Lean Manufacturing & Sustainability Strategy

Ryan McMullan has dedicated nearly 14 years of his professional time helping Toyota with sustainability initiatives, including chemicals management. Before Toyota, Ryan was a classmate of mine during our graduate studies at UC Santa Barbara's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. He's now offering consulting services to help clients establish strategic sustainability leadership.

I recently caught up with him to discuss his aptitude for applying lean manufacturing principles to sustainability. 

We understand that different groups often manage different aspects of sustainability. How can an organization determine which team (e.g. Sustainability, EHS, Product Design) is best suited to manage/own materials health/ emerging chemical issues? Or should there be a cooperative approach?

RM: During my time at Toyota, we tried several different approaches for managing emerging chemical issues. 

  • First, we tried having different groups (environmental compliance, occupational safety, product engineering, sustainability, government affairs, etc.) do their own thing
    • However, this often had problems inherent to a large organization – one group would do something that affected another or one group would learn about a challenge, but not notify the others. 
  • Then, we created a 'committee approach' where representatives from the different groups would meet periodically to try to move programs forward to better manage emerging chemical issues.
    • But, since everyone was doing it in addition to their other duties, there wasn’t the time available to really get ahead of these issues. 
  • Finally, there was a recognition that there needed to be some core group whose main responsibility was to track and manage these issues.
    • Amidst the reorganization and downsizing it proved difficult to find enough headcount to be able to adequately staff the function, which defaulted back to a committee approach. 

So, even in a well-run company leading the charge with sustainability in their industry, there are still hurdles with chemical management?

RM: Right. And, ultimately, we tried to stop using the term “chemical management” because it meant so many diverse things to different people.  We tried mapping out the various aspects of it and it quickly grew into a huge mind map of the different facets of impacts related to chemicals. Trying to adequately communicate which corner of chemical management we were talking about in any given conversation was always a challenge.

What do you see as the role of materials health within the circular economy?

RM: This was something that we discussed frequently on the board of the Zero Waste Business Association (now TRUE under GBCI). I see two crucial roles for chemical/materials management and its intersection with planning for a circular economy. 

  1. The recovery of a material can be greatly impacted by its composition; and 
  2. The recovery of a material in a closed loop can be an important way of keeping it out of the environment. 

Can you share a few examples?

RM: Sure, I can easily think of three:

  1. A good example from Toyota is the launch of drive batteries (initially nickel-metal hydride, then later lithium ion).  The engineering of the batteries, both in the material selection and its design of multiple cells made the batteries easier or more difficult to recycle or remanufacture.  When recovering batteries that had failed, it became clear that most of the cells in a (for example) 24-cell battery were fine, but a few had failed. 
  2. Yellowstone Lamar Buffalo Ranch took advantage of this by remanufacturing old car batteries and using the surviving cells for a stationary power storage application – extending the useful life of those materials. This off-the-grid research location had previously run solely on a propane generator.  Renewables didn't initially work for them because they needed power at night and the intermittent nature of wind and solar kept them from being able to match their load and generation. Toyota's efforts to turn old vehicle batteries into a bank of stationary power storage enabled renewables to power a microgrid for the station. 
  3. The recovery of rare earths is another good example related to batteries.  Since the rare earths used to make lithium ion batteries are largely concentrated in China, having steady recovery streams from units in operation means that there is an alternative source should those supplies get disrupted.

Of course, just as good chemicals management is good for the circular economy, so too is the circular economy good for chemicals management. 

Can you explain what you mean by that?

RM: For materials like heavy metals that are difficult to recover once dispersed in the environment, an effective recovery program ensures that these materials are returned, properly handled, and hopefully recovered for the manufacturing process.

What inspires you to keep moving forward in corporate governance and sustainability?

RM: It has become clear that companies that manage their sustainability responsibilities well can become a powerful force for environmental progress. I was able to work for a company that is recognized as reinventing modern manufacturing through the Toyota Production System (lean manufacturing). So when Toyota took environmental responsibilities and sustainability seriously, there was a lot of credibility with other companies to follow suit. I always strived to learn more about lean manufacturing and incorporate the concepts into our environmental management and sustainability strategy. 

Which lean manufacturing concepts are most applicable to sustainability?

RM: Most of them do in some way or another.  A great example is Toyota's process of hoshin kanri (policy deployment).  It was not initially an environmental process, but its methodical approach to governance, building consensus, building engagement, and moving forward on targets allowed a small group of sustainability experts to steer programs across a large company. 

We knew that if we could be “a good example of a good example” that it could inspire other companies to do the same, multiplying the effect of our efforts.  And that is exciting and that's what I'm currently sharing with organizations.

Ryan McMullan profileAfter 13 years on the sustainability team at Toyota, Ryan established his own firm and is a Principal Consultant at Lean Green Way.  He works with clients to help them establish strategic sustainability leadership and training for employee engagement. He guest lectures at universities throughout California and is passionate about teaching the next generation of environmental professionals

He earned his Masters from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara and his Bachelor's from Rice University.  He keeps busy improving the sustainability of his home in Long Beach, California, teaching his 9-year-old son to conserve resources and design games, and writing on his experiences. He can be found at www.LeanGreenWay.com, on Twitter  @LeanGreenRyan and LinkedIn (ryan-mcmullan).

Rachel Schohn is the content marketing manager at Toxnot
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