A Lean view of the fight against climate change

Published on
October 15, 2020
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
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What is the contribution of Lean Thinking to the fight against climate change? Michael Ballé discusses the Toyota approach to sustainability and what it takes to get "green" to the top of the corporate agenda.

Interviewee: Michael Ballé, Lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France.

The idea of Lean and green is not new, but it still hasn't fully penetrated the mindset of most Lean practitioners. Why is that?

The value of Lean is that it is a fully functional paradigm for creating more business value by focusing on customers and better engaging employees and suppliers. There are many concepts and tools associated with it. But to really "get it" at lean and correctly interpret its tools, one must first leave the Taylorist paradigm in which we were all raised. Thus, when exposed to new ideas - such as Lean and green - Lean practitioners face the dual problem of 1) acquisition and 2) translation. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that most leaders are not out for real, radical change. Most often, unfortunately but not surprisingly, they are looking for affirmation: tell me that what I am doing is already Lean .

Lean is great. It works. It's fun. But the learning investment should not be underestimated. Lean practitioners move from one tool to the next, understanding the next deep concept. The slope is steep and the mountain seems endless, and it is understandable that many struggle to transition to the next area or domain. For example, as lean practitioners, we now need to understand software, which is becoming like electricity and is in everything, as well as green because of the emerging global crisis.

Interestingly, Toyota, our example, is way ahead on both counts, but as has always been the case, their answers are very specific to their culture and industry and largely arcane. It is difficult to access, to hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak, and then figure it out. So I am not surprised that most people shy away from the challenge. Too bad, but understandable.

What does a Lean and green strategy look like for a company?

I suspect the problem lies much deeper. In the West, we see our political environment shifting inexorably toward two rather unattractive characteristics. One is the 24/7 news frenzy in which we are bombarded with more news, real or fake, newsworthy or useless, and this has made us addicted to the quick and easy, the superficial, the consumable information, the packaged ideas. Strategies must be both simple and familiar. No great help in working our way out of the collective hole we are digging ourselves into. As we can see with the repeated financial crises since the end of the Cold War, most people are desensitized to systemic risk because they feel that someone else should do the job (what can they do?) and that someone else will get worse first (we'll manage for a while). While this has never been a good basis for policy, this is a natural reaction and the question is how to overcome it.

At the same time (and perhaps for the same reasons), politicians are becoming more and more authoritarian in imposing their solutions, whatever they may be, on their supporters and dooming the rest of us. This revolutionary language has everything to do with seizing power and imposing solutions, and exacerbates the problem of global passivity - if I don't feel committed to any of these proposals, such as changing our lifestyles, abandoning the idea of growth, and other biggies, why should I engage in this fractious mess? The language of politics has become so coarse and hateful that ordinary people are unlikely to get involved for fear of getting caught in the crossfire.

As a result, a process of finding solutions together gradually disappears when those solutions are not yet known. This is something in which Lean excels. Its highest values are joint problem solving by going to the gemba and listening to what all stakeholders have to say and then building global answers out of local ideas and initiatives. Lean offers us more of a way to address the green problem than a ready-made solution per se. A Lean strategy for sustainability would look like this:

  1. Ballpark goals for the next 10 years: what would success look like in 2030? In 2040?
  2. Important questions to answer that are specific to our business - for example, if you are a digital company, reducing water consumption may not be a problem, but understanding the environmental impact of servers in Iceland is a huge challenge.
  3. Concrete - and relevant - steps we can take to better understand the problem.

Let's start there and see where we end up - we need to find the right Lean strategy, not adopt an off-the-shelf one hoping it will work for us (or worse, copy and paste existing "best practices" from consultant reports and white papers).

A major challenge in sustainability is measuring the cost of "externalities" - the impact of our work and activities on the environment. Lean can reveal hidden information.... can it help us do that? The impact would be quite large.

Absolutely. Lean is a learning system that relies on practice, theory and, most importantly, measurement. The first real commitment to a green strategy is to start measuring green performance in whatever way is relevant to your practice. Carbon footprint is a good start, as is waste of resources. Measuring specific waste or impact is the first step to a green strategy - not so easy, but when you see the efforts companies are making to measure productivity, not so hard either. It's mostly a matter of facing the problem and then doing it.

Just as individuals and businesses are reluctant to give up their habits for the sake of the environment, so it has been difficult to find consensus on the world stage. Whatever agreement is reached, the results are likely to be limited (if any). We need to be more ambitious as a global community! Can lean help us present a united front against climate change?

With the Covid-19 pandemic, we can see where waiting for a global environmental consensus will lead: more debates among experts, more arbitrary government action (or no action), and very little progress. The key element to coordinating any response is leadership - the companies that get there first and prove their way is doable will have imitators. People are not very good at coming up with their own solutions, but are happy to follow when a reasonable solution is offered. Look at how Toyota and then Tesla changed the framework - and the automotive industry - simply by offering greener vehicles. Tesla is all-electric. Toyota is generalizing hybrid technology throughout its lineup and phasing out diesel in Europe. This puts pressure on competitors to follow their lead. This puts pressure on their competitors to catch up and radically changes the market.

Instead of waiting for a global consensus, we need more companies to take on that kind of leadership and actually show that it can be done and that customers prefer greener solutions. Yes, there is definitely a gap between intention and action. Many consumers say they prefer greener solutions, but then they vote with their wallets and buy the most practical or the cheapest. Yet real solutions will emerge in unexpected ways. Nicolas Chartier, co-author of The Lean Sensei, founded a company that sells cars over the Internet and says demand for refurbished used cars is rising sharply - a key element of the circular economy. As someone who sells cars, he has long wondered how he could contribute to the green movement. Now he sees that by refurbishing cars better (so people buy something that feels like new) and encouraging the growth of this business, he is helping the circular economy become more firmly established. The point is that we need a way to discover where future solutions will lie, rather than just applying familiar ideas - which will inevitably turn out wrong.

Toyota has been at the forefront of developing greener technology. What can we learn from the company and its approach to sustainability?

In this, as in Lean, Toyota remains a leading beacon. Its green approach is spectacular in its breadth, even if it is not as radical (or loved by the media) as Tesla's all-electric strategy. Toyota's green approach is not just about cars, but also about processes. It looks at both the impact of its product (cars on the road) and the impact of the company itself (how these cars are made):

  1. Product: a full hybrid range and more electric cars, or hydrogen-powered cars to achieve zero CO2 emissions by 2050.
  2. Process: a net positive impact challenge to transform the way cars are made by focusing on limiting water use and reducing all resource waste and creating energy-efficient machines that use less energy.

These two challenges translate concretely into a multitude of local initiatives as car designers and factories around the world seek new possibilities and try new ideas. It develops the concept of "econohito": eco-friendly people coming together to invent new ways.

Like refurbishing cars, these solutions can be surprising, and far from what people usually think of when they think "green." Karakuri kaizen devices, for example, built by operators themselves, replace hydraulically or electrically powered machines with simple devices that use gravity - and ingenuity - to move parts. Following the example of Toyota, Cyril Dané's company AIO is now teaching other automakers to design and make these karakuri devices to make their production lines greener - because they ease the ergonomic burden on operators.

I bought a Prius as soon as I could afford one, more out of militancy than because I wanted the car. It was an early model and (to my surprise) I fell completely in love with it - mainly because of the incredible comfort and quietness of the interior. I now drive a plug-in Prius - not as radical as a Tesla, I admit. I remember how car executives hated my car at the time. I don't know if they knew it, but something in their subconscious saw what was coming. Toyota paved the way, Tesla vengefully intervened (their cars are incredible). Toyota is now trying the bold move of hydrogen cars. All other automakers are trying to catch up.

This is how I believe we will find global solutions - leaders discover the way, others play catch-up, the world moves forward. What lean really has to offer are not ready-made pre-packaged solutions. Loving the packaging more than what's inside is the tragedy of the current zeitgeist. But I believe that as we realize more and more how bad and deep our problems are, this will change and people will refocus on solving deep problems. Lean offers a method of discovering solutions where we thought they didn't exist, such as mass reuse of cars rebuilt as new, karakuri devices at every manufacturing site, or closed-loop water use (to name just a few examples).

The real lean goal to be adopted is not this or that strategy, but econohito - bringing together people with a true eco-friendly mindset and passion and helping them realize their insights and realize their dreams. They will lead us to the greener world we seek.

The interviewee

Michael Ballé is Lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France

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