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Operational Efficiency

Want to tackle rising costs AND get greener? Lean is the answer

Manufacturing Advisor Nick Brandwood explains why lean principles can not only improve productivity and profitability but also support you in achieving your green goals – and how SMEs can combine our Manufacturing and Sustainability services to great effect.

Manufacturers of every size are increasingly under pressure to become greener, lower carbon businesses. Luckily, we have a team of brilliant, highly-skilled Sustainability & Net Zero experts at the Growth Hub who can support you.

However, in a time of rising costs and economic turmoil, getting sustainability on the agenda can feel like a difficult task. But what if I told you the time-tested methodology of lean manufacturing, as practised by our Manufacturing Service, can help you, while also boosting your profitability and productivity?

Implementing lean alongside sustainability improvements are a match made in heaven; here’s why:


Lean is all about waste

When most people think of ‘waste’ they think of the stuff that ends up in the bin. However, that’s only one form waste can take. From a lean perspective, there are actually 8 wastes in every business:

  1. Transportation: Moving items from one location to another
  2. Inventory: Holding raw materials, work-in-progress or finished goods beyond the minimum required
  3. Motion: The movement and motion of people around your site
  4. Waiting: The time people or parts spend waiting between processes
  5. Over-production: Producing goods too early, in too high a quantity or when they’re not yet required
  6. Over-processing: Any processing beyond what is actually required to deliver what your customer wants
  7. Defects: Any defective product, scrap material or re-work
  8. Skills: The untapped potential residing in your workforce through underutilised skills and knowledge.


Lean practitioners call each of the above ‘wastes’ not because they contribute to things ending up in the bin (although some do), but because none of them add value for your customer. If something is not adding value, it’s waste.

Lean is about continually stripping out non-value added activities from your business so you can give the customer want they want, on time in full, right first time, at lowest possible cost.

Find out about our Lean Champion course

Where lean and green combine

While I don’t think Toyota intended for lean to be seen as a ‘green’ philosophy when they trailblazed the concept in the 1960s, it’s easy to see the connection today.  

The leanest businesses are waste-reducing, efficiency-finding, problem-solving machines, They don’t waste time or materials making something the customer doesn’t want. They don’t repeat production runs because of re-work. They don’t waste heating or lighting because people are waiting around for a process to begin. Lean fits right in with a green, sustainable mindset.

A real-life example of lean and green working in partnership is the Siemens manufacturing facility in Congleton. The factory is on course to hit its target of carbon neutral 8 years early thanks in part to its investments in green technologies, but also because of its lean manufacturing methods.


By instilling a culture of continuous improvement through lean, the site has managed to increase output by over 1,000% since 1990 without changing its physical footprint. Per m2, it’s one of the most productive of any of Siemens’ sites worldwide, and by the same measure, one of the greenest.

(By the way, delegates on our new Made for Manufacturing 2023 programme get a personal tour!)

Lean and green is also demonstrated nicely by Quantum Profile Systems Ltd (QPSL) in Oldham, who are working with our Sustainability Team to advance their progress to net zero.

Part of QPSL’s sustainability success is down to its lean manufacturing ethos. When looking at ways to reduce their energy consumption, for example, they don’t just look at the equipment in question (the green part), but the overall process the equipment is embedded in (the lean part):

“It’s not just about trying to replace what you already have, but actually taking the time to step back, do some process mapping and think, can I change this process in a way that gives me more benefit overall? Can I change the way the machine is being used? Is there additional waste that can be avoided, not only in materials or energy, but other inefficiencies such as time, re-work, and so on. There are always things you can test and experiment, and that’s part of the whole lean philosophy.”

Dr Diane Luther, Product Manager, QPSL


Doing more with less

A simpler definition of lean is ‘doing more with less’, which also happens to be a core mantra of my Sustainability colleagues.

In fact, when our Manufacturing Advisors talk about being leaner and our Sustainability Advisors talk about greener, we’re often talking about the same thing: squeezing every last bit of value out of what you already have.

Let’s take inventory as an example. For a Manufacturing Advisor like myself, holding too much stock is a problem because it ties up cash and causes storage issues, which then causes knock-on waste in the form of additional transportation, motion and waiting for parts to be found.

From a green perspective, excessive inventory can result in materials or products having to be discarded (research shows nearly 8 per cent of inventory goes to waste on average). Additional storage also means additional heating and lighting and all the energy and environmental consequences that go with it.

A common example I see is manufacturers building in a mezzanine floor because they believe they need the space, when actually they’re overproducing and holding too much inventory. Inevitably, just like building a new motorway to ease congestion causes more congestion (what economists call ‘induced demand’), the mezzanine floor will always fill up. Before you know it, you’ll need a warehouse. Waste has a habit of snowballing.

Expanding your physical footprint can often be avoided through good lean behaviours. A good example is Kids Funtime Beds, a furniture manufacturer in Manchester. As the company grew, so did re-work and inventory, but a waste elimination workshop and some new processes on the shopfloor helped to eliminate the problem.

“At one stage we were considering moving the factory to larger premises, however lean manufacturing has enabled us to increase production and decrease rework utilising our existing factory space more efficiently.”

Tony Leng-Smith, Managing Director, Kids Funtime Beds

Tackling waste at the beginning of your process

A core principle of lean is that processes should stop and solve problems. The lower down the organisation you can devolve responsibility and empower people to eliminate Not Right First Time (NRFT) problems, the better.

In other words, putting NRFT material in the recycling bin at the end of your process isn’t a cause for celebration if something could have been done earlier to avoid the defect being generated in the first place.

My Sustainability colleagues often call this ‘designing out waste’ in a process; this, in itself, is part of the Lean playbook. In the Manufacturing Service we refer to ‘Built in Quality’ – a process that can’t accept defects, pass defects forward or make defects creates less waste in all its forms.

Manchester-based steel fabricator Thomas Storey is a great example. The company has worked with both our Manufacturing and Sustainability teams to adopt a culture of continuous improvement and waste reduction.

One of the challenges Thomas Storey faced was a bottleneck in its laser cutting process. On the surface, it seemed like it had outgrown existing capacity, but a closer inspection revealed the problem was being caused by inefficient use of the laser cell. By introducing an improved nesting process and overlapping shifts to prevent the laser needing to be turned off and then warmed up again, Thomas Storey more than doubled the productivity of the laser cell while cutting scrap material.

“We’re trying to improve our nesting every day; thinking about how we can get that one per cent or half a per cent extra utilisation. I’ve also spoken to the whole factory about the price of steel to encourage people to think twice about scrapping components that could potentially be repaired, or better still, getting everything right first time so there is no waste in the first place.”

Phil Ramsdale, Technical Director, Thomas Storey

Making savings without capital investment

When a Sustainability Advisor goes into your business to conduct an energy efficiency audit, they will always focus first on low or no cost ‘quick wins’ before recommending larger capital improvements such as equipment upgrades (this is often called the Energy Hierarchy).

Lean works in a similar way. Implemented correctly, it will help you to identify and solve problems every day to eliminate waste at low or no cost; preventing the need to invest capital in expensive new equipment. We don’t want you to throw money at your problems, only your time.

At a time when sustainability strategies are being restricted due to cost pressures, lean is a fantastic tool for delivering small projects with big impacts to improve profitability. This can be used to free up cash for those energy efficiency upgrades you want to make.



Whetted your appetite?

Hopefully the above demonstrates the benefits of combining our Manufacturing and Sustainability support at the same time. A productivity audit from a Manufacturing Advisor will set you on the path to maximising profitability by implementing lean processes, while an energy efficiency audit from a Sustainability Advisor will identify measures to maximise the efficiency of the surrounding infrastructure and equipment. It’s a perfect marriage.  

Our Sustainability colleagues can also help you to measure the improvements you make on both sides in terms of waste, carbon footprint and energy savings.

Get started by speaking to a Manufacturing Advisor today.


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