Finding the Green in Lean Six Sigma

Add bookmark

Chris Reed

In traditional Lean thinking, what is waste? Running across the factory floor to get a tool? Yes. Waiting for someone down the line to finish up their part of the assembly? Definitely. Leaving the lights on in the warehouse? A definite yes!

Environmental wastes—including wasted energy—can cost companies thousands of dollars a year. As fuel costs rise and awareness of climate change issues creep into the forefront of the public consciousness, companies are beginning to incorporate environmental concerns into their Lean activities.

At the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lean and the Environment Initiative, we talked to companies and collected stories of best practices or recent successes in integrating environmental ideas into their Lean Six Sigma processes. Below you will find some examples of using Lean Six Sigma to garner environmental results. These examples came to us from GE and 3M.

GE’s Lean Environmental Program

Under GE’s Ecomagination program, the company made a public commitment to maintain greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions below 2004 levels. One of its facilities in Peebles, Ohio, is a leader within the company in applying Lean to address GHG emissions. Situated on a secluded parcel of land spanning 7,000 acres of woodland, it is where GE runs jet engine tests in the open air. The amount of testing conducted is directly related to the amount of business airlines are doing. More engine testing means more jet fuel consumption, which leads to an increase in GHG emissions. As such, Peebles has focused on finding ways to continue growing in business while managing its GHG emissions. These reductions have also resulted in significant cost savings.

One of the major activities associated with testing is engine balancing. Prior to Lean events, the engine had to be turned on three separate times in order to complete the balancing process. Lean methods helped Peebles develop a new balancing process that only requires the engine be turned on once, which reduces both fuel consumption and GHG emissions. Lean events have also produced improvements in the jet engine testing facility’s troubleshooting techniques. Whereas the facility’s old troubleshooting process required the engine to be running, the new process allows troubleshooting to occur while the engine is not running. Through these changes the company reduced its use of fuel from 20,000 gallons to 10,000 gallons. There was also an overall cost savings of over a million dollars a year from this and other fuel-saving projects.

3M’s Lean Environmental Program

3M is a pioneer in the use of Lean Six Sigma methods and tools to improve operations and quality. While Lean Six Sigma activity had been underway throughout 3M for several years, 3M launched a corporate-wide Lean Six Sigma initiative in February 2001 with senior leadership support. As of 2006, more than 55,000 salaried employees at 3M were trained in Lean Six Sigma processes and methodologies, and more than 45,000 Lean Six Sigma projects had been initiated or closed. Lean and Six Sigma methodologies provide a strong focus for enterprise-wide implementation and are now viewed as basic components of 3M’s corporate culture.

Since 2001, 3M’s Environmental, Health and Safety Operations (EHS) organization has deployed Lean Six Sigma to improve corporate EHS services and activities. EHS team members receive two weeks of Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training, and coaching is provided by Black Belts. EHS Lean Six Sigma projects have focused on topics ranging from compliance or due diligence activities to data collection and management to communications.

While some of the Lean Six Sigma projects launched by 3M’s EHS organization have a positive return on investment using conventional cost reduction/value creation measures, many projects are justified by driving 3M toward sustainable practices and enhancing 3M’s reputation.

In addition to the Lean Six Sigma projects launched by the EHS organization, multiple Lean Six Sigma projects are undertaken by EHS personnel at 3M’s numerous manufacturing and research and development facilities worldwide. This corporate dedication to Lean Six Sigma has kept 3M at the forefront of Lean thinking.

Finding the Green in Lean

A Lean event does not have to focus on environmental targets to achieve environmental benefits—often these come on the coattails of other activities. However, altering the scope of an activity to incorporate "green" aspects can have an exponential effect on both environmental benefits and cost savings. While GE and 3M have compelling stories, they are not alone on this journey. Many companies have begun to see the fiscal benefits of environmental protection and are bringing their Lean Six Sigma and environmental folks together to further these efforts.

Watch Reed's Web presentation of this case study here.