Overcoming the culture of waste – Deishin Lee

Deishin Lee, MIT Sloan Visiting Assistant Professor

One of the key messages in the Pope’s recent TED Talk was an entreaty to overcome the “culture of waste.” I wholeheartedly agree — this is a critical issue. The question is how do we even think about taking on such a large problem?

The “culture of waste” can be viewed through many different lenses: moral, philosophical, societal — just to name a few. But in addition to these broader notions of waste, there is simply the mundane notion of trash. Although mundane, trash is omnipresent, and perhaps understanding our mentality towards it can yield insights into broader cultural issues on waste.

Embarking on the study of waste (of the trash kind) several years ago, I was surprised to find that most waste is generated on purpose. Aside from the trash that we discard as individuals (municipal solid waste), there is trash (industrial waste) generated by supply chain processes that make the products we use. It turns out that the amount of industrial waste is orders of magnitude greater than municipal solid waste, which is already staggering. Moreover, the generation of this kind of waste is codified in the processes we use to produce our goods.

Pick any product and look at how it is produced. You will find that along with the desired product, whether it be an automobile or a hamburger, the process that produced it also produced other stuff, which we generally refer to as waste. An industrial example is production of pig iron, a key ingredient for making steel. In the process of making pig iron, a waste stream of oxides and silicates called slag is generated.

Why do we call the pig iron “product” and the slag “waste?” The distinction is driven by the intent of the process designer. The process was designed with the intent to produce iron, so iron is the product and all other output is waste. This mindset has enormous impact on our approach to process design, and the resulting waste of resources by those processes.

We value, and assign as “the product,” the item we intended to make. But it turns out that you can’t just make a product. There is always other stuff that comes out of the process. Even something as simple as making an apple pie in your own kitchen creates waste in the form of apple cores. A few apple cores are easily forgotten when that pie comes out of your oven, but scale that up to industrial manufacturing of pies and we end up with a massive amount of waste with apple cores, seeds, stems, etc.

However, the apple core is not inherently useless — it contains nutrients and juice that can be productively used elsewhere. Relegating it to the status of waste is simply a matter of perspective.

This output-oriented approach to process design implicitly codifies the generation of waste into our production processes. Stated another way, every output-oriented process is designed to produce waste.

So how can we overcome this “culture of waste” that is designed into virtually all our production processes? At the risk of sounding simplistic — instead of an output-oriented approach, we can shift to an input-oriented approach. Inputs are the resources we use to create value. Instead of working backwards from the output that we think we want, start with the resources we have and work forward to use them most effectively to create value.

An example of how vastly the results of these two approaches can differ is in the production of beef. An output-oriented approach would start with what we want to produce — beef — then construct a process using as few resources as possible to produce the output. The key step to producing beef is growing the cow so we would design the most “efficient” process to make cows gain weight quickly, like feedlots that constantly feeds cows. Cows are raised in confined lots and given ample access to specially designed feed that promotes muscle growth.

Confinement in the lot reduces the amount of land required and inhibits movement, which conserves energy that can then be used for weight gain. Measured on the cost of inputs required to produce a pound of beef, feedlots are incredibly efficient for producing beef. They also are efficient at producing waste in the form of tons and tons of manure.

Consider the different outcomes that result with an input-oriented approach. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm designed a process that also grows cows for the purpose of beef production. However, instead of starting with the desired output (beef), Salatin began by assessing the resources at his disposal — primarily the land on his farm. Salatin could have used his land in any number of different ways, including clearing the land to grow corn. However, he recognized that if tended carefully, his land contained an engine for sustainable value creation: the soil.

Cow manure is toxic by the ton, but when incorporated at a reasonable rate into soil, manure is a valuable fertilizer. Recognizing this age-old fact and through careful study of inter-species symbiosis, Salatin designed a process to fully utilize his most valuable resource: his land. Salatin’s process orchestrates the growth of cows, chickens, and grass, where animal manure is used to enrich the soil which supports grass and foliage growth that in turn feeds the animals.

The movement of animals over the pasture is carefully sequenced and timed according to optimum grass height. Custom equipment using state-of-the-art farming technology was designed to facilitate efficient livestock movement. These and many other sophisticated techniques ensure that another kind of “efficiency” is at work here that fully utilizes resources, and in the process, honors those resources for the value they create.

What is the result of Salatin’s process? Over time, his engine for value creation — the soil — becomes richer and supports more vegetation, which means his land can then support more livestock.

The output-oriented process approach of feedlots produces an intended product (beef) and waste (manure). The input-oriented process approach of Salatin recognizes and harnesses the multi-faceted characteristics of each resource to produce cows, chickens, eggs, and fertile soil. Very little is wasted because each resource is appreciated and utilized in its entirety.

It may be tempting to dismiss Polyface as an anomaly that is possible only in agriculture, but we also have examples of input-oriented thinking in industrial manufacturing. The pig iron example from above? It turns out that the slag “waste stream” can be used to make high-quality Portland cement. How did this discovery come about? Gordon Forward, CEO of Chaparral Steel, challenged his organization to shift its mindset from, “We make steel,” to “We have particular raw material and technology resources, what can we do with them?”

As these examples illustrate, an input-oriented mindset can be powerful in many types of organizations from manufacturing and agriculture to community and non-profit organizations. A good way to recognize an opportunity for input-oriented process design is to look for waste streams. Whether it is material, energy, or labor, when you see waste streams, that means valuable resources are being wasted.

At the heart of an input-oriented approach to process design is an appreciation of resources. The word “waste” can either be a noun or a verb. The difference between the two lies in the attribution of fault, and the distinction is critical to how we overcome the “culture of waste.” The noun “waste” attributes the fault to the item itself. The verb “to waste” attributes the fault to the party who neglects to appreciate the value of the item. By focusing on the latter, we can begin to tackle our “culture of waste.”

Deishin Lee is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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