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Lean is clean, but not necessarily green

Lean manufacturing, also known as Just In Time manufacturing, is a method aimed primarily at reducing times within a production system. It is a proven concept that is embraced by thousands of companies around the world. The reason? Who wouldn’t love implementing a concept that reduces waste, lessens production times and increases profit? We can all learn from lean manufacturing, both in our business and personal lives. However, going lean in everything is not necessarily going to make your world blossom and succeed. The concepts of lean can be very beneficial but must be tempered to be fruitful.

I love anything that helps make my workday easier. As soon as we find a better, quicker and less wasteful way to do something, I implement it into our system. We have regular lean meetings to help generate new ideas. Some of our best ideas come from those that know the least about a particular process. And if you keep your eyes open, you’ll find sources outside your own company or sphere that can nudge you in a similar direction.


My company does a lot of work in the remodeling sector. And living in a progressive city like Seattle, you quickly learn that most people want to employ green and sustainable building practices as much as possible.

Several years ago, the city passed a law that remodeling debris had to be sorted for recycling. And to make things even more complicated, not all waste removal companies had options for sorting. We had to haul some of the recyclables to designated yards ourselves.

After a boggy year or two of muddling through the requirements, waste management vendors began offering a very simple plan; dump everything in one bin and they will do the sorting along with taking care of the city’s paperwork requirements. It was lean and green, but there was a higher service cost.

We have always tried our best to be a ‘green’ company, even when it was not fashionable. I was in school during the 1970’s Mother Earth revival to save the planet. Progressive construction theory was all about preaching passive solar building practices and using nontraditional materials like straw bale and rammed earth construction. Traditional builders scoffed. Although the term wasn’t around then, they were implementing lean principals – such as standardizing processes, buying materials as needed, and reducing costs by staying on schedule – but weren’t entirely green.

The balancing act

Like many builders, we are often asked by clients to preserve as much as possible. One of the products we are usually always able to reuse is framing material. When you demo a wall, most of the studs can be saved and put back into the reconfigured plan. Is this process lean? No, but it is green. It takes much more time to salvage the existing material for reuse than it is to throw it away and buy new product.

But what is your ultimate end game? Is it to be so lean that you waste material simply to make more money, or must you be so green to ignore the fact that building is a business? Or are the two theories compatible? Although some may disagree, I believe they are.

First and foremost, time is money, so we simply charge the client more money to reuse existing material. Second, if they do not want to spend the extra money, someone else will, so that product can be sold to them. I am not of the opinion that the only way to save the planet is to sacrifice at the expense of profit, but rather the two can be harmonious if you think outside the box. You should never get so lean or green minded that you ignore the obvious benefits of both. And not only that, but you should be using both approaches to every task or production method you utilize.

Each of these principles act like a watchdog for the other by keeping your production method in balance. For instance, when we demo a wall, the only material that can be reused efficiently is the framing lumber. This is green. Plasterboard, lath, drywall, nails and screws are not reusable either because they get destroyed in the demolition process or it’s far too labor intensive to reuse. The decision not to reuse them is lean (and green because those materials can be recycled).

I’ve read a lot of books and articles in addition to sitting through many seminars from the preachers of lean and green concepts. These experts all have substantial data that supports and proves the success of their theories. And for the most part, I believe that they are speaking the truth. However, the theories only report results achieved through an ideal classroom environment. These concepts cannot stand alone as a guaranteed answer to all your issues in every situation.

That holds true for any idea or concept from any venue or industry. There is no one-size-fits-all plan for every occurrence. You know your business better than anyone. The key is being open to the ideas of others and not being afraid to try new things, especially those coming from someone other than yourself. Even standard convention teaches us not to trust the news coming from one source only. The wise soul fact checks from different sources because they know a one-sided view can be very skewed.

I implore you to learn as much as you can from lean and green. It can revolutionize how you approach business and streamline your operations. Just do not embrace the use of one method at the exclusion of the other. Having a second source to be that watchdog will prevent you from going over the deep end of concept narcissism; the belief that, “my way is the right way for everyone”.

David Getts is a certified kitchen designer and owner of David Getts Designer Builder Inc. in Seattle.

This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.

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