Julie Keith walks by several large containers that hold junk — carbon fiber composite scrap that was rejected during the start-up manufacturing process at Crane Composites. When she looks into the bins, however, she sees more than debris.

She sees opportunity.

Last year, about 240,000 square feet of product produced by Crane Composites was lost due to start-up scrap and inefficiencies at the Channahon, Ill.-based company. That amounted to 84,000 pounds — 42 tons of a problem — headed for the landfill.

Like many other industry manufacturers aiming to become more “green,” Crane Composites faces a weighty challenge: How can it reduce waste and recycle it more effectively, engage employees to embrace eco-friendly objectives, and communicate the value of the firm’s green products and processes to clients and prospects?

Unlike some industry peers, Keith and her team have a plan. In 2008, they began tracking data needed to estimate how much money Crane Composites could save by becoming more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.

Crane Composites decided that scrap recycling wasn't enough for their business plan. It needed a roadmpa that would affect every par of their business.

Crane Composites decided that scrap recycling wasn’t enough for their business plan. It needed a roadmpa that would affect every par of their business.

“We decided that to really make an impact on the environment as well as on our company, we needed to take green into account in every decision we made — it wouldn’t be enough to recycle more effectively or get rid of manufacturing scrap,” says Keith, the company’s vice president of customer care. “We needed a roadmap that would affect every part of the business.”

To that end, the firm launched an ongoing, companywide training program called kaizen (pronounced “kai-zen” — Japanese for “improvement”). By improving standardized activities and processes, kaizen aims to eliminate waste through lean manufacturing. It also aims to humanize the workplace, nixing overly hard work and automating repetitive tasks that lead to unproductive time. Unlike Six Sigma or ISO quality training, which generally take a long time to complete, kaizen “events” are typically weeklong and address a particular issue.

“We move in small steps, aiming to fix one topic at a time,” Keith said. “It proved to us the value of progressing methodically instead of trying to solve all environmental footprint issues at once.”

For example, consider what Keith calls the “start-up reject scrap” problem. A team at Crane Composites organized an “impact/difficulty” matrix to determine what specific scrap problems it should tackle, and then spent a week analyzing ways to optimize scheduling and remove steps from the start-up process on a specific machine. That single kaizen event yielded a 25 percent improvement in efficiency, and will reduce the firm’s landfill waste by at least 10 tons this year, Keith says.