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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Bright Idea

Air Date: Week of

Light bulbs may light up your life, but they contain toxic chemicals, especially mercury. Now there's a new non-toxic sulfur based bulb in the offing. The U.S. Department of Energy is testing the sulfur device to see if it's the best thing to come along in lighting since Thomas Edison. Martha Honey reports.


CURWOOD: Here at home, many people argue that protecting the local environment from pollution can cost jobs and lower business profits. But others contend that pollution is the mark of inefficiency, like other forms of waste. They say if businesses want to be more competitive, have better profits and happier workers, they should be lean and clean. Among them is the Department of Energy's Joseph Romm, who has just written a book called Lean and Clean Management. He says companies who try this find some nice surprises.

ROMM: One of the things that I found in my research is that companies that have been using energy efficiency in their buildings have found large increases in worker productivity. Companies like Boeing, for instance, have used energy efficient lighting to save money and lower costs, and they found that the improved lighting has actually improved the quality of their products as workers in the new lighting were much better able to spot defects.

CURWOOD: How much do you estimate this saved Boeing?

ROMM: One Boeing manager estimated that the improvements in quality were worth as much as the energy savings. And since the energy savings paid for themselves in 2 years, which is pretty typical of energy efficient lighting, the entire system paid for itself in under 1 year.

CURWOOD: Now what about the other half of your thesis? Lean management. I mean, we've heard the buzzwords; you mention them; total quality management, fast cycle production, just in time inventory. What happens when managers combine clean efficiency with lean efficiency?

ROMM: Well, I think some companies have found tremendous advantages. You're taking a total approach to eliminating waste. Companies that have become lean and clean - and I'll be honest with you, there aren't many that have really integrated this; Compaq Computer is one exception - these are companies that are very resilient. They're very energy efficient, they don't emit a lot of pollution, and they have very high quality products. So you can imagine such companies are very, very competitive and obviously Compaq Computer is one of the most resilient and effective corporations in the United States.

CURWOOD: All right; let's look at Compaq's numbers for a moment. How do they compare with other computer manufacturers?

ROMM: Well, Compaq has recently become the largest selling manufacturer of personal computers in the country. I mean, very rapid growth. Many people know the story of Compaq Computer on the hardware side, but they don't realize that this is a company that took a very aggressive and proactive approach to making their facilities very energy efficient. They worked very hard, they talked to their employees, I think that's a key part of this. Talk to your employees, find out what they like, the number one thing Compaq employees wanted was more day lighting. And one of the things that the book talks about is how companies like Compaq Computer and Lockheed and Walmart have found that the more you use day lighting, the more employees like the work environment. People are able to see better, they have in some cases higher quality work. More sales in some cases. Fewer defects in some cases. Less absenteeism.

CURWOOD: Now are the increased profits and productivity which you're claiming come from this dual lean and clean approach - is this something that companies can calculate ahead of time when they make their investment or construction decisions?

ROMM: I think they can but they have to take a different approach to what they're now doing. Typically, companies are only looking at the first cost. So you might design an office to minimize first cost - use the cheapest lighting - without looking at what the costs are going to be over a 10-year period where you're going to be using inefficient, cheap lighting that undermines your long-term operating costs. And also, frankly, undermines the productivity of your workers. If you take a full life cycle approach where you say how do we minimize overall costs, then you come up with a very different answer.

CURWOOD: Now, in your experience, what then motivates companies who hear your pitch to make the investments and changes that you propose?

ROMM: The companies that have done the best at energy efficiency and clean production are ones that have already begun down the path of total quality management, because they understand that changing the way they've done things can be beneficial. And that if they measure what they're doing, they can get on the road of continuous improvement. And I think the best companies no longer see pollution as an inevitable by-product of the way they do business. But rather pollution is simply a measure of their own inefficiency. Pollution is waste, and the best companies now measure it, track it, and try to reduce it over time.

CURWOOD: Joseph Romm is author of the book Lean and Clean from Kodasha Press. He wrote it while a scholar at the Rocky Mountain Institute. He's now a Senior Policy Analyst at the Energy Department in Washington. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

ROMM: Delighted to have been here.



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