Lean and Green : Interview With Kelly Singer


One of the emerging topics around Lean in the last few years has been Green. A pillar of the 21st century vision for the Lean company, Toyota, environmental concern has been a central topic of innovation for the japanese car maker. As another evidence of the ability of lean to engage people in making opportunities out of challenges, no matter how global and complex they are, Toyota has become a pioneer with hybrid technology ever since the late 90s with the Prius and now with fuel cell technology. Last but not least, lean and green also represents a credible and exciting practical alternative to the degrowth ideology.

Kelly Singer has been a very careful observer and actor of this nascent trend. For her it just makes sense : global environmental issues are probably the most challenging topics of our times and Lean focus in reducing waste certainly can contribute some effort to address this challenge.

Despite a heavy schedule, Kelly has allowed #hypertextual some of her time to answer our questions with great insights, challenging perspectives and practical advice for everyone to take action now, both in the professional context and our everyday life …

Can you please introduce yourself and your background

Hello, I’m the managing editor of the LeanGreenInstitute.com based in Paris, France.  I’m currently exploring how the intersection of lean thinking and green can make business more competitive, our environments healthier, and inspire more people to take action. Previously, I was an entrepreneur in the health and environmental sector and management consultant in Seattle.

How did you ended up on the topic of Lean and Green ?

I’ve been a lean practitioner and consultant for many years in the US and “green” was always a personal interest.  But I was baffled why it was so hard to be green.

The reality is, society is wasteful by default.  One day I had an epiphany that I already knew a system that was successful at identifying and eliminating waste: Lean.  But could lean also apply to green and green waste?

When I moved to Paris, I received incredible support from the individuals at the Institut Lean France to pursue researching lean and green. I’ve been able to learn from and work with the world’s leading lean experts and European companies innovating on the edge of lean and green.

Why do you think green is such a crucial issue today ?

I think green is a critical issue for everyone, regardless of one’s sphere of influence or contribution.

A million people making a simple green improvement in their daily life would have a tremendous impact. Just think of the impact our collective negative actions have had on the planet. As we produce and consume in a linear model (mine it, make it, trash it) our quality of life will continue to deteriorate.

Consider these facts:

  • The World Health Organization considers air pollution “the single greatest environmental threat we all face”, affecting more than 80% of people living in cities and killing at least 7 million people each year.
  • Every year, it becomes more challenging to produce food due to over-extracting natural resources to meet demand from a growing consumer class.  As a solution, farmers are using stronger chemicals to produce higher yields which result in chronic illness, superbugs, and deplorable conditions for animals.
  • For people in impoverished areas, the effects of climate change are often first felt through water like droughts, floods or storms. When these disasters hit, they can wipe out entire water supplies or leave them contaminated, risking the lives of millions.  Even in wealthy countries, superstorms caused by climate change are destroying coastal communities and forcing people to move.
  • Now think about the quality of life for all the other creatures out there.  We’re losing things we cannot get back, spanning from magnificent species of plants and animals to natural wonders and resources.

We must think about how business and the environment can work better, together. So when one thrives, the other does too. It starts with a simple kaizen.

How would you explain that green being such a massive challenge for the world of the 21st century, it is not being given all the attention it deserves

As bad of a situation as I just described, I’m encouraged by the change of heart around the world about climate change and the environment. Just seven years ago in 2009, only one American in three believed that human beings were responsible for climate change and world leaders failed to achieve a global agreement on carbon emissions reductions at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Oil companies and stakeholders were channelling millions into “research” promoting disinformation to deny global warming.  The fight for a green world seemed hopeless.

But just in the last couple of years there’s been remarkable progress. Joining the effort are the world’s most powerful political leaders including CEOs at the largest companies, almost all of the world’s political leaders, and even the Dalai-Lama and the Pope. At the Paris climate Summit in December 2015, 187 countries pledged to cut carbon emissions and the deal just entered into force after the European Union ratification on the 5th of October.

Challenges still remain, and some of the biggest ones are found in our heads. Studies show that individuals don’t have a clear understanding of what they can personally do to about climate change, and so many do not make the simple changes at work and home.

How lean can help in improving green awareness within companies ?

What I’ve learned from my research so far is that lean thinking can make green more effective and bring greater awareness of the issue company-wide due to the following:

  • Reality of the Gemba:

Top down green initiatives are usually driven by the want to appear more sustainable to create goodwill and have a weak connection to what’s happening at the gemba.  Green initiatives at a lean company start on the ground floor, driven by those who do the work and are more knowledgeable about the problem.

  • Lean Leadership:

Lean companies believe their strongest defence against climate change is an engaged team who cares and is constantly improving upon the issue.  Lean and Green leaders understand that the real fight is not against climate change, but apathy. In the book, “Lead with Respect”, Michael Balle brilliantly outlines how lean leaders coach every person to find and solve the right problems in their job.  The same leadership principles apply with an environmental lense. Lean and green leaders understand it’s more effective to have steady progression of improvement measures deployed by each person than one grand strategy to become a green company.

  • Framework for Success:

A lean framework helps tackle big problems with simplicity.  Dr. Jim Morgan from Lean Enterprise Institute is breaking new ground with his work on “compatibility before completion”.  This methodology helps companies think about their carbon footprint across all value streams from the earliest stages of development, instead of tacking it on at the end like many other companies do.

Another example is Toyota’s goal of zero landfill waste and zero carbon emissions by 2050. This might seem unrealistic to another company, but with lean planning and communication, these goals become achievable milestones where every person in the organization plays a role.

Are there already companies involved in Lean and Green ? Are there any success stories ?

Toyota has been thinking this way for decades, long before the launch of the Prius. The environment is a core part of their business and operating strategy.  They’ve seen financial success from the Prius and other green initiatives, but green has also been a driving force behind much of their innovation like Toyota New Global Architecture, fuel cell technology, renewable energy, and much more.

Apart from Toyota, I’m witnessing many lean and green success stories in my work across Europe. Some standouts include Paris Ouest Construction and Alliance MIM, both located in France.

Jean-Baptiste Bouthillon is CEO of Paris Ouest Construction and he has created a culture of green kaizen.  Their accomplishments are impressive because unlike most construction operations where the construction team just follows a plan that’s been handed down from management, this team has conceptualized a range of improvements from water conservation and material efficiency to proprietary innovations of energy conservation in residential buildings through the reuse of hot water for a variety of heating needs.  These improvement measures will save tons of water, energy, and other natural resources over their useful life.

At Alliance MIM, Jean-Claude Bihr has also applied the power of kaizen to produce their metal products with 65% less waste than machining competitors and have optimized their factories for water and energy efficiency.  These results have made Alliance MIM extremely competitive, securing contracts with exclusive business partners who are seeking sustainable supply chains. (FR : voir l’article sur l’entreprise et la vidéo de l’interview de JC Bihr).

Every company has unique green wastes which are specifically related to their operations and environment.

What I think is fascinating is how the lean companies taking action are being very specific and thoughtful about where they can be the most effective for the environment in removing the waste, instead of just tackling something like “carbon emissions”.  They are looking for the greatest opportunity for the environment. While the waste and elimination strategies are all different, one thing is the same. They all use kaizen to drive change.

Beyond organisations and companies, how can lean help us, citizens, in reducing our carbon footprint ?

We can borrow the practice of green kaizen for our personal lives. “Learning to see” the green waste in your life is the first step. To do this, you need to educate yourself on the most harmful consumer waste and then identify which ones you are contributing to the most. An example many can relate to would be food waste.  Observe where you waste the majority of food to develop a strategy to change that behavior.  For instance, say your goal is to have zero food waste in your garbage.  You learn that most of your food waste is from buying more produce than you can eat in a week. You learn to only buy what you will eat during the week and freeze any extras you might happen to have. Now, you have a solution that eliminates 80% of your food waste.  Optimize and repeat for other wastes.

What would be your wildest dream about lean and green : what would happen in 2017 or 2018 that would be a proof that we are on the right track.

My wildest dream is for lean and green to be synonymous.  So when you hear “lean” you immediately associate it with green business practices.

If we’re on the right track, in the next year we should continue to see more lean companies going green and using kaizen to drive innovation toward green business practices and products that will have a tremendous impact on society, the economy, and the planet.

If you haven’t gone green yet, what are you waiting for?

1 Comment

  1. Bonjour,
    excuse me, my english is very bad.
    In french we say: “bon sens” and google translate it “common sense”.
    For me, the “common sense” in action step by step, day after day whith a few PDCA rules to organize it is the best way to progress. Valid for Lean, Green, Optimism and all good things!

    Best regards,


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