Generally, Lean manufacturing principles and practices are used to eliminate waste and wasteful practices that are hidden in all food-processing plants. Lean practices are applied throughout an enterprise and include administration and supply-chain issues not always associated with the term "manufacturing." Sustainability, on the other hand, was described in 1987 at the World Commission on Environment and Development as, "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future organizations to meet their own needs."

This initial description stressed reducing the carbon footprint, minimizing the use of natural resources and reducing waste.

Once viewed as separate ideas, sustainability and Lean are now considered compatible and complementary. As a Lean consultant traveling from one food plant to another, I have found environmental sustainability efforts are much more likely to gain favor and executive sponsorship if, along with sustainability, productivity goes up while waste goes down. A viable business must make a profit. Therefore, the economic and efficiency basis of Lean thinking can support the environmental based thinking of sustainability.

Of course, sustainability or Lean are not easy to implement. Old habits, traditions and past experience often slow, if not stop, efforts to implement Lean. To develop the idea of sustainability and Lean as two initiatives that can flow as one, it is beneficial to consider some of the difficulties and opportunities to implementation.

Supporting a Lean strategy

First, to implement Lean and sustainability, the leadership in the enterprise needs to comprehend and support deploying a Lean strategy that includes the entire company. Production, supply chain and administration should be included in the strategy. Focus may start in one area, but the strategy should tie in all aspects of the business. This is important because so many wasteful practices are found between departments and functions. One example would be the difficulties between scheduling, production and shipping that is inherent in every food-processing facility at one time or another.

Second, a powerful but simple process for continuous problem solving should be designed, deployed and implemented. Lean and sustainability are going to be limited by the number and depth of problem-solving actions in the organization. For food processors, a simple process that includes problem clarification, solution generation and expected/measured results work best.

Example 1 (See "Related Stories") demonstrates the use of this simple process on the processing floor of a ground beef processor. More complex problems can also be run through this same basic framework. Complexity may require more time collecting data for problem clarification; more people to lend perspective to generate better solutions and more computerized data to measure results, but the frame work is the same.

Third, design and implement training and coaching for workers, supervisors and managers to use the new processes and rigorously observe their specific areas of responsibility for waste. Observation requires "new eyes" to see the waste that is in every food processing operation. Watching the video, "Toast Kaizen" is one way to open everyone’s eyes on the various wastes. The video depicts a man making toast for his wife. He makes several trips to the toaster and the refrigerator. The refrigerator is jammed with inventory and he cannot find the butter. At the end, the toast he makes is not what his wife wanted. This is humorous mainly because it is so true. Using "new eyes" it is easy to identify wasted material and money while performing any task. Once the waste has been identified, applying Lean tools and principles facilitates continuous improvement.

Increasing profitability

Always consider how Lean and sustainability can substantially increase the profitability of a meat or poultry processor. Stop and think about all the costs incurred that do not add value to products and for which the customer will not pay. Take a look in the Dumpster if getting started is a challenge. All that waste in the Dumpster can be minimized. Labels, trays, wrapping and boxes are in the Dumpster as trash or perhaps recycled. Either way, if these items are kept out of the Dumpster, costs will go down including the costs to dispose of such items. Of course, disposing of waste is a major sustainability issue.

Another complaint from many supervisors, managers and workers is they do not have enough space. In many cases, however, processors allocate space to unused equipment and extra material storage. Moreover, space has to be heated or cooled and taxes are determined on the size of facility. Eliminating some inventory can support maintaining or shrinking the carbon footprint. Another way is to think cubic feet vs. square feet. For example, a box-making station positioned above the packing line demonstrates using less-obvious space. The result is gained space without expanding the facility. Taxes, heat, cooling and space can stay the same while capacity is increased.

One large waste in Lean terms is over-production. This waste also is the culprit for significant contribution towards the carbon footprint and sustainability. Processors who slaughter beef or pork, as well as process those meat products, often work feverishly toward a situation called over-production. The dilemma seems to come from the very real situation of what to do with the whole animal when only a portion is needed to fill an order.

This is an important business problem. In this case, meat processors should explore creative and viable alternatives using the simple problem-solving process demonstrated in Example 1. The problem is "what to do with parts of animals that are not ordered?" The traditional solution is "put product in the freezer" until it is needed. This solution often costs more than is gained. Moreover, the carbon footprint expands considerably when freezing meat for months is required while waiting for a customer. There is no one-size-fits- all solution. However, certainly it is worth exploring the use of some non-traditional cuts for highly marketable ground beef or pork sausage. Perhaps a higher-quality sausage would sell. Another strategy to explore is off-loading at least some of the unsold meat at cost for other users. The important feature here is to explore possibilities upstream and down. Continually improving capacity to over-produce and then warehousing frozen meat is not an effective strategy in a world of shrinking resources, high energy costs and carbon emission concerns. Remember to measure the real costs of warehousing frozen meat and compare that cost to alternative strategies.

Including sustainability in Lean thinking can initiate significant benefits. Lean thinking challenges an enterprise to eliminate waste. Companies can realize a two-for-one benefit if problem solving events are designed to challenge the status quo and change processes towards waste reduction and sustainability. As a practical matter, reducing an enterprise’s environmental impact often requires a Lean manufacturing way of thinking.

Dr. Glen Miller is Senior Lean Consultant for Performance Essentials, Inc. More information can be obtained regarding Lean Manufacturing at