Aluminum Trailer Company Merges Lean and Green Principles

Eco-Coach founder Anca Novacovici explores whether Lean and Green business practices can coexist in an article where she interviews Aluminum Trailer Company.

In the article, she first lays out the basics of Lean as a method of continuous improvement to eliminate non-value adding activities. She then contrasts it to the concept of “Green”, which focuses more on minimizing negative environmental impacts.

Novacovici states that, to a certain extent, “Green” and Lean are natural partners, as the former aims to reduce resource usage through efficiencies, while the latter is focused on cutting waste. That said, a critical question is whether both efforts can be deployed simultaneously.

The answer, at least for the Aluminum Trailer Company (ATC), is no. ATC president Steve Brenneman discusses how the recession spurred his company to use Lean techniques in 2009 battle a drop in sales. Through a combination of streamlined material, information and part flows, the establishment of standards, and the communication of said standards through his company, Brenneman was able to cut warehouse space in half while slashing the sales cycle from 7 to 3 weeks.

In 2010, Brenneman shifted the focus to greening his company by using Deming’s PDCA (Plan, Do Check, Act) methodology to upgrade to more efficient lights, encourage plastic, wood, wire, and cardboard recycling for line staff, and cut paper use 50% in the office. ATC personnel not only performed root cause analysis but challenged the “this is how we’ve always done things” notion that tends to impede most process improvement efforts.

In the midst of these efforts Brenneman saw how the primary green concepts of recycle, reduce, and reuse naturally reinforced Lean tenets by pushing him to be aware of problems and better alternatives. These in turn were in line with the overall Japanese culture of caring, whether it be taking pride in work or ensuring that work areas are neat, tidy, and efficient.

Although Aluminum Trailer Company was unable to achieve both Lean and Green targets simultaneously, tackling Lean goals first and then immediately moving on to Green objectives allowed Brenneman and his business to reduce costs and make processes more efficient — commendable results in any economy. Brenneman himself puts it best: “If you think about ‘green’ in the right way, it doesn’t have to cost extra; it may take a little more care and a little more thought, but you will find that it saves costs and saves money.”

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