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Running Up a Better Return on Your Lifecycle Investment

<p>Although full lifecycle assessments are becoming more commonplace in corporate America, many companies -- particularly small- to mid-sized manufacturers -- are still wrestling with how and where to start.</p>

You probably wouldn't run a marathon without training for it first, right? Safe to say you'd try jogging a few times before embarking on the full 26.2-mile run?

Completing a full lifecycle assessment (LCA) is a bit like running a marathon. It's a lengthy, resource-intensive process, and it's best to be armed with a strong understanding of what you're getting into before begin.

Lifecycle work is still foreign to most people, and to make matters more complicated, the industry is constantly evolving. Although full LCAs are becoming more commonplace in corporate America, many companies -- particularly small- to mid-sized manufacturers -- are still wrestling with how and where to start.

In our current economy, it can also be difficult to make the business case for a comprehensive LCA, considering the significant investment of time and money that the process requires.


Targeting Opportunities for Impact

One strategy for overcoming those initial obstacles is to employ an incremental, phased approach to lifecycle work. Targeting a smaller component of the product lifecycle can help companies predict the level of effort required for a full LCA and can still yield real value for a business, so long as the objectives and boundaries of the assessment are clearly articulated at the project outset.

LCA objectives will be different for every company, so start by asking some strategic questions. Are you simply looking to increase internal knowledge about the environmental footprint of your products? Or are customers asking for specific information? Take stock of the stakeholders that care about LCA outcomes. Is there a particular lifecycle stage or environmental impact area that is of primary concern?

Taking a phased approach can help companies gauge the relative significance of a single environmental indicator or particular lifecycle stage, and can also help to illuminate gaps in current data for specific processes.

LCAs can be scaled up in a few different ways. For example, your business may be feeling pressure to provide information in one environmental category – such as water or carbon. To respond, your team can perform a targeted LCA that analyzes the full product lifecycle from raw materials through end-of-life, but focuses on only one environmental impact area.

Or, in cases where the lifecycle stage with the greatest overall environmental impact is fairly obvious, it may make more sense to look at a full range of environmental impacts, but limit the analysis to only one lifecycle phase.

Solutions for Smart Supplier Engagement

There are also some practical "project management" factors to consider. Specifically, a LCA will likely require close coordination with your suppliers. Unless you are a key customer of that supplier, they may not be motivated to commit time and resources to your LCA. If possible, choose a supplier that you have partnered with in the past.

Also, the process will go faster if the LCA is beneficial to both companies, so do your homework and make sure you understand your suppliers' core business objectives and competitive advantage. How do they make money?  What are their biggest costs are in doing business with their customers, and how might those costs be impacted by the LCA? If possible, the LCA should advance their business, too.

The Hidden Value of a Cross-Functional Approach

In many companies, supplier relationships may be limited to employees in purchasing or supply chain, whereas employees in sales, marketing, product development or EH&S tend to have little to no involvement with suppliers.

Cross-functional exposure can be a powerful thing. Involving a multi-disciplinary team in a targeted LCA can open up opportunities for new partnerships, and product and process improvements.

In my past role as a manufacturing engineer, I obtained approval for a handful of senior product development engineers to work on the assembly line for a product they had originally designed. Although they only spent a couple hours working in the factory, they immediately began to understand the impact their design decisions had on the manufacturing process, including the ease and speed of assembly, and the likelihood for error.

Working alongside experienced production line personnel exposed them to new ideas for reducing unnecessary waste through small changes in product design or by using stocked products rather than new parts.  One of the engineers remarked that the two hours he spent working on the production line was the most eye-opening experience of his entire 25-year career.

Cross-functional exposure will make the LCA a more rewarding process for everyone involved. Companies familiar with Lean or value stream mapping can even employ those principles to identify ways to save money and improve efficiency. The opportunities for innovation and improvements are endless.

By focusing on generating new solutions, a LCA will yield real business value, even in the initial phases of LCA work. Those short-term successes will help propel your team to "go the distance" in a full LCA down the road, and more importantly, will ensure a positive return on your lifecycle investment.

Jill Kolling is the founder and president of Paydirt, LLC, a sustainability consultancy advising organizations of all sizes on ways to align environmental and corporate stewardship with key business objectives.

Images CC licensed by Flickr users joshjanssen and mikebaird.

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