Meet the club experimenting with IT and sustainability
NOTES FROM THE GEMBA – This month, the author meets a group of business leaders consistently breaking new ground in their exploration of the relationship between IT and sustainability by using a kaizen-like approach.
Words: Catherine Chabiron, lean coach and member of Institut Lean France
People come in one at a time. Even though many of them are drenched by the rain, they all smile and crack jokes. As the French Green IT Club convenes around a table with juice and biscuits, Fred Bordage uses the few minutes left before the start of the meeting to give me the background.
Five years ago, the idea cropped up of creating a community of practice focused on green IT and bringing together CIOs, Corporate Social Responsibility managers, and green IT managers of large French private and public oganizations (from the postal service to energy companies, finance to universities). People in this subscription-based group meet regularly, exchange on best practices, learn from each other, develop expertise and share results and findings,. Their aim is to develop awareness on green IT or sustainable digital development. Fred, a leading expert on green IT in France who helps organizations to reduce their IT environmental footprint, runs the Club.
You might wonder what this has to do with lean management. In September 2017, our Lean Institute here in France organization a Lean and Green Day. As ever, we were dumbfounded by the considerable lead Toyota takes on the subject (read Kelly Singer’s interview with Steve Hope here), but we were also struck by the many commonalities between lean and green that Fred talked about. That’s why I decided to pay the Green IT Club a visit.
As the meeting unfolded, it became clear to me that the path the Club follows mirrored that of a typical kaizen approach in six steps, as described by Isao Kato and Art Smalley in Toyota Kaizen Methods.
Here they are:
STEP 1 - Discover improvement potential
As the discussion gets more and more engaging, I pitch in and share with the group some of the basic questions a lean company needs to answer: what value do we offer society? How are we satisfying customers better than the competition? Are we developing the skills of users and co-workers? Are we doing so with long-term profitability in mind? And are we reducing our environmental impact?
It was obvious these questions really resonate with members of the Club. They normally refer to the Triple Bottom Line, or the P3s (Planet, People, Profit), an expression coined for sustainable development by John Elkington in 1994. This concept is used to gauge the impact of each of their discoveries: does this action positively impact users (people)? Does it reduce greenhouse gas emissions (planet)? Can it offer additional bottom-line savings (profit)?
“Do you know that an average employee consumes 3,460 kWh of primary energy (equal to 80 25W low-consumption bulbs lit for 8 hours a day for 220 days), 5,000 liters of water (the equivalent of four six-packs of one-liter mineral water bottle each working day) and 360 kilograms of greenhouse gases (the same as driving 2,400 kilometers in a car) each year?” they ask me at one point.
I hadn’t the slightest idea that my digital usage represents five cubic meters of water consumption per year. And what about greenhouse gases?! I thought cars produced CO2, not the Internet. But, as Fred explains, laptops, computers and surfing on the web also need energy and raw materials and, as it turns out, they are not eco-friendly.
STEP 2 - Analyze the current method
“We have run very thorough life-cycle analyses on each major piece of digital equipment we use, from the initial build to the daily usage, not to mention transportation and the management of the end-of-life,” Fred says.
And this value stream mapping-like analysis has enabled the Green IT club to confirm that:
- Digital greenhouse gas, for example, tends to come from building user equipment and IoT (57%).
- Energy consumption mostly derives from the 24h – 365 days usage of the network and data centers (75% of the consumption happens in “use” mode).
- Water consumption can be traced back to three activities: build, electricity production and cooling of data centers or IT rooms.
“Note that this strong correlation between energy and water is specific to France, because as a country we use a lot of nuclear power, which itself uses twice as much waster as any other source of electricity. Things may be different in other countries,” Fred explains. “The distribution between build and use stages of the life cycle is also specific to Club members, whose average IT device lifespan is much longer than in a standard company.”
This in-depth life-cycle analysis makes the Green IT Club’s approach far more credible than that of others attempting similar measurements. It is through detailed gemba observation that the Club progressively gathered all the relevant data.
As lean practitioners and thinkers, the Green IT Club wants to understand where they stand, make their digital footprint problems visible, and check whether they are making progress. In addition to tracking their own KPIs, Club members also benchmark against each other every two years. In 2017, the benchmarking exercise was completed by eight major private or public companies, representing 530,000 end-users, 1.7 million telecom and IT devices, and 38,000 m2 of IT rooms. Not what you would call a small party of IT geeks hoping to save the planet while sitting in a bar.
The data collected by participants (users, flows, data centers and IT rooms inventory), and through a self assessment on a set of 65 best practices, is then translated into a digital footprint per user. The columns show each of the participating companies, and the rows the digital footprint per user in terms of primary energy (kWh), greenhouse gas (kg of CO2 equivalent), fresh/blue water (in liters), Waste of Electrical & Electronic Equipment (WEEE or DEEE in French) in kg, and paper consumption in kilograms.
Why do they benchmark periodically? To challenge themselves, to identify who is strong on what and to trade tips. And, of course, to launch kaizens.
STEP 3 - Generate original ideas
What the data and underlying model demonstrate is the need to extend the life duration of electronic devices, equipment sharing and re-use, and enable modular architecture of digital products (rings a bell? We do the same in lean when developing flexible lines). And to control energy consumption (for example water consumption through printing), during the “use” phase.
Led by Fred and challenged by the findings of the benchmarks, the Club members are eager to do something for the Planet and People around them while showing an ROI to their Boards and wider business. By putting their heads together and sharing their gemba experiences and experiments, they have progressively built a set of best practices, with a standard approach (the example below addresses the idea of purchasing refurbished, rather than brand new IT equipment):
We are still far from the one-second kaizen that can be seen at Toyota – and we cannot talk of work standards as the best practices offer guidance but not a detailed modus operandi – but we do see a clear (and probably unique in Europe) attempt to systematically address root causes of IT-related gas emission and energy consumption.
STEP 4 - Define an implementation plan
Each best practice is assigned a priority tag and an implementation difficulty tag, thus helping each Club member to define an implementation plan. Additionally, the benchmarking tool is designed as a simulator that allows members to evaluate the impact of each action on either the global information system or a user.
Each organization in the Club is, therefore, able to build its own action plan based on:
- Specific and most important KPIs – some organizations focus only on GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions in the use stage, while others have defined a complete set of KPIs related to the entire life cycle of their IT system. Some CIOs decide to align their green IT strategy to the corporate strategy, while others design a separate approach.
- The potential reduction that can be achieved for each KPI – each member company can compare her level with the latest benchmark average, minimum and maximum.
- The cost of implementing each action.
“You have to be opportunistic and decide to launch actions that have a low leverage to reduce environmental impact but a good impact in terms of communication,” Fred explains.
Around 50% of the members are investing in training to build an internal community of practice and weave a network of green champions. This long-term and rather expensive goal can really help build momentum.
Feedback from more experienced Green IT Club members (based on technical expertise and not blured by personal ambition or politics) is also key. The power of communities of practice!
STEP 5 - Implement the plan
Two benchmarks have already taken place, with the next one happening this year. Many ideas generated by the Green IT Club have already been implemented in the companies, including:
- Increase the equipment life duration (reallocate existing equipment before buying any new – some of the Club members reached an impressive 60% average re-use rate). By the way, did you know that you need 114 more memory on version 8 (2013) of Microsoft Office than on the 1995-1998 version? (An example of how equipment life can be increased when skipping software releases.)
- Manage the end of life (check what happens to your electrical and electronic wastes, after it’s sold or disposed of);
- Adjust workstations to the actual need, eliminating or re-allocating central units but keeping accessories with longer life duration such as screens, hosting stations or cabling;
- Teach users eco-responsible printing (black and white, double sided). The number of pages users across the network of Club members print per day decreased from 23 to 17 in one year on average.
- Virtualize under-utilized physical servers in order to only promote necessary use. One of the Club members’ electricity consumption is 56% lower than the benchmarked average, thanks to less cooling, natural water cooling (using river water to cool servers instead of producing cold artificially), and server virtualization in its major data center.
Another idea that really struck me, both for its simplicity and its ROI, was Pole Emploi’s. This Employment Agency has around 54,000 workstations in France, and public interactive terminals. At night or during weekends, workstations and terminals are not switched off. Jean Christophe, Green IT manager at Pole Emploi, is adamant: “If 40% of our users switched off their computers and laptops at night and during weekends, we could save €1.5 million in electricity per year.” Thanks to a user awareness campaign, the switch off rate has increased from 18% to reach 85% in the best cases.
In another instance, Fred helped IT developers at SoLocal Group (offering Yellow Pages, among other services) come up eco-design practices. Yellow Pages achieved the following savings: HTTP requests decreased by 43% and the weight of the pages by one third, and greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 15% (equivalent to 6 million kilometers in a car) and water consumption by 21 % (two million 6-liter packs of water).
By the way, if you want to check whether your website is eco-designed, Fred and the Collectif Conception Numérique Responsable members have designed and made available 2 open source tools, EcoIndex and Ecometer. Try them!
STEP 6 - Evaluate the new method
The results of the improvements will show in the upcoming benchmark. Green IT Club members will continue to check their progress against each other and to refine their underlying digital footprint model. As they search for new ideas and experiment with them, they develop unique competences and expertise. They also plan, with their partner World Wildlife Fund (WWF), to open the benchmark to other companies, in order to raise awareness on digital footprint and expand the opportunities to learn.
And by the way, some ideas may turn out to be counter-productive once tested. I have doubts, for instance, about the idea of reducing travel for IT employees: I think too many developers remain stuck at their desk, when – like all product or service designers in the world – they would benefit from regular gemba walks and checks with customers, who too often wrestle with the software they designed.
I really hope I have convinced you, with the help of the Green IT Club, that lean and green have a long common path ahead of them, to foster sustainable development, protect non-renewable resources (including human resources), while developing skills and mastery to deal with ever-growing complexity.
Speaking of sustainability and IT, did you know that video streaming represents 60% of all Internet traffic? Imagine how much we could save if, instead of watching TV series, we read a book or play boardgames with our families more often? Actually, great idea… let’s turn off our computers and go out to enjoy the world around us. We can go back to lean and green to protect it tomorrow.