Striving for lean and green manufacturing is one way to connect you to your customers.

The Dollars & Sense of Going Green summit for hardwood lumber and secondary wood products manufacturers that was held in Indianapolis Oct. 28 and 29 was organized and hosted by Purdue University and this magazine. I made the comment that this was one of the most relevant gatherings of the industry during the last ten years and my hat is off to the group that worked so hard to make this happen.

Before the meeting started, I met an interesting person in the breakfast line. The conversation I had with Pete was so typical and so predictable that I would like for you to see if this person could have just as well been you.

Why is Green Relevant?

After exchanging a few pleasantries, Pete asked me why I had come to the summit. I told him I was speaking in a few minutes, to share my take on the topic of green from the perspective of the secondary wood products producers around the world, as well as my own opinions on the subject. I added that it was a topic of interest to me and I was looking forward to hearing the many speakers from diverse segments of our industry. Naturally I was curious about Pete, so I turned the question around. “What about you, Pete? Why did you come to the summit?”

Without hesitation, he quipped back, “That’s a good question. I don’t really know — my boss told me to come and to take notes and we would talk when I returned. Frankly, I don’t understand how green applies to us anyway. I think it’s just about a bunch of tree huggers who don’t want anyone cutting down trees for any reason. They certainly don’t want us to make nice custom cabinets out of walnut or cherry. They are all a bunch of loonies if you ask me.”

I could see Pete turn a little red around the face and get a sheepish look on his face as he realized what he had just said, to someone getting ready to speak on the subject. It was as if he was waiting for me to jump on his case. He quickly shifted his position: “With the economy the way it is now, shouldn’t we be thinking about getting new business instead of spending time talking about green?”

As we sat down to breakfast, I seized the moment. “Pete, I could not agree with you more on what you just said. One of the most important things any company can do to survive during hard times is to find ways to retain customers as well as to increase business. It’s the smart ones that will succeed in this effort — those like you that are here today.”

Pete’s eyes got as big as the donut he was eating as he asked, “How’s that?”

“Well, those that are here are interested in learning more about the green issue and how it is going to affect them in the coming years. There is no mistake about it, the green movement is real and it is a worldwide trend. Consumers of today have grown up more educated and concerned about the environment than at any time in history. They are realizing that our natural resources must be better protected if their grandchildren are to enjoy life as we know it on this planet today. That’s why many leaders in the lumber industry are here — to learn more about sustainable harvesting of our forests and the many certification issues.”

Pete spoke up, “Yeah, but we are in the kitchen cabinet business — we don’t need to know all that stuff.” I explained how it did not matter what sector of the wood products industry you were in, all the green issues apply in one way or another. I further explained that more and more homeowners want cabinetry and furniture that are green. The desire for green products also goes much further. “Let me give you an example of what I am talking about, Pete.

“Wal*Mart is the world’s largest retailer and very successful. Like it or not, you have to agree that it is pretty smart to be in that position. It has recognized the consumer is growing more knowledgeable about green and has factored that in the marketing strategy for a new product line. It has introduced the Love, Earth Collection of gold and silver jewelry, stating that it is ‘fine jewelry created with materials from eco-responsible, community-friendly sources.’ In addition, it has publicly committed to phasing out illegal and unwanted wood sources from its supply chain and to increase its proportion of wood products originating from credibly certified sources for Wal*Mart stores and Sam’s Club locations in the U.S. Other companies in other markets — such as Lowes — have made similar commitments.”

Pete thought a minute and then replied, “I have seen more and more ads in magazines about green this and that. Maybe you have a point.”

Green = Quality

I told Pete that, in my talk, I was going to mention that I felt there has never been a word that better defined quality than the word “green.” “Pete, if you agree that the definition of quality is meeting the customers’ expectations, you have to accept that millwork, furniture, kitchen cabinets, toys and other wood products will have to become greener because that is the trend of the demands of our customers. In tough economic times like we are experiencing right now, consumers will be more demanding of suppliers to meet their requirements than ever before. All of us, as consumers, are less likely to spend money on something if it isn’t what we want. We will just wait until we find it.”

Pete’s face lit up, “I’m our sales manager. Maybe this is why Glen, the president of our company, sent me to this summit. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea that I come here after all.”

Green = Lean

I asked Pete if his company was into continuous improvement and lean manufacturing, and he responded that they were. I then reminded him that the goal of lean is to eliminate waste — all kinds of waste — and that becoming green has the same implication.

“Like I said before, one of the most important things any company can do to survive during hard times is to find ways to maintain or increase business? Well, another method is to cut costs and become more productive. In your efforts to become leaner you are trying to reduce materials waste, conserve energy, improve throughput to minimize manufacturing time, and are finding many other ways to eliminate waste. From your point of view as a manufacturer, this is good stewardship. Well, from the consumer’s point of view, this is being green. Have you ever thought of it that way?”

“No, I never have, but it makes sense,” Pete replied. “If lean is eliminating waste, and green is eliminating waste, then one could say that lean and green are the same.”

I could not have agreed more. Striving for lean and green is connecting you to your customers.

Why Go Green?

As we began to get ready for the first presentation, I encouraged Pete to listen carefully to the discussions, not only during the next two days, but in the months to come.

“The important point to remember is that there are competitors around the world that are at least giving lip service to the green movement. Green is here to stay, and those who wish to remain viable in the marketplace should take it seriously.”

I then reminded Pete that green branding has been around a long time — a good example is that of the hospitality industry. Through green branding in our rooms, hotels have made us feel guilty if we ask that our towels be washed or our linens be changed every day — and it has worked.

I like the definition of a brand that goes something like this: “A brand is a unique promise of value.” Green brands are powerful today and could become a unique promise of value for your wood products — if you want it to be.

Have you looked into this subject enough to decide if green makes dollars and sense for your company? My guess is that it does!

Tom Dossenbach is the president of Dossenbach Associates Inc., a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017 or e-mail Visit his Web site at Past Management Matters columns are archived online here.

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