The advent of industrial revolution has had a very profound effect on human society and mankind has benefitted greatly as a result. Advances in manufacturing technology meant that the luxuries that a very few could afford in the past are now ubiquitous (automobile, electric bulb etc.). Development in the field of transportation – starting with the steam engine and later automobiles and aircraft – mean that vast distances can now be traversed in a matter of mere hours. Improvements in the medical field have helped prolong human lifespan (Life expectancy of an average American is now 30 years more than it was a century ago).
The process of industrialization began in the UK in late 18th century and gathered pace throughout the 19th century. The US and rest of Europe industrialized rapidly in the 19th century. But the rate of global industrialization intensified post second world-war, in the second half of 20th century with countries like China, India and Brazil (and many others) following suit. While this has brought undoubted economic growth and advancement, the costs of development are sometimes overlooked. The process of industrialization has depended largely on burning fossil fuels and our societies have become increasingly energy hungry. The rate of greenhouse gas emissions as a result of burning these fossil fuels has increased almost exponentially over the past half a century. The corresponding increase in global temperature over the same period is not a mere coincidence (see chart). Scientists believe that increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere directly contribute to global warming. In addition, industrial and automotive emissions have made most large cities across the world almost uninhabitable. Deforestation is occurring at an unprecedented rate in order to fulfill our insatiable appetite for raw materials and arable land. Clean drinking water is becoming scarcer across the world. Landfills full of non-biodegradable material are now pervasive. Unfortunately, the pace of this energy-hungry and resource-wasteful “growth” shows no sign of abating.
The dangers posed by this unconstrained growth are evident enough. Global temperatures are on the rise – and are projected to continue rising – wreaking untold damage across the world. Natural resources such as oil, coal, and gas however abundant today, are ultimately finite. Deteriorating quality of air and water and scarcity of water have grave implications for human well-being. In spite of this, very little meaningful action has been taken to combat these perils. Global summitry has focused more on apportioning blame for past emissions rather than developing solutions to avert or to mitigate the effects of global warming. Some businesses have undertaken initiative towards “sustainable” development as a part of their corporate social responsibility and individuals are beginning to develop awareness of the consequences of their actions towards climate change or global warming. However, these are not enough and a fundamentally different way of doing things is required to moderate the impact of our activities on the environment.
The Kaizen Way
Many businesses across the globe have, over the past two decades, adopted Kaizen tools and practices to improve their operations. At a fundamental level, the Kaizen philosophy espouses the identification and relentless effort to minimize or eliminate the seven kinds of Muda (or waste) from our processes. These seven kinds of Muda are –
- Overproduction – Producing more than or earlier than customer requirement.
- Inventory – Excess raw material, work-in-process or finished goods inventory.
- Waiting – Either a part or a person or a machine waiting.
- Defects – Producing a defective product or service.
- Transportation – Movement of material from one place to another.
- Motion – Movement of a person from place to place.
- Excess Processing – Incorporating a process customer would not be willing to pay for.
These are deemed non-value added activities (i.e. they add no value to the customer or end user) and through observation and thorough analysis (through tools such as “Value Stream Mapping”) at the Gemba (place where work is done or value is added), they are identified. Improvement activities are usually geared towards minimizing or eliminating them from the process. As any Kaizen practitioner or a Kaizen practicing business would vouch, the importance of this simple philosophy cannot be overstated.
In a similar way, our approach to environment must be fixated towards identifying and eliminating or minimizing “environmental hazards”. We have classified them into five kinds and they are –
- Use of non-renewable energy – Energy generated though sources such coal, gas, oil, nuclear etc.
- Air Emissions –
- Emissions through product or service – Harmful emissions generated during the process of making the product or service, or emissions generated during the continual use of the product or service.
- Transportation emissions – Harmful emissions generated through transportation (air, sea or road).
- Water –
- Usage – Excess usage or wastage of water.
- Pollution – Chemicals or harmful contaminants dumped into water sources.
- Use of non-biodegradable material –
- Direct material – Content of non-biodegradable material in the product.
- Garbage – Content of non-biodegradable material in disposed waste or garbage.
- Ecological Damage – Damage wrought to ecological balance by activates such as deforestation or cutting trees or harming the habitat of certain species.
A thorough analysis of all business processes (through tools such as “Green Value Stream Mapping”) must be conducted to identify and quantify these five “environmental hazards”. Once known, a relentless effort to minimize and eliminate these hazards from the processes must be undertaken. Ultimately, businesses must aim to be “Carbon-Neutral”, “Water-Positive” with zero contribution to landfills and with zero ecological damage.
In the long run, if this way of thinking is adopted, businesses and individuals can contribute towards arresting the negative impact of our actions on the environment. Doing nothing or carrying on in the same way that we have over the last century is simply not an option. We may not be left with an inhabitable planet within the next two generations if we do not change our ways.