Since the release of the 1990's best seller The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production, companies around the world have been engaged in the Lean business model, which emphasizes the elimination of waste while delivering quality products at the cheapest cost to the manufacturer and the customer. Over the years, the concept of Lean has evolved into something more commonly known today as Lean Thinking. Lean Thinking encompasses a number of business methods, including Kaizen (Japanese for improvement), rapid-improvement events, just-in-time manufacturing, value-stream mapping, total productive maintenance, cellular production and Six Sigma. Applied correctly, Lean Thinking combines the advantages of craft and working know-how with the efficiency of mass production. The results are faster delivery, improved quality, increased productivity, greater worker involvement, less waste and higher profits.

Until recently, environmental management and Lean Thinking existed as fundamentally different business initiatives - the former focusing on reduced liability and the latter on increased value. Because value creation almost always conjures up positive images and liability is almost always associated with just the opposite, environmental protection didn't stand a chance. This dynamic is still the case for many companies, especially those focusing primarily on coercive strategies for environmental protection within a compliance framework.

When a company chooses a compliance track, they understand that some rule or policy exists that requires them to behave in a certain way. As a result of good behavior, less pain is experienced from an administrative agency. Furthermore, but much less understood, there is an assumption that some supposed environmental protection results. Because the compliance approach is entirely coercive, at best it is a deterrent. At worst, it breeds an environment of animosity, distrust and inefficiency. Secondly, and even more significant to the sustained impact of government policy, is that most compliance activities cannot be easily associated with perceived value gained from reduced pollution - causing another barrier to the validity of environmental policy.

This has set up a significant underlying problem for environmental protection. Whenever the act of doing something is too far removed from the resultant, very few people can conceptualize the benefit. In addition, numerous other variables make it difficult to analyze. Systems thinkers know this to be a delay, but the average company executive can only account for this as waste. As a result, environmental activities are seen as positive only when the thing being done can immediately be connected to an outcome that adds perceived value.

Enter Lean Thinking. What Lean Thinking really does is create a system designed to better understand, identify and address problem processes by more closely associating cause and effect. For example, in a process commonly called a "kaizen event," an operation is broken down into individual steps by looking at ways the steps might operate more smoothly. Critical to this analysis is how it is administered. Contrary to Fredrick Taylor's Scientific Management of the early 1900s from which management did all of the analysis and decision-making, Lean Thinking gives more credit to worker know-how by engaging cross-sectional knowledge from a variety of sources, thereby opening up a broader understanding of the problems and opportunities for improvement.

One of the reasons it works for environmental protection is because it establishes measurable and attainable objectives within a value context that provides business with a clearer connection of input and output. For example, by engaging a Lean activity such as value stream mapping, which is designed to process map activities and information, a company might discover that the excessive wastewater discharging from "X Operation" is non-value added and leads to a tremendous amount of wasted time and resource. If determined to be significant enough to warrant a kaizen event, a new level of inquiry to analyze the operation is engaged. This process is designed to add value to the final product while protecting the environment and looking beyond compliance for waste recovery, resource reduction and conservation. A number of additional activities can be layered on, as needed, such as statistical processing and operational tracking.

Although Lean Thinking has been narrowly thought of as a technique that is exclusive to the heavy-manufacturing shop floor, it is now applied at every level of an organization. It has recently been found to be quite effective as a foundational tool for environmental management. In addition, a number of companies have successfully linked both their quality and environmental management initiatives into the Lean Thinking model.

Companies looking for a process for continuous environmental improvement may want to start thinking Lean.