Lean, LEED, and Green

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A recent article by F. Kaid Benfield illustrates how Lean principles apply to a debate now taking place among Green Building practitioners. At issue is the fact that six recent award-winning LEED buildings are located such that they are largely or entirely dependent on automobile travel for access.

Benfield, Director of the Smart Growth Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, argues that the Green standards developed and promulgated by LEED should place much more weight on the location of buildings in relation to communities, customers, employees, and non-automotive transit facilities. How can a building – even one boasting solar panels, great insulation, and optimized energy systems – claim to be truly Green if everyone using that building commutes there alone in a car?

It is a striking fact that for most modern, energy-efficient buildings, the annual energy in BTUs (primarily gasoline) consumed by occupants traveling to work is much greater than the total BTUs required (typically electricity and gas) to heat, cool, and operate the building! A fine building featuring the latest Green expertise and energy technology may cause decades of transportation waste if built in the wrong place.

How does this relate to the Lean principles we apply in the manufacturing world? Quite directly, actually. Benfield chides the Green Building Council (which administers the LEED standards) for “emphasizing bells and whistles – building technology” in its Green evaluations. In Lean terms, he’s talking about the error of “single point optimization” – focusing on one process in a Value Stream while ignoring the linking and balancing that are so crucial to delivering customer value. Overinvestment in one production process will only cause more waste, such as work-in-process inventory, ahead of and after it. It is even more wasteful to arrange processes so far apart that time, distance and unnecessary transportation overwhelm any productive gains made at the place of work.

In the language of his own profession, Benfield makes a great Lean argument: don’t get so wrapped up in optimizing the productivity, capacity, or “Greenness” of a process – in this case, a Green commercial building – that you lose all those benefits, and more, in waste generated by poor linking and balancing with upstream and downstream processes. For a textbook example of this blunder, recall General Motors’ adventure with robotics in the 1980s. It’s not about the monuments, however sophisticated, expensive, or Green they might be. What really counts in both Lean and Green is the creation of optimal value with minimal waste – across the entire Value Stream.


“LEED Awards Show Why Green Criteria Need Reform”, F. Kaid Benfield, Natural Resources Defense Council, January 11, 2010.

“Driving to Green Buildings: The Transportation Energy Intensity of Buildings”, Alex Wilson and Rachel Navaro, BuildingGreen.com, September 1, 2007.

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