Green Kaizen

Eliminating the Root Cause of Waste

The elimination of muda, or waste, is a main objective of the Toyota Production System. Toyota applies this principle to all aspects of the business and measures the amount of waste produced and saved by several metrics.  The practice of this principle has led many lean companies to believe they’re operating in a sustainable way by proxy.  While it might be true that lean companies think about waste reduction more or differently than non-lean companies, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t be doing more.  Toyota separates environmental muda from other operational muda and has specifically challenged plants worldwide to send zero waste to the landfill.    That’s a serious BGAG (Big Green Audacious Goal).

The call for zero landfill waste originated from Toyota’s headquarters in Japan, where like other flagships, initiatives are implemented first before being rolled out to other locations.   One example of a zero waste initiative starting in Japan and then being taken abroad is the use of reusable shipping containers in North America.

Toyota had been using reusable shipping containers for years in Japan before manufacturing started in the United States in 1988. The initial blueprint for its US auto manufacturing operation involved a distribution system based on the use of reusable shipping containers, but Toyota USA encountered obstacles that its parent company did not face in Japan which made the containers economically unviable.

Thinking big about reducing harmful environmental waste is one thing, but staying dedicated to a complicated solution is another.   Toyota USA understood the savings and environmental benefit of reusable containers, and continued to work on a solution instead of trying to “green” non-reusable containers through recycling or incineration.  To quote Dr. Jeffrey Liker, author of The Toyota Way, “The general concept of getting to the root cause and eliminating the problem instead of putting a bandaid after the fact is universal at Toyota for all things they try to achieve.”

Toyota USA applied the practice of kaizen to this problem, which helped identify a number of opportunities to increase efficiency and lower transportation costs.  Making small improvements and adjustments eventually allowed reusable shipping containers to become a reality.  Not only containers, but soon, an entire distribution operation was implemented using dedicated carriers assigned to specific routes for daily pickups of parts from suppliers. A just-in-time delivery system helped to ensure a rapid turnover of full and empty containers, allowing for cost efficient hauling back of containers. Toyota further enhanced this system by increasing its use of domestic suppliers and by working with suppliers to develop a standardized container system.

Today, Toyota’s North American Parts Operation uses over 65,000 reusable metal shipping containers in place of cardboard and wood pallets to move over 109 million service and accessory parts between parts distribution centers, dealers and suppliers.   During fiscal year 2013, Toyota saved almost 53 million pounds of wood and 25 million pounds of cardboard.


  • Have a BGAG (Big Green Audacious Goal).  Just because you’re lean doesn’t mean you’re green.
  • Every plant faces unique challenges and opportunities, so allow kaizens to lead innovation for implementation of the BGAG at each site.  
  • Think about eliminating waste — not postponing it, recycling it, destroying it, but total elimination of it from your operations.

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