Of all disciplines charged with the goal of sustainability, design offers the most compelling methodology. As an inherently multi-disciplinary practice, design can modify isolated parts of a system to influence the behavior of the whole, and as a result provide the critical intervention mechanism needed to shift any complex system towards sustainability.

Traditionally, business has viewed design as a product-driven process, investing in it only when it yields positive ROI. But it is when design has been applied as a framework to create systems-based solutions that it has led to substantive returns for business.

One such framework, known as lean design, shifted businesses toward less waste and higher productivity. As an early precursor of "green design," lean emphasized energy and resource efficiencies. Lean design actually proved to be such a forceful new paradigm that the federal government created not-for-profit programs like Manufacturing Extensions Programs (MEP) to assist businesses looking to capitalize upon its principles. Small businesses eager to gain competitive advantage in today's green economy can benefit from these programs by implementing lean and green design solutions across their operations.

There are currently 59 MEP centers around the country, all dedicated to revitalizing local businesses through whole-systems design. Susie Zimmerman, a consultant for the program, explained that MEPs work on a not-for-profit basis and collaborate with academic institutions, economic development authorities, private consultants, state and federal agencies to design customized solutions for businesses.

MEPs have a network of more than 1,000 field specialists that include architects, engineers, design consultants and management and marketing specialists. They delve into the smallest details of a business to identify areas for improvement and innovation, then design a plan and facilitate the transition.

ITAC, the Industrial Technology Assistance Corporation, is a New York City MEP that has operated as a one-stop resource for local businesses for over 20 years. ITAC encourages businesses to incorporate lean and green design by demonstrating the positive ROI of implementing them.

Stefanie Feldman, ITAC's Director of Sustainability, said the group typically starts with addressing solid waste in a business by redesigning material flows. "Most companies are not open to an entirely new approach. They expect us to give them a quick and dirty fix," she explained. "Waste is a small step but it is a tactical one. It proves to the company the value of green because it reduces costs and smoothens the workflow." Beyond the quick fixes, ITAC offers extensive assistance to small businesses.

Nulux, a custom light fixtures manufacturer in New York City, turned to ITAC when they were zoned out of their 15-year old facility in Brooklyn. ITAC helped secure state funding to relocate Nulux, designed a lean production process for the new facility, introduced efficient fabrication technologies and finally helped develop a comprehensive marketing strategy.

"Our owner wanted to make sustainability a company-wide initiative. ITAC helped us look at the entire process not just one product to move us in that direction," said Meredith Goodwin Bajaj, an industrial designer at Nulux. The lean design yielded instant productivity for Nulux and per ITAC: "Lead times were reduced from 78 days to 1 day, work-in-progress inventory was reduced by 98 percent, productivity was increased by 200 percent and the amount of space the firm needed was reduced by 35 percent -- from 200 square feet to just 130."