Lean Meets Green at Subaru
By Jason Turgeon:
I'm Jason Turgeon, the newest addition to the Lean Blog team. Mark and I have had an email dialog going for a few months about the intersection of green and lean, and he's invited me to post on the topic. So over the next couple of months, I'll try to put about one post a week up discussing the link between these two topics, which are intrinsically linked at many levels.
But first, a brief introduction. My interest in lean comes from a lifelong fascination with innovation and improving systems. Before I discovered lean thinking, I made a nuisance of myself at many jobs, where I continually disrupted my bosses with constant suggestions for improvement and a somewhat over-the-top willingness to ask “why?” Now that I have the tools of lean to channel my energy into, I think I'm a good deal more effective in my daily efforts to make everything around me just a little bit more effective, but I am by no means an expert in lean systems. Lean is something I'm new to and I'm enjoying learning about it and looking forward to the chance to apply it.
I have a BS in Environmental Geology from Northeastern University in Boston, where I live. I work for the US Environmental Protection Agency, where I specialize in improving energy efficiency at drinking water and sewage treatment plants. EPA has done a fair amount of work to link green and lean, although it hasn't really caught on inside the agency yet. The agency is looking at lean both from a manufacturing perspective and with an eye to making government itself more efficient. I also run Textbook Revolution, a website I started in college to combat the ludicrously high prices of textbooks. The textbook game is another old world industry that could really benefit from some lean thinking, but that's a whole ‘nother topic. I'm also a big fan of live music, and I write on the growing movement to green the music industry at GreenBase, the green blog of JamBase.com.
Subaru and Zero Landfill Status:
So now that you know who I am, let's dive in. This week's focus is on an article in the Feb 18th USA Today that Mark alerted me to. The article describes the efforts of a Subaru plant in Lafayette, Indiana, to eliminate waste from the factory, a quest known as “zero landfill status,” and discusses several other companies doing the same thing. Of course, the elimination of waste is one-half of what lean is all about, so this fits in perfectly. The article quotes Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott:
Wal-Mart CEO Scott set a zero-waste goal for the cost-conscious retailer in 2005. “Think about it,” he said at the time. “If we have to throw it away, we had to buy it first. So we pay twice. Once to get it, once to have it taken away.”
To figure out how to eliminate waste, management took a page from the “go and see” playbook–they took all of the trash out of a dumpster and spread it out on the factory floor to get a sense of what they were throwing away. Then they went to work figuring out what could readily be recycled and what could be reused. They took steps to rightsize, like using a smaller roll of steel for parts that are stamped, reducing the leftover steel by over 100 pounds per car. Management also spent a lot of time designing systems to make recycling easier, like sorting all the plastic shrink-wrap together.
Subaru also went for the other aspect of lean–respect for people. The article says that the waste elimination program has reached “an almost religious fervor” among employees. Unfortunately, there is no discussion of just how the plant got this buy-in. In the same vein, the plant has worked extensively with its suppliers to coerce them into taking back reusable or recyclable materials. The styrofoam inserts that protect engine parts get used 5 times before they get recycled. And because many of their suppliers are close, often within an hour's drive, they are sending recyclables back in trucks that would have otherwise been empty, reducing waste in transportation as well.
“Old” and “New” Environmentalism
But what does all of this mean from an environmental perspective? To start answering that question, it helps to know that there are really two separate environmental camps out there, with dozens of splintered subfactions. The “old environmentalism,” as I like to put it, was based on nagging and regulations. Old environmentalists are always pointing out what other people are doing wrong, begging government to pass more laws to restrict other people's behavior, and generally making life unpleasant for those around them. This is the group I work for. Old environmentalists are prone to saying things like, “if we could just convince every American to change one lightbulb to a compact fluorescent, we could save x, y, and z.” To be brutally honest, it's not much fun to hang out with this group of people.
“New environmentalists,” a group which I try very hard to be in, are much more closely aligned with lean thinkers. New environmentalists, inspired by books like Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution and Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, are constantly on the lookout for a better way to change the planet. Those of us in this camp would prefer to align economics and the environment, working with business instead of trying to regulate it out of existence. Our arguments for government intervention tend to be at the more macroeconomic level, for instance suggesting that we redesign tax laws to punish wasteful behavior and reward good behavior. New environmentalists believe in the concept of “sustainability” not as a poorly-understood buzzword but as a way of life, a game-changing philosophy in which everything we do, everything we buy, everything we use contributes in a positive way to the world, both now and in the future.
Subaru: Reducing Waste but still Wasteful?
Getting back to the question of Subaru's waste-reduction, I think that old environmentalists are probably very happy about Subaru's work. Why look–they've eliminated almost 100% of their waste! They have a very high recycling rate! They've done what we asked, and saved money in the process!
But from a new environmentalist perspective, Subaru's work is only the first baby step towards true sustainability. It's a good step, to be sure, and the company deserves praise and recognition for it, but if they stop there, it's not good enough. From our perspective, the stuff in the dumpster is just the tip of the waste iceberg. Cars are perhaps the single most visible element of a wasteful, unsustainable lifestyle, and as such are emblemic of the larger societal shifts we need to see if we're going to avoid some pretty painful global collapses in the not-too-distant future.
Let's look at the waste that's left in the system three ways. At the more granular level, cars are still woefully inefficient. Even a Toyota Camry Hybrid (this plant makes Camrys for Toyota, but the article doesn't say if the Hybrid is one of them) only gets about 30 mpg in real world driving. As the authors of Natural Capitalism put it:
The contemporary automobile, after a century of engineering, is embarrassingly inefficient: Of the energy in the fuel it consumes, at least 80 percent is lost, mainly in the engine's heat and exhaust, so that at most only 20 percent is actually used to turn the wheels. Of the resulting force, 95 percent moves the car, while only 5 percent moves the driver, in proportion to their respective weights. Five percent of 20 per-cent is one percent- not a gratifying result from American cars that burn their own weight in gasoline every year.
Natural Capitalism devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of how to make the automobile more efficient at delivering the service we want–comfortable, safe, reliable transportation–while at the same time using less natural resources. They argue that using steel doesn't make any sense in a modern automobile. Steel, to them is a “monument.” By switching to modern plastics and carbon fiber, we could have cars that are just as safe, just as fast, and much, much more efficient, without having to do anything involving hybrids or biodiesel or hydrogen. Consider:
The conventional car is heavy, made mostly of steel. It has many protrusions, edges, and seams that make air flow past it turbulently. Its great weight bears down on tires that waste energy by flexing and heating up. It is powered by an internal combustion engine mechanically coupled to the wheels. Completely redesigning cars by reconfiguring three key design elements could save at least 70 to 80 percent of the fuel it currently uses, while making it safer, sportier, and more comfortable. These three changes are:
1. making the vehicle ultralight, with a weight two to three times less than that of steel cars;
2. making it ultra-low-drag, so it can slip through the air and roll along the road several times more easily; and
3. after steps 1 and 2 have cut by one-half to two-thirds the power needed to move the vehicle, making its propulsion system “hybrid-electric.”
As you can see, there is a lot of waste left in the car. But what about what happens to the car when its useful life is over? Today, most automobiles end up in a metals recycling facility, where they are crushed and shredded. The economically useful metals are sorted for recycling, and everything else–the seatbelts, the plastic dashboard, the steering wheel, all the leftovers, collectively known as “fluff”–is trucked to a landfill. Making cars more efficient is a fantastic first step, but efficiency isn't the only end goal. In Cradle-to-Cradle, the argument is that being less bad is not the same as being good. They say that reducing the amount of waste is not good enough. In a properly designed system, one that mimics nature, there is no such thing as “waste.”
The “C-to-C” take on auto manufacturing would have the Subaru plant churning out cars that were designed not to be shredded at the end of their lives, but to be dissassembled and turned back into new cars. BMW long ago started designing for disassembly, making it easier to take cars apart and reuse their components. The next logical step would be to figure out how to turn these parts, say the body panels from one car, back into top-quality body panels on a new car with a minimum of energy. The auto manufacturer that does this will have a huge competitive advantage. Why stamp out new steel doors for each car, at tremendous environmental and financial cost, if you could have a plastic door that was reconditioned using an environmentally benign painting process and put back into service on a new car at a fraction of the cost of a new steel door?
The third take on the Subaru factory, and the most extreme, is that the factory shouldn't be producing cars at all. Automobiles, as I've said, are emblemic of waste and over-consumption. If the rest of the world suddenly starts looking like America, we're going to be in a lot of trouble, fast. This has already begun in China and India, where they began by modeling their vision of success on our ways. As car ownership has spiked, transportation and infrastructure headaches, air pollution, water pollution, the destruction of land for roads and parking lots, and all the other negatives that come from automobiles have also risen.
The mayor of Bogota made worldwide news when he made strides to take back the city streets from cars and give them to people (see the video at the end of this post for an inspirational look at how things could be better). Now there are hundreds of miles of real bike lanes and pedestrian avenues–not a stripe on the side of the road, but full lanes off-limits to cars, separated from auto traffic by vegetated buffers. And every Sunday and holiday, the city shuts off dozens more miles of road to cars, opening them up to cyclists and pedestrians.
The more extreme environmentalists would say that no matter how little waste goes to the landfill, the factory is inherently wasteful. They would prefer to see it transformed into a factory that produces clean, modern, efficient, and comfortable public transportation. It could be light rail or it could be a bus that becomes part of a really useful bus system, one that people enjoy riding, like the one that transformed Curitiba, Brazil. Or it could be something new, something that none of us have thought of yet. But even if you don't agree with that point of view, there is still plenty of room to eliminate waste, both in the design of the car and the cars disposition when its useful life is over.
So kudos to Subaru for taking the first steps on the path to sustainability. Let's see if the company can follow through.
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- Wegman's Cuts Wasted Energy and Costs, not "Wasted" Time Serving Customers - December 18, 2008
- Amazon's "Frustration-Free Packaging is Lean and Green - November 12, 2008
- Three Formal Efforts Tie Lean and Green Together - October 9, 2008