Businesses today generally understand they need to do as much as possible to conserve energy and water, reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and minimize their environmental impact overall. Societal pressures from customers, increasing regulation and economics all make this a fact of life for them.

Most are taking steps to address these issues, consulting with outside experts, seeking guidance from industry groups, and even turning to governments and NGOs for advice.

But as they look outward for solutions, they may be missing the best source of intelligence and insight in addressing green and sustainability issues – their own employees. These are, after all, the people who help them run their businesses every day – they know the processes, products, properties and operations inside and out. And many would be thrilled with the opportunity to improve their company’s efficiency and environmental impact.
At least that has been our experience, as illustrated by two projects at our company.

Squeezing Out Waste and Inefficiency

Last year in IBM’s global supply chain organization we began a discussion on how to further reduce our environmental impact. At first we considered forming a new department to address that issue, but realized that by creating a distinct department we’d be excluding everyone else in the organization from participating and might miss out on some key insights and opportunities.

So instead we formed a team of about 40 volunteers from around the world and from various groups across the organization to examine areas where improvements could be made – primarily in energy, packaging, solid waste and supplier environmental initiatives. The team members participated in this project in addition to their regular duties. Nearly all the ideas for improvements came from within the group – not from management – and over time we expanded the team to 100 and then 200 employees.

The first-year results were impressive. Switching to lightweight, recyclable plastic packing material reduced packaging by 290 metric tons, incidentally lowering GHG emissions for outbound transportation. A variety of energy conservation initiatives in plant and office locations reduced power consumption by 6,300 megawatt-hours.

Moving product documentation to the web saved on materials and further reduced shipping weight. Pallets were reused or recycled, reducing solid waste. Programs were created to encourage employees to recycle material and minimize printing. And suggestions were made to suppliers on everything from streamlining transportation to reducing packaging to switching to powder coatings from liquid paints to further reduce waste and emissions.

Applying Lean Six Sigma

For the second project, a Lean Six Sigma specialist at our Dublin, Ireland, facility learned about a concept developed at IBM Research to apply those principles to energy, water, waste and emissions. With the encouragement of his managers, he worked with the plant’s environmental, operations and process improvement teams to start a pilot project at the plant, using this methodology developed to collect and analyze energy data throughout the plant.

The team started by determining what they wanted to measure – the key performance indicators – and then began gathering information and determining where it could quickly make improvements. The team developed a set of analytics that defined ideal operation of the facility and each major piece of energy-consuming equipment, and mapped the relationships between devices, such as air handlers and chillers.

The team then developed a system that could connect more than 250 sensors throughout the plant to a database that would deliver the key data through a dashboard. The underlying analytics engine of the system identifies when any part of the environment is out of tolerance with the KPIs and sends a signal and related information to the dashboard. The dashboard provides warnings about things such as lighting and cooling being left on in an empty building, a heater turned on in a crawl space during the summer, an air handler left in manual mode following a maintenance procedure, and heating and chilling going on at the same time. It also helps ensure improvements are sustained.

The team identified more than 50 discrete actions to reduce energy use, achieving a 20-percent reduction in energy consumption at the Dublin plant within the first eight months. By analyzing data gathered, it expects to reduce energy use by another 10 percent by the end of this year.

Based on our experience in Dublin, we’ve been able to develop this methodology into an offering we can use with our clients to help them manage their energy, water, waste and GHG emissions – Green Sigma™.


The two projects detailed here demonstrate what can happen when you engage employees in green and sustainability efforts. Among the key things we learned are:

  • Employees are passionate about these issues, and they can develop and execute some amazingly creative ideas when given the opportunity. And their success ignites the interest of their colleagues;
  • When you assemble a team of the right people from across an organization – all sharing their particular expertise and knowledge about the business – the results can be extraordinary;
  • Successfully making changes that continuously improve efficiency and reduce waste and emissions requires setting the right metrics, using sensor and meter data from the points where energy, water and materials are used, and applying statistics-based analytics;
  • No matter what you accomplish today, there’s always more opportunity to improve the environmental performance in business operations, manufacturing plants and make supply chains. more environmentally friendly. Existing tools applied in new ways can lead to significant benefits, and major investments are not always needed.
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