GPM First
Chapter 9 of No Waste (978-0-5660-8803-2) by Uly Ma

Dealing with Waste


Conventional waste management systems and tools used in construction are often effective up to a point. They are effective for tangible or material wastes – the stuff that ends up in skips and bins. They are not too useful when we wanted to deal with the Eight Wastes from the Hidden Construction Site. This is probably because conventional waste management often comes from environmental management instead of business management (see Figure 9.1). Therefore they are good for ‘end-of-pipe’ solution when the physical waste is already generated. The focus on reuse and recycle is very good for timber or sheet metal, but fairly useless for waiting or lost talent and ideas. This means the Waste Hierarchy can be further divided into all wastes and tangible wastes.

Conventional thinking also relegates designing out waste to the designers and architects rather than considering that construction workers can also design out waste from their processes and procedures.

Figure 9.1 A different way of looking at waste


The majority of the Eight Waste elements are not readily recoverable once they happened, although the final outcomes of these wastes appear in our skips. The Eight Wastes are really things that cause the bins and skips to be filled. There is a similarity with electricity: you cannot see it and once you have used it (whether it is to provide light or to drive a motor), generally it is gone for good. So if the lights are left on in an empty office, or a motor left running without any load, the waste happens but we do not always notice them.

The Eight Wastes are about as tangible as electricity but more difficult to measure. There is no equivalent ‘waiting waste’ meter like the electricity meter to record the amount of usage. Jon de Souza of Constructing Excellence, a sector body, believes that we need to take waste more seriously and integrate waste reduction into design and construction. It is certainly a more valuable way for a company to operate than to sort out waste as an end-of-pipe issue. Perhaps another reason why the Eight Wastes are not readily addressed by environmental or sustainability management is because they tend not to be the actual contents in skips and bins.1 [113] The Eight Wastes approach to waste is process or operations focused and quite different to the environmental science approach deployed by people most closely associated with sustainability in our industry.

Dealing with the Eight Wastes is not clean cut like specifying FSC2 [114] approved timber or buying renewable energy. To purchase or FSC timber or green electricity, a manager needs only to justify it on costs, the do-good value and sustainability kudos. Several phone calls later, it is more or less done. However, to reduce ‘waiting’ is much more substantial. For those familiar with working through legislation or whole life cycles, it may not even be clear where to start looking at reducing the waste from waiting. Calculating the carbon footprint of waiting? The task can be overwhelming. And it is overwhelming because conventional views of sustainability often show a silo-like mentality with the environmental management team forced to deal with the day-to-day activities in isolation. But since sustainability is about managing resources effectively there needs to be a more substantial inclusion of all the company’s operations. Much of the well-tested techniques from operations and quality management can be adapted to deliver the upstream gains and complement the downstream reuse and recycling activities.

Quality and process management generally focus on reducing variation and increasing the efficiency of the process.3 [115] These targets are entirely compatible with sustainability objectives (see Figure 9.2).

Figure 9.2 From quality and process management to doing sustainability


The Anti-Sustainability

I have suggested that waste is an anti-sustainability, this then offer us a simple path towards ‘doing’ sustainability. Simply by reducing waste, we will be ‘doing’ sustainability. Is that it?

Make Sustainability Happen by Reducing Waste4 [116]

Clearly it cannot be that simple, otherwise everybody and every company will be doing it. Perhaps we should rephrase it: is it really that easy?

But since our industry creates about 100 M tonnes of waste each year and sends every fifth or sixth pallet of ordered materials to the skip, then it is evident that, on the whole, we as an industry have not really cracked the problem. Reducing waste to achieve sustainability therefore appears neither simple nor easy. Furthermore, people are starting to realise that actions like switching off lights and not printing emails on paper are not ever going to be enough. Maybe it is because the Eight Wastes are so embedded into the way we work that they are hidden from us. If these wastes are hidden, how can we reduce them?

Also, it needs to be made clear that waste reduction is not the complete sustainability solution. Sustainability covers a lot more than waste reduction even though cutting waste can solve a lot of sustainability issues. However, for non-specialists or ‘the rest of us’, this is something everyone can do and where we can all make a difference. What is more important is that during a combined recession, sluggish recovery and credit crunch, waste reduction is probably the most effective approach towards ‘doing’ sustainability. Develop the necessary waste reduction discipline and your company will be doing sustainability, not necessarily the ultimate in sustainability but still a good effort. It is also a very good approach after the recession too, releasing resources tied up by wastes and generating cash – you just can not beat that – in good times or bad!

Dealing With the Eight Wastes – An Operational Approach

The Eight Wastes are operational wastes and because every organisation has an operational element, these are universal and ever-present wastes. My experiences showed me that just about every contractor suffer form these Eight Wastes to a greater or lesser extent. Since these wastes come from people doing their work, we ought therefore to look for operational solutions to tackle them. There are many methods in industry about dealing with wastes and problems. Two effective ones are Lean operations and Six Sigma Quality. Both these techniques can be adapted to suit the needs of the construction industry and sustainability.

In general, both these techniques are compatible with sustainability, albeit with one major exception. Both Six Sigma Quality and Lean operations are focused on the workplace and its primary external links such as the customers and the supply chain. The society and its needs are not necessarily on their respective radar screens.

Lean Operations, Lean Thinking and Lean Construction5 [117]

The Lean approach for construction was first proposed by the Egan Report.6 [118] Nevertheless, ten years on, Egan criticised the slow progress.7 [119] So what is it and why does it matter? I shall not repeat what Egan said since you can readily read the original report. But what I will examine is how the Lean approach fits into construction and how this links with sustainability.

Workplaces in construction range from plush offices for developers through cool design bureaus to the somewhat less luxurious construction sites. Whatever (or wherever) it is, the workplace is where the work is done, and where value and waste are both created.

Lean construction is the part of Lean operations applied to construction activities and there are a large number of consultants out there telling you what it is. If you dig a bit deeper, then you get into the technicalities of Lean thinking. If you dig even deeper, you end up at Toyota Motors in Japan – where it was invented.

I will use the terms Lean approach, Lean improvement, Lean operations or Lean thinking in an interchangeable fashion in this book rather than Lean construction because Lean is more than just construction or manufacturing.

Lean started when Toyota wanted to be competitive against the American car companies back in the 1950s. It took them nearly 50 years to perfect this. Over those years, Toyota laid down a set of working principles that became the Toyota Production System or Lean operations as we know it. ‘Doing’ Lean, like ‘doing sustainability’, is not a one-off exercise but a way of thinking and a life-long way of doing business. The Toyota debacle of 2009 is a result of poor quality control coupled with the overly ambitious aim of becoming the world’s biggest car maker and compounded by appalling public relations. The actual production process is in itself still sound, even though the management control was not.

The Toyota Production System spread across Japan and soon there were the ‘Canon Production System’, the ‘Honda Way’, and later Western car companies have their own versions, such as the ‘Vauxhall Production System’. The term ‘Lean’ came from US research on Toyota car manufacturing in the late 1980s.8 [120] This stuck a chord in the West and became the generic term for derivations and developments based on the original Toyota Production System.

For construction, we need to examine whether the Lean model is directly applicable. The short answer is ‘yes – but with adaptations’. Construction in the UK has some attributes that are not encountered in Japanese car factories: our turnover of staff from subcontracting means our teams on site are often changed completely during every project; and every project is itself both similar and yet dissimilar to every other project. These differences mean that we need to adapt the Toyota Lean approach to suit the needs of both construction and sustainability.

What is Lean Thinking?

At its simplest, Lean thinking is about adding value, about waste and reducing it, and holds dear the principle that any effort that does not lead to value is waste.

Although Toyota did not plan it that way, there is a lot in common between sustainability and Lean thinking. Sustainability is about using our resources effectively: money; people; and materials. Lean is about reducing waste in everything we do – reducing the waste in money; the waste in people’s efforts; and reducing materials waste. Lean is also about smoothly running operations – flowing effectively while optimising resource usage. You can see the connections – at a very simple level, practising Lean is more or less the same as practising sustainability and even at a more detailed level, it is still valid. Even though it is not designed to cover society’s needs9 [121] as it was designed by a company for its internal use, the Lean approach to the workforce can be readily adapted to support the external social elements of sustainability. Both Lean thinking and sustainability share some basic drivers (see Figure 9.3).

Figure 9.3 Lean and sustainability: a similar approach


There are usually four distinct drivers attributed to Lean operations: top-level support; respect for people; attention to processes and procedures; and continuous improvement. These are equally the drivers for sustainability.

Table 9.1 Drivers for Lean and sustainability


Lean Operations


Top-level support

Senior champion sets the agenda and delivers the resources

Senior champion provides resources to delivers the sustainability commitment

Respect for people

Engaging everyone at work to take part

Sustainability needs everyone to make it work

Processes and procedures

Looking at the way we work to reduce waste and improve value

Everything we do is re-evaluated and the more sustainable approaches adopted

Continuous improvement

Always looking to do better

Always looking to do better

Where the two differ is in some of the external drivers. Lean operations is not driven by legislation although the public and governments do seem to appreciate a less wasteful company. Sustainability is driven by legislation and public sentiment. Lean comes from a competitive commercial environment where unsatisfied customers can mean the business going under. Therefore its focus will appear more commercial than the ‘save the world’ attitude in some areas of sustainability. Digging a bit deeper, however, the interests merge again – both sustainability and Lean operations have the same aim for the company – to ensure that the business keeps going.

The outcomes for Lean operations are also consistent with the requirements for sustainability: better use of resources. Although Lean thinking does not go so far in suggesting that any unused resources are made available for future generations, it does encourage waste reduction at the point of use. Philosophically, Lean is not about future generations or society as a whole, but instead it is about the current state of business and how to do better while sustainability is social–political movement to safeguard the world for future generations.

However, in a recession or a sluggish recovery, using Lean operations as a stepping stone towards a sustainability transformation is valid and effective. The Lean tools are generally well known, in the public domain and most importantly, well tested with employees of all types and inclinations. When applied effectively they will produce the results desirable for a sustainability transformation.

Although the financial and environmental aspects of sustainability are most readily associated with gains from Lean operation, the social elements of sustainability can also be delivered by applying the four Lean drivers towards external needs.

Table 9.2 The social elements of sustainability

Lean Drivers

In Context for the Social Elements of Sustainability

Top-level support

Champion and stakeholders respond to social trends

Respect for people

Respect the need to share the environment with the neighbours and with society as a whole and understanding the responsibilities the company has towards society

Processes and procedures

Review and revise practices that supports the accountabilities and responsibilities towards society

Continuous improvement

You can always do more/do better

The 64 Million Dollar Question: Does Lean Work?

This simple question deserves a very careful answer. First, many Japanese companies managed to get Lean to work, whether based in Japan or in the West. Then there is the experience of many Western companies who found that Lean did not really work for them since they still went bust (for example, General Motors). I know of many hospital teams in the UK who seemed to find the promises of Lean more a mirage than reality, conversely, I have also trained health sector managers to deliver Lean improvements successfully in their areas. Closer to home, Lean construction has been around since Egan’s Rethinking Construction Report of 1998, what is the progress in our industry? The answer matters because if we are to base doing sustainability on a Lean foundation, we need to be sure that Lean does work.

The simple answer is that Lean does work, but it has to have serious top-level commitment and a willingness to do the hard work to make it happen. It is not necessarily easy and the conservative nature of our industry makes this harder than it needs to be. Other difficulties can include the ever-changing workforce because of subcontracting as well as the fragmented style of corporate management where the individual construction projects are essentially the construction director’s fief (see Chapter 18 for more details). None of these are impossible to tackle as Lean leaders, such as Shepherd Construction and Thomas Vale, have shown again and again.

Six Sigma Quality – Hype or the Real Thing?

Six Sigma Quality has an evocative name, at once mysterious, high tech and serious. Since its invention in the late 1980s, it has been hyped to a ridiculous level by the activities of major companies, such as General Electric and Allied Signal. In the early 1990s, Six Sigma consultants were earning over £1,000 per day, which is pretty good living for engineering and operations consultants even now. Alas, all too soon, people started realising that Six Sigma is not that easy to implement and just because you have Six Sigma, it does not guarantee corporate success. Motorola, who invented it, still lurches from crisis to crisis. Polaroid, the instant film company (remember them?), another Six Sigma pioneer, went bankrupt in 2001. So what is Six Sigma and more importantly, what is the point of Six Sigma in sustainability for construction?

Six Sigma Quality10 [122] was invented by engineers at Motorola to reduce defects in multi-stage, multi-component manufacturing. Then consultants took over and suddenly Six Sigma (the word quality was quietly dropped) became ‘the breakthrough management strategy revolutionising the world’s top corporations’.11 [123] It is no longer just about quality improvement but also about ‘making money’. Hype aside, the Six Sigma approach has some very useful tools that can contribute a great deal in ‘doing’ sustainability.

Six Sigma matters because it promoted a very important principle, one also valid in managing sustainability. This is about making decisions based on data and facts, or more prosaically, ‘if you cannot measure it, then you cannot manage it’.

Of course, the above description is an old saying and you have heard it before, but you will pay a lot more attention if you are paying £££ for a consultant to say it back to you! Whereas there are similar sayings in Lean thinking, Six Sigma, by virtue of being a ‘breakthrough management strategy’, reached the boardroom a lot quicker than Lean thinking. And there is nothing wrong with senior management being reminded that decision making should always include hard facts.

Why is This So Important for Sustainability?

Much of sustainability is about dealing with problems, waste problems for example. It is all too easy for a manager to sit in an office and decide what the solution should be, since it is simpler than going down to where the waste is happening (often a much less pleasant place than the office) and finding out. Much better to ‘guesstimate’ what the problem is and then offer a solution. This is how things have been done for years in all areas of business. However, in sustainability, the data-centric approach is normal.

This is because much of ‘doing’ sustainability currently is about auditing, certification and reporting. Accurate information based on facts and data is therefore crucial and people are used to this approach. Also, since sustainability is an emotive subject and readily available for hijacking for special interest groups; having hard facts and making decisions based on accurate data are critical aspects for clear-headed decision making. (Although sometimes the data can stir up emotions even more.) Finally, as there are still many sceptics out there, the enthusiast sustainability advocate will find life easier armed with data and numbers.12 [124]

The Six Sigma process is famous for a lot of heavy duty number crunching since it is really a statistical process management tool. It starts to lose the ‘management strategy’ bits as it goes into the realm of statistics. I also diverge from this aspect of Six Sigma and move towards the people management side of Six Sigma. As one Six Sigma Black Belt13 [125] told me, ‘All too often, the people side of Six Sigma is forgotten, it is equally important.’ This is the part of Six Sigma I will focus on.

The Six Sigma approach links up well with doing sustainability as shown in the table below.14 [126]

Table 9.3 Six Sigma and sustainability


Six Sigma (People Aspects)


Problem focused:

Define problem

Identify issue

Data-backed decisions:

Gather information (causes) and analyse

Gather information (legislation, impacts) and analyse

Reduce defects/impacts:

Improve by implementing and controlling the solution

Develop solution and monitor progress

Improve quality:

Continuous improvement

Sustainability never stops

Furthermore, a Six Sigma focus on facts and real data should be adopted by policy makers everywhere because, as Trudy Harpham says, ‘they need to make policy based on facts!’.

Both Lean and Six Sigma are compatible with each other to the extent that ‘Lean Sigma’ also exists as a combined ‘breakthrough management strategy’. (Of course, this book is not so crass to claim that it is the source for another new breakthrough strategic management approach called ‘Sustainable Lean Sigma’.)

Roadmap for Going Forward

Both Six Sigma and Lean operations emphasise the reduction of waste through process improvements and they form the basis of a simple roadmap for ‘doing’ sustainability.

There are four stages on this roadmap.

  1. Agree a corporate agenda.

  2. Analyse the current business processes.

  3. Take Action to improve the existing business process and start developing a competitive edge.

  4. Advance towards transforming the organisation as a whole towards more sustainable operations.


The roadmap is explored in detail in Part Four of this book.

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