Sustainability: A Critical Issue, With Lean as a Critical Strategy

A lean approach is critical to any strategy of sustainability. But lean alone won’t be enough. And preserving the environment is a long, uphill battle.

That is part of what I came away with from a sobering talk on the environment at the recent San Diego regional conference of the
Association for Manufacturing Excellence.

The speaker on this topic was Frank Dixon, a sustainability consultant who advises governments and businesses, including Wal-Mart.

At the start of his talk, Dixon immediately made the connection between lean and sustainability, something I’ve written about before. He declared that sustainability “will be the primary determinant of business success in the 21st century,” then noted that lean manufacturing “is the core sustainability strategy in many sectors.”

But in Dixon’s view, the issue goes far beyond achieving business success. He painted a disturbing picture of decline in our planet’s life support systems, coupled with increasing social strains.

Dixon’s main theme is the need for system change. It is a need often not fully recognized, he said, because of flaws in our systems and the way we think about them.

And he defined three levels of system change: corporate, focusing on what one company does unilaterally; mid-level, involving a specific sector or stakeholder group (he pointed to AME’s efforts as an example in this category), and high level, focused on improving overarching economic, political and social systems.

He outlined some of the many barriers to system change, as well as key principles that must be followed to achieve what he called SSI – sustainable systems implementation.

Many of Dixon’s ideas can be found on his website,
Global System Change.

His description made the situation sound daunting, though on a more positive note, he did say that “probably 95 to 99 percent of the work is companies working to lower their environmental impact.”

He offered a cautionary comment: “System change is inevitable. The only question is whether it will be voluntary or involuntary. The question is: Can we find a way to voluntarily improve our systems?”

Can we? What do you think?


Chris Carus said...

Neither Lean nor any other productivity improvement system is the answer to climate change. The error in the logic is that we link waste with carbon emissions and with financial cost. When we make systems leaner we eliminate waste (and carbon emissions). And of course we pass on some or all of the cost savings to the customer and consumer.

And what does the consumer do with the extra money they have saved? Consume more stuff, other stuff, any stuff.

Looking at energy consumption at company level is not going to be enough. At the macro level, we need to reduce society's desire to consume. The real challenge is going to be doing this out without letting the obvious economic impacts of 'deliberate recession' any worse than they alreay are for the most vulnerable members of society.