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How GE's 'Treasure Hunts' Discovered More Than $110M in Energy Savings

By making small but powerful changes companies can have a big impact on the environment, engage employees and cut costs. Perhaps the best part is that you don't have to be an expert to contribute substantively to the process, writes Gretchen Hancock, who provides an inside look at GE's Energy Treasure Hunts and how they uncovered $111 million in savings.

These days blogs and newspapers seem to make a daily reference to climate change, resource scarcity and security, the environment and the economy. It's overwhelming … and with the legions of experts in each of these fields, hard to see where one organization, let alone an individual, can make a difference.

When I took on the role of driving GE's greenhouse gas reduction program, that's exactly how it felt: Where to start, and in this sea of experts, how to motivate our employees to get involved and make a sustainable impact?

The answer lay in GE's corporate culture. GE employees solve problems. We improve Lean processes and quantify defects from our Six Sigma heritage, and we're accustomed to teamwork and matrix organizations.

"Energy Treasure Hunt," a lean manufacturing process developed by Toyota and refined by GE, combines the best elements of our culture to drive energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the company. It's about Kaizen -- continuous improvement -- applied to energy use. It's about executing small, but powerful changes that have an impact on the environment, engage employees and cut costs. And perhaps the best part is that you don't have to be an expert to contribute substantively to the process.

How Do Energy Treasure Hunts Work?

By design, Energy Treasure Hunts start on a Sunday afternoon, when an operation is "sleeping." We kick off by splitting participants -- a cross-functional group of GE employees -- into teams and training them to identify opportunities in the facility where energy and resources are needlessly in use: Lights that may be left on, equipment operating, pumps or motors running, and to quantify those opportunities for follow up during the rest of the event.

Employees generally don't want to spend their Sunday afternoons at a facility, making measurements and taking detailed notes. Suffice it to say that most participants aren't very excited when we first start a hunt, yet we've learned that it's best to accept that and encourage them to "genchi genbutsu" (loosely translated as "go and see," but what we refer to as "get your boots on") and tackle wasted energy use.

We know that by walking through the plant and applying the process and toolset, the teams will become aware of not only the wasted energy, but also of its impact on the facility's bottom line. The toolset translates wasted energy into costs that the facility can reduce by implementing operational or technology changes to eliminate the waste.

By the time teams return to the central location in the early evening, you can sense the buzz: Employees have seen opportunities for improvement, and are realizing how this whole process makes sense for the organization as a whole.

On Monday morning, teams interview facility employees about the opportunities identified for energy saving, a critical step to secure operator buy-in to the proposed change. Throughout the day, they continue to quantify their projects, getting cost and savings information from process experts, and ideas for operational change from the employees that run the operation. By Tuesday afternoon, each team has a list of at least 10 quantified ideas for energy savings -- and most notably, these projects on average have a simple payback of less than two years!

In addition to operator-buy in, there are two more critical elements of staffing an Energy Treasure Hunt. First, facility leadership must be committed to implementing some of the projects identified during the event. The Energy Treasure Hunt process uses site-specific costs for electricity, natural gas, and other commodities, thereby creating its own value proposition. The best testimonial for Energy Treasure Hunt comes from the way it has been integrated into GE's operating culture: Through no central mandate, more than 250 GE locations globally have implemented the process and continue to do so because it makes economic and environmental sense.

Second, the most successful events leverage internal operational, environmental, health and safety and maintenance expertise side by side with representatives of utilities, contractors, and people from other locations or companies -- experience combined with fresh eyes on the process results in the right questions being asked.

We had representatives of the US Environmental Protection Agency participate in an Energy Treasure Hunt with GE and NBC Universal employees at Universal Studios in California this past fall, and in March 2009 GE's Healthcare business hosted our largest event to date with 90 participants at four facilities simultaneously, and beat the event goals by nearly three times.

While the main purpose of Energy Treasure Hunt is to identify opportunities to use resources efficiently, the significant net impact is the start of a culture change. While efficiency projects are the direct outcome of the hunt, GE has trained more than 3,500 of its employees globally to think about wasted energy and water in a different and powerful way. Those individuals have identified more than 5,000 projects that have the opportunity to drive energy efficiency, eliminate 700,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions -- and $111 million in operational cost. And they understand the link between the cost and wasted resources as it applies to their own job.

I've been amazed at the success of this program in making a lasting impact on our culture and on the environment … who knew I'd find so many experts right at home.

Gretchen Hancock is the project manager for Corporate Environmental Programs at GE.


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