Businesses have been obsessed with efficiency and waste the past few decades. The tactics and processes companies use to attack waste and inefficiencies vary: TQM (Total Quality Management), Six Sigma, kaizen, lean thinking and now, sustainability. Companies, with Walmart and General Motors among the many examples, have found that one way to leave the competition behind is to tackle everything from packaging to more effective use of fleets.
And as Matthew May recently explained on the Harvard Business Review, being lean does not have to be mean, and it certainly does not require a slash and burn approach that may please Wall Street in the short term but could harm the company, and of course its workers, in the long run. The upshot is that companies need to do better and eliminate those pesky processes that delay the delivery of a product or a service to a consumer. So while sustainable business mavens are often quick to equate waste with packaging, fuel and food, there are plenty of other ways in which a company can revamp its processes to be greener and of course, leaner.
May believes we have only scratched the surface when it comes to combatting waste. He equates a war on waste with innovation, and groups opportunities into seven baskets: overproduction, overprocessing, conveyance, inventory, motion, defects, and waiting. Let’s expand upon a few of these:
Overproduction ties in well with the collaborative consumption and sharing economy tools that have gained steam in recent years. May touts Uber, the real-time limousine service that matches available drivers to consumers who need a lift. But services such as Neighborgoods, which leverages social networks to allow users to share underused goods, can help address the excess of “stuff” sitting in our garages and closets. Of course Airbnb.com, despite growing pains, has set the standard for optimal use of goods (in Airbnb’s case, space) that otherwise go unused. Watch for similar tools to emerge for businesses in the near future.
Overprocessing is the bane of anyone involved in operations management. While May points out to Amazon’s 1-click sales model (which Apple has used and Oracle markets), a similar approach applies to manufacturing. Automakers including Ford Motor Co., have learned that eliminating steps in the supply chain pushes the boundaries of innovation and saves money and resources. In the apparel sector, Nike has become a leader in finding new ways to streamline the assembly of shoes while eliminating unnecessary and wasteful materials.
Conveyance and motion: The transport of goods and services, and reductions whenever possible, can boost or burst a company’s bottom line. One company that has found success on this front–while becoming more efficient with one of our most precious resources–is the Campbell Soup Company. A massive consumer of water in the production process, (only two percent of it goes into actual products), Campbell’s developed new ways of moving ingredients and finding new ways to clean and maintain its facilities. As a result, the company achieved impressive ROIs on the vast majority of its water stewardship projects.
But conservation of resources and eliminating waste should not apply to people. May’s last point, waiting, applies to eliminating slow and painful processes that drive away customers. But technology is not the only answer–people are the solution, too. Take a look at big box retailers such as Home Depot, which went lean and excessively mean with workers and suffered huge financial hits as a result. Meanwhile Uniqlo, the Japanese apparel company that has taken San Francisco and New York by storm, not only hires a large number of workers, but trains them well. The results are a higher sales per square foot and sales per employee–and inventory that moves off the shelves because customers can find what they want instead of leaving frustrated.
The lessons May and other efficiency experts impart that the elimination of waste is not just about cutting, but investing as well.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
Image credit: Leon Kaye