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The Road to Zero Impact

By Ron Crabtree, CIRM, CSCP | November/December 2012 | 22 | 6

Lean CultureGreen efforts go hand in hand with continuous improvement and cost reduction

Organizations have discovered new and innovative ways to reduce the environmental impacts of their operations. For example, forward-thinking firms engage lean six sigma principles to find cost-effective solutions to meet environmental mandates and reduce waste in all aspects of the business. 

One success story of embracing both lean and green can be found in the US automotive industry. In the mid-1990s, I was head of materials management and continuous improvement programs at an automotive parts supplier. We manufactured interior trim used in headliners and insulation for the Big Three US automakers. The process of forming finished parts out of resonated fiberglass, foam, and textiles generated a large amount of extra trimming. Each production cell was equipped with its own trash receptacle. If production was running well, these were emptied into a large compactor around 16 times per shift, a process that required lifting up and shaking out the containers.

It took a team of four forklifts working continuously to keep up with the volume. Lifting the trash receptacles overhead was dangerous work—sometimes they would even fall off the forklifts while drivers banged at them to dislodge the contents. In addition, the compactor would jam two or three times a day, as the nature of the trimmings made it difficult to compact them tightly. Each 40-cubic yard container usually went to the landfill with only about 20 cubic yards of material in it.

To begin to tackle the problem, I led a lean kaizen event. First, we obtained a baseline of the current process in order to understand the true and total costs. A team was formed to brainstorm measures that could either reduce the effort required to handle trimmings or the need for them in the first place. One innovation was to use smaller baling compactors at each production cell. This made it easier for operators to place trimmings in a more convenient location instead of high above in a large hopper. This was an improvement in terms of both ergonomics and safety.

The balers also enabled us to achieve maximum compaction. In fact, the forklifts simply drove the bales into an open container and stacked them neatly—any need for a monster-sized compactor was eliminated completely. Not only were forklift trips per shift reduced from 16 to 4 (or fewer), but we also realized a four-to-one improvement in the density of compressed trimmings. This reduced the landfill costs by about 75 percent.

The only investment required to achieve these benefits was the capital for eight small compactors, which paid for themselves in nine months. And, because these costs were amortized over five years, the factory enjoyed a bottom-line improvement of more than $250,000 per year associated with labor, forklift operations, and landfill use while improving safety dramatically. On top of that, environmental impact in the form of landfill volumes was greatly reduced in just a few weeks. In this case, becoming lean and green paid for itself handsomely.

Looking to improve
Of course, the automobile manufacturing landscape has changed significantly since those days. Let’s take a look at some of the work that General Motors and one of its suppliers are doing to accomplish the goal of landfill-free plant status.

MPS Group is an industrial and facilities services provider headquartered in Detroit. Owner Charlie Williams and president and CEO Ed Schwartz both know the importance of forming strong supply chain relationships to reach green sustainability objectives. For manufacturers attempting zero-landfill status, it is imperative to partner with a supplier that carries a core competency in total waste management. Such companies have the expertise to bring solutions to waste issues and understand the finances and how to bring together the business case. 
It’s easy for manufacturers to overlook the many fine details involved in reducing the level of trash in operations and achieve zero-landfill status.

For MPS Group, getting to this point required being proactive in preventing trash from being produced in the first place, collaborating with packaging to reduce materials. Additionally, every item is examined for its potential for reuse, and any remaining waste is recycled or transported to an energy-from-waste facility where materials are burned or otherwise converted to generate heat, steam, or electricity instead of buried. However, it usually costs more to send to an energy-from-waste facility than a landfill—likely a result of the longer transportation distances—which becomes a further incentive to minimize waste. 

MPS Group currently manages more than 13 zero-landfill sites, most of which are operated by General Motors, but the company still looks for ways to improve. Even at locations that have reached zero-landfill status, further waste reductions are sought. The next goal at many sites is to go zero-impact, which includes eliminating landfills, non-recycled waste, and air and water emissions. 

The ongoing environmental challenge for organizations of all types is to innovate continuously and adopt the credo of “good enough is never enough.” My hope is that these two short success stories will in some way help you and your organization take on the challenge of becoming both lean and green.

Ron Crabtree, CIRM, CSCP, MLSSBB, is president of MetaOps and coauthor of four books on operational excellence. He also writes an online magazine; runs an online radio show; and teaches, presents, and consults. He may be contacted at rcrabtree@metaops.com.

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