Sustainability may be closer to business as usual than you think

Sustainability may be closer to business as usual than you think

Image by vonzolomon via Shutterstock.

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.

Lean Six Sigma throughout the supply chain

An improvement undertaking that is extended beyond a localized portion of a business to the entire value stream can significantly magnify the environmental benefits. A more systematic implementation of environmental accounting techniques would improve the ability of companies to make a strong business case for understanding and reducing risks associated with environmental costs. A Carbon Trust Survey found that 43 percent of responding companies do not have any reporting or management infrastructure in place to understand the risks associated with environmental costs, such as soaring energy prices, on their supply chain. The Lean Six Sigma process produces savings from increased material efficiency and reduced resource waste streams, thereby reducing risks associated with rising costs and resource depletion.

A Lean Six Sigma culture of continuous improvement

Environmental responsibility means a different thing today than it did a decade ago, and will likely continue to evolve as regulations and environmental consciousness change. Effective governance can help put a company’s limited resources to appropriate use by identifying and prioritizing projects, and effectively allocating resources needed for those projects. Lean Six Sigma governance has built-in mechanisms in place that help identify and bring to light specific opportunities, based on proven reporting and measurement techniques, to help leaders understand the progress of their organization and initiatives. Ideally, these tools and measurements proceed to specific departments in the organization to get more targeted measures and recognize more precise improvement opportunities.

In addition, because Lean Six Sigma already contains a robust mechanism for training managers and front-line employees for a Six Sigma Certification, companies should find that extending it to encompass sustainability would not reduce overall productivity. Lean training programs could incorporate a few additional tools and concepts to educate employees on the increasing importance of sustainability to business performance. Concepts might include awareness and understanding of greenhouse gases, greenhouse gas baseline and reporting, sustainability maturity models and assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics, energy consumption, paper consumption and waste and recycling.

Obviously, continuing what we’re doing will not be enough to avert climate change and other environmental degradation. But business as usual for many companies means access to a methodology that is primed to entwine sustainable consciousness into successful business operations.

Business meeting image by vonzolomon via Shutterstock.