Lean and Green – The New Sustainability Paradigm
By: Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED AP - Sunday, June 17, 2007
Source: Yudelson Associates, Inc.

What do a Toyota Prius and a Platinum LEED green building have in common? Both are elegant solutions to a wide range of problem statements, and both come with some cost premium. If "elegance" can be defined as the value created for the energy expended, both the Prius and the Platinum building are elegant. Thinking of LEED as a "Quality Assurance" process makes the analogy clearer; green buildings are to typical buildings as a Prius is to a Chevy Malibu. They both represent a quantum leap in quality and performance from "yesterday's standard" to something that will be a viable product well into the future.

Two outstanding books helped my understanding of this connection. Matthew May’s new book, The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation (Free Press, 2007), shows how the original Toyota production system, with its emphasis on "no waste," has morphed over time into a system for producing continuous innovation. May claims that Toyota implements more than one million new ideas each year; no, not generates new ideas, but implements them! At Toyota, everyone innovates: the slogan is "no best, only better." As a result, Toyota has consistently been profitable, innovative and successful at maintaining quality while manufacturing all over the world. They are on track to become the largest auto maker in the world by 2010.

The enemies of elegance are cost, complexity and complacency. The solutions are many, but they will all come from integrated design processes, modularity in green buildings, easily repeatable design and construction processes that simplify the approach to creating high-performance green buildings each time out. Looking at a Toyota Prius, can you identify the "architect?" The answer is, of course not. Why should most of our green buildings be monuments to architects' egos, instead of simple, effective, elegant and beautiful solutions to the leading problems of our times, global warming, healthier buildings and energy resource depletion? Building design and construction is the ultimate team sport, so why are we celebrating teams more and star designers less?

A related book, Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, is a revised 2003 edition of authors James Womack and Daniel Jones' early 1990s classic, Lean Thinking, which chronicled the rise of the lean manufacturing movement in the U.S. and helped guide countless firms toward a system that creates products just when customers want them, eliminating waste and excess inventory. The essence of lean thinking is to find out exactly which processes create value, and then to eliminate all others. For example, an auto mechanic waiting at the parts counter in a dealership is creating no value, just wasting his time and the customer's money; so the solution is to rearrange inventory so that the most requested parts are literally within arms' reach. Applied to the world of sustainable design, lean thinking would start to revolutionize design and construction processes by eliminating waste and rework, by having a clear game plan from the beginning, in terms of sustainability outcomes. That is the essential argument for integrated design: by spending more time thinking, before starting actual design, a high-performance outcome is far more likely, particularly when budgets are tight (as they always are).

If building designers studied Toyota, they would find a system where hundreds and thousands of incremental changes lead to big leaps. The design for the Prius started when the grandson of the founder of Toyota, Eiji Toyoda, stated in 1990 that the company couldn't expect to survive in the 21st century by doing R&D on just one model at a time; it had to develop an entirely new concept that would address pressing social needs for the next fifty years. Starting with a very open-ended problem definition, Toyota assembled its best team and put them to work. Within seven years, the Prius was born, developed and introduced at the Kyoto conference on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. More than ten years after the Prius was introduced, Detroit is still trying to come up with an answer.

What can we in the green building sector learn from the lean movement? First, you can have quality and high performance, but you have to assume that you know nothing for sure, put the best people on the job, throw out the rule book and start all over. We're getting there, but I think we still can learn a lot from the auto makers. Think of designing a building that works as well as a car, which can be operated by just about anyone in the world with minimal training (like how to open the door and turn on the ignition). Instead of making buildings ever more complex, we should be aiming to simplify, simplify, simplify. We shouldn't be satisfied until all waste is eliminated, not just construction waste, but the waste of people’s time and energy and health in buildings that don't perform well.

It’s time for green to learn from lean!


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