts and raw materials consumed per unit of production
  • Unnecessary processing increases waste, energy use, and emissions
Unused creativity
  • Fewer suggestions of pollution prevention and waste minimization opportunities

Lean also fosters a continual-improvement focused, waste-elimination culture that is remarkably similar to the organizational culture promoted by environmental regulatory agencies for effective environmental management. Through tools such as standard work, visual controls, kaizen events, 3P, and total productive maintenance, lean systems establish and reinforce clear procedures for the proper performance of jobs and tasks, involve cross-functional teams of employees to identify and eliminate waste, tap worker creativity to develop innovative process and product designs that improve efficiency and effectiveness, and empower workers to maintain and improve operations and equipment in their work areas, preventing breakdowns, malfunctions, and accidents.

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Lean Can Be Leveraged to Produce Even More Environmental Improvement

Although lean efforts by their very nature produce environmental benefits and establish a systemic, continual improvement-based waste elimination culture, lean methods do not explicitly incorporate environmental considerations, leaving environmental improvement opportunities on the table. In many cases, lean methods have "blind spots" with respect to environmental risk and life-cycle impacts. As illustrated in Figure A, lean methods have a low attentiveness to environmental risks — such as the toxicity of substances — in production processes and in products or services; environmental risk factors are not routinely examined by lean methods. Similarly, lean methods do not typically identify or consider the environmental impacts or costs associated with the extraction of materials used in manufacturing, the disposal of non-product output or waste generated during production, or the use or disposal of products.

Figure A: Lean manufacturing blind spots, risks and life cycle impacts

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Limiting Factors of Lean Implementation

Three factors often limit the environmental improvements resulting from lean implementation:

  1. Lean methods do not explicitly identify pollution and environmental risk as "wastes" to target for elimination.
  2. Environmental personnel are not well integrated into operations-based lean implementation efforts, often leading environmental management activities to operate in a "parallel universe" to lean efforts.
  3. Information and expertise related to waste minimization and pollution prevention that environmental management agencies have assembled is not routinely making it into the hands of lean practitioners. These limitations also represent opportunities for organizations to further improve their environmental performance while applying lean methods and principles.

    The marginal effort of explicitly addressing environmental considerations during lean implementation can be low, particularly when compared with efforts to implement similar pollution prevention, waste minimization, and sustainability activities in isolation. Once environmental personnel gain familiarity and proficiency with lean methods and processes, lean tools can be used to explicitly address environmental objectives such as waste minimization and risk reduction. In addition, lean provides an excellent platform for incorporating environmental management tools — such as life-cycle assessment and Design-for-Environment methods — to reduce environmental risk and life-cycle impacts. Even if organizations implementing lean naturally evolve to address environmental impacts, environmental benefits can be enhanced by ensuring this occurs in a timely and efficient manner.

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