Sustainability may be closer to business as usual than you think

Hundreds of corporations worldwide already use a methodology that can be realistically broadened to justify environmental responsibility. It’s called “Lean Six Sigma,” a concept originally developed for manufacturing, but has grown to include business and customer service processes.

Lean Six Sigma is a proven methodology for defining problems, reducing waste, systematically improving outputs and tracking results. With the same prioritization, measurement and problem-solving tools, Lean Six Sigma could prove to be very suitable for corporate sustainability programs.

Lean Six Sigma addresses two of the most significant problems that environmentally focused businesses face: How is a project that costs money but improves the environmental footprint weighed against one that does little for the environment but cuts costs? And once environmental responsibility is accepted within the company, which sustainability project deserves to be pursued first?

Lean Six Sigma allows companies to define what metrics are the most important to the business at the highest level and drill down to understand the indicators that are the most closely correlated. It also provides the measurement and analysis tools, such as value stream mapping, to sort out which projects will contribute most to environmental improvement and at what cost.

For example, when Lockheed Martin took a closer look at its supply chain, it found that out of 2,000 indicators, many of which the company had deemed materially important, 10 areas accounted for 96 percent of its overall environmental impact.

Obviously, defining the problem is only the first step toward true sustainability. Actual implementation can often get bogged down with challenges and setbacks. The principles of streamlined processes, reduced variability and continuous improvement found in Lean Six Sigma are ideal for implementing sustainable projects.

Lean Six Sigma at HQ

Major companies looking to make their large, multibuilding campuses more energy efficient could use the idea of “lean energy audits” to make the process more organized and accurate. Traditionally, energy audits focus on one building, such as a residential home or a commercial office space. The process involves an auditor taking measurements one at a time, such as analyzing lighting techniques, levels of insulation and HVAC efficiency; putting the results in a comprehensive plan; and then implementing (or recommending) solutions. When the same energy auditing process has been used on a multibuilding complex, the traditional methodology has proven to be wasteful in terms of time and work load. By focusing on one measurement, for example, lighting techniques for each building, the auditors needlessly build up the amount of information and work-in-progress involved in the project.

Instead, a lean energy audit would analyze and implement efficiency upgrades in each building from beginning to end. This way, auditors avoid mistakes by verifying that the process of collecting data, analyzing data and implementing recommendations is sound from start to finish. By completing the program each building of a multibuilding campus, problems with implementation, client preferences or incorrect assumptions can be caught before they are repeated in other buildings.

Next page: Lean Six Sigma and suppliers