Continuous Improvement Blog Post

Lean Six Sigma Can Improve Environmental Performance


The term Lean Six Sigma, actually a combination of Lean and Six Sigma, is a methodology first implemented in the manufacturing sector that aims to continuously improve the workplace. These terms are fairly complex, but in a nutshell, Lean is concerned with reducing waste in the workplace by identifying anything that isn’t adding value to end products for customers (such as wasted time, movement, materials, etc.). Six Sigma principles emerge from a similar line of thinking and focuses on reducing the number of defects in products.

Practitioners of these methodologies often refer to Lean Six Sigma together and they use them to make businesses and organizations more efficient and productive. In most cases, those focusing on Lean Six Sigma are looking at the bottom line and trying to find ways to save time and money while still creating the best product or service possible.

As it turns out, Lean Six Sigma (LSS) often results in better environmental performance, too, even when that isn’t the intended outcome of a project. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are two reasons for this:

“1. Environmental impacts are embedded within the wastes that Lean targets.

2. Lean produces an organizational culture that is highly conducive to waste minimization, pollution prevention, environmental management systems, and sustainability.”

LSS aims to eliminate all kinds of waste, and reducing those wastes often has a positive environmental impact.

For example, if a company finds a way to reduce the amount of a hazardous chemical used to make a product, a smaller amount of that chemical will now need to be disposed of or discharged into the environment. The company may have made this finding as the result of Lean efforts whose end goal was to save time and money, but the results are still good for the company’s overall environmental performance.

In some cases, making changes solely for environmental or safety reasons can be a challenge. Upper management may want to see the monetary impact of a decision rather than the environmental or safety benefits. For that reason, a company may be more willing to implement Lean practices than other types of changes because the end goal is less waste, which is something everyone can get behind.

Reducing Waste Benefits the Environment

Lean thinking names eight types of waste that organizations should try to eliminate. These include:

  • Overproduction – Making more of a product than needed.
  • Over processing – Making higher quality product than needed.
  • Inventory – Having more materials/products than needed.
  • Defects – Needing to rework or throw away products.
  • Transportation – Unnecessary movements by materials/products.
  • Motion – Unnecessary movements by people.
  • Waiting – Time wasted waiting for the next part of a process to begin.
  • Skills – Unutilized talent.

By reducing these types of waste, some businesses end up discovering additional environmental outcomes.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Sergiu Bacioiu


Let’s take a look at an example of reducing overproduction. Say a company produces food that can spoil and it discovers it’s making more food than its customers want. By cutting back production, the company will throw away less extra product and create less waste. It also means the company will use fewer raw materials and less energy to create its end products. Both of these things have an environmental benefit, even if the direct goal of the company’s Lean efforts was to save money.

Let’s also take a look at defects, which are both a waste that Lean aims to eliminate and one of the central concerns of Six Sigma. By reducing the number of defects in its products, a company could significantly reduce wasted resources as well. When there are fewer defects, fewer products need to be scrapped (which saves raw materials and energy and reduces waste) or reworked (which would require additional materials).

Additional environmental benefits related to Lean wastes include:

  • Less fuel or energy used for transport
  • Fewer spills during transport
  • Less packaging needed for transport or storage
  • Less emissions related to production
  • Less wasted energy for heating and cooling of a facility during downtime

Real-World Examples of Lean Six Sigma Success 

The EPA has cataloged a series of case studies where companies that implemented LSS projects saw significant environmental benefits.

One of the case studies looks at the Canyon Creek Cabinet Company in Washington, which undertook some Lean projects during 2006 to “identify and reduce material wastes, risks, and costs.” The projects looked at two aspects of cabinet making: 1) milling and cutting wood and 2) staining and coating cabinets.

Canyon Creek assessed its operations and found ways to improve processes by reducing defects, overproduction, downtime and other wastes. Their efforts also led to a decrease in solid and hazardous waste, energy consumption, wastewater discharge and VOC emissions.

As a result of these changes, the company saved over $1 million in the year following the project. Further plans to purchase new saws were projected to save the company man-hours and resources (meaning it wouldn’t need to spend as much money purchasing raw materials).

A story like this one highlights the many benefits of LSS. Finding ways to reduce waste proved good for the company’s bottom line as well as the environment. By involving workers in LSS projects, companies like Canyon Creek can also begin creating a culture where workers continue to identify needless waste, which can benefit the business well into the future.

Lean Thinking Can Include the Environment

Training DVD

What case studies like this also reveal is that environmental benefits don’t need to be seen separately from all of a company’s other process improvement efforts. Often, what’s a good financial improvement can also help improve environmental performance. When it comes to making more eco-friendly choices, we often talk about wasting less, so perhaps this realization shouldn’t be earth shattering; when we reduce waste, everyone benefits.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that if you work at a company where environmental professionals, safety professionals and Lean professionals don’t always collaborate, it might be worth coming together to see what goals you have in common. You might just find everyone would benefit from looking for ways to reduce waste.

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