Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Women making a difference in lean and sustainability

Women making a difference in lean and sustainability

Rose Heathcote
March 8, 2024

FEATURE – This article applauds the tenacity of women leaders and seeks to illustrate how they motivate others to take on the sustainability challenge through lean practices.

Words: Rose Heathcote

As I skim the sustainability report of a multinational corporation, their commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equality catches my eye. Looking good, I thought. However, despite a promising start, a few pages in, I discover that leadership roles are dominated by a singular nationality, ethnicity, and all-male ensemble. The report shows intent but is light on follow-through. Curious, I ask the company about it. Their casual response, accompanied by a shrug, is that tradition outweighs transition. I wonder how their setup affects business performance. It turns out, innovation rates are not as fast as they should be, and sales are declining. Minorities face barriers to top-level opportunities and the company is depriving themselves of valuable insights. In contrast, their competitors gain momentum as they embrace the advantages that differences bring. No doubt, representation in top leadership promotes new perspectives on which problems to choose and how to approach them – a capability crucial now more than ever.


In the construction and printing sectors, two influential women leaders demonstrate a new mindset for transformation. Seamlessly integrating lean and sustainability principles, their companies thrive, distinguishing themselves from traditional peers.



Janina Bluma, a natural educator, transitioned from secondary school English teacher and principal to pioneering figure in the international printing space. Serving as Chairperson until 2016 and later as Deputy Managing Director, Janina advocated for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and environmental management at Livonia. As she nears retirement, Janina's impact is embedded through the daily practices that continue to drive the business forward, responsibly.

Decoupling growth and impact

Juggling company expansion while containing and reducing environmental footprint poses a major sustainability challenge for any organization. Livonia is a leading book producer serving over 600 customers across 22 countries and like others, needs to manage the environmental impact that comes with profound growth.

“…CSR ensures that the company’s economic growth is sustainable and beneficial to all its stakeholders while minimizing impact on the environment.”

With revenue soaring from €1.5m in 2007 to €95m in 2022, Livonia underwent a remarkable 25-fold expansion in production floorspace and bolstered its workforce to nearly 600 employees. Throughout this impressive growth trajectory, the company remained steadfast in prioritizing environmental sustainability. They are on track to achieve remarkable strides in their sustainability goals by 2025, a feat Janina argues can only be accomplished through lean practices and the collective efforts of their workforce. Their focus on addressing quality issues, minimizing transport waste, and improving materials circularity and productivity has significantly contributed to their progress. These initiatives play a crucial role in the pursuit of decoupling growth from environmental impact.

Figure 1: Achieving impact goals through people ingenuity

A blend of principles

Livonia embraces three intertwined principles – lean, quality, and sustainability – to redefine what constitutes a sustainable book. Lean improvements laid the groundwork for sustainability initiatives. By consolidating two production facilities in 2021, Livonia streamlined for continuous production and improved flow. They learned from mistakes, viewing them not as failures, but as valuable teaching moments – positioning Livonia to tackle challenges with empowered capability. Despite past failed attempts, their internal lean influencer, Daiga, persisted, marking the beginning of a successful integration into daily operations, creating a harmonious blend of principles.

Livonia crafts books that not only delight customers but that also embrace circularity, prolonging their lifespan. Lean principles play a pivotal role in traditional waste reduction, and Livonia staunchly views waste as an adversary to sustainability. As illustrated in Figure 1, teams and leaders diligently target various forms of waste, including materials overruns, underruns, waiting time, errors, inadequate training, inappropriate technology, mismatches between demand and production, and energy waste from idle machines. Their blended approach reduces avoidable waste and increases projects related to preserving the planet.

A value chain view

In 2017, Livonia published their first sustainability report, setting a baseline for improvement. This exercise identified hotspots, areas within their control and those beyond their control. Through collaborative efforts along the value chain, stakeholders like publishers, designers, and production collectively addressed challenges and instigated system changes. Regular meetings proved fruitful, fostering the exchange of ideas and benefiting all involved. Anticipated participation from paper mills in 2024 will expand the collaboration to share stories of carbon dioxide reduction and engage in further cross-company problem-solving. Companies are the company they keep, and Livonia recognizes their responsibility for suppliers' performance. They have enhanced procurement practices, supplier audits, and performance improvement, resulting in significant emissions reductions across all scopes. Suppliers also visit them and walk the gemba, so they may learn and improve together.

Value for the customer

Livonia collaborates closely with customers and provides them with factual data. They also educate customers on a wider menu of options, including environmentally friendly choices with potential cost benefits. This has helped to significantly reduce the company's Scope 3 emissions.

“What is good for the environment is not always clear.”

Janina acknowledges economic considerations might hinder immediate sustainable decisions, given that some options incur higher costs. Livonia consistently works to shift customer perception, emphasizing the advantages of lower-impact options. For example, one customer required stone paper, produced in Malaysia. This comes with higher cost and carbon dioxide emission. The name of the paper sounded ecological, but there was no need for the specification nor the waste it generated. Livonia provide carbon emission contributions for each paper type, allowing the freedom to choose based on facts, steering customers toward a more sustainable choice.

Education, education, education

Janina notes the challenge people face in grasping sustainability. To bridge this gap, Livonia conducts workshops for publishers and customers, educating them on minimizing costs and emissions. Through practical demonstrations, participants compare two books with distinct materials and production methods, enabling a visual understanding of the lifecycle differences and prompting questions on whether desired features are truly necessary.

The sustainability price tag

The challenge of the price tag remains a central concern in sustainable transformation, making the lean aspect of the trifecta crucial. Kaizen has been cited many times as a driver for innovation and responsible cost reduction, even in difficult times.

“Something has to balance [the cost] – and that is our internal efficiency.”

Engaging everyone's creativity daily, Livonia gradually improved cost structures through projects targeting water and energy reduction, better material yields and efficient production, to name a few.

People are the key

Janina acknowledges the initial struggle to instill belief in these concepts but notes a positive shift a year after the internal lean influencer's introduction. While top management supports sustainability, department manager engagement has been challenging. The most responsive groups have been shift masters and teams, benefitting directly from improvements, growing voluntary participation. The ongoing challenge lies in engaging department heads, but recent achievements, tied to bonus incentives, show promising progress, benefiting both individuals and teams as they are empowered to achieve their goals. What is good for the company and the planet, is also good for them.

Janina’s advice to those on the journey

"The right thing, the right moment with the right people."

  • After identifying the right approach (lean, quality sustainability), selecting the right individuals – be it the lean influencer, department head, or workers – is crucial.
  • Empower people with knowledge and information.
  • Present facts that not only benefit customers but also aid informed decision-making.
  • Foster system change by bringing together relevant parties across the value chain.



Nora Freimane, a passionate traveler and lifelong learner, enjoyed a diverse career across the value chain. From business analyst and finance director to roles in customer service and information technology, she developed cross-functional problem-solving skills. Nora began her journey in lean while working for Latvia's largest telecommunications company and at the same time supporting a family-owned property development business, constructing homes for a niche market. Leaving corporate employment, Nora embraced her entrepreneurial spirit, advising companies and actively participating in the construction business.

Design for sustainability

Lean Thinking is the cornerstone of Nora and her brother Maris' sustainable approach to construction. Their focus on creating beautiful, durable, and efficiently built apartments aligns with personal values of responsibility and quality. Design, deemed crucial with 75% of costs locked in during the design phase, emphasizes sustainability through intelligent material choices. Opting for durable, eco-friendly materials like natural windows and flooring showcases a commitment to sustainability.

Leveraging technology, they also use 3D modelling in design. This innovative approach enables clients to visualize and modify designs without incurring extra costs, rework, or material wastage. Lead-time is shorter and the result is far better.

“It is cheaper to change the 3D model than the house!”

Nora and Maris prioritize planet-first decisions over profit-first. They ensure their homes are visually appealing, fit for purpose, and crafted with sustainability in mind. They constantly test their designs by asking if they would be happy to live in the home themselves. Everything they do is rooted in the ethos of being good neighbors – something nature excels at and others can learn from.

Nora and Maris building homes they can be proud of

Sustainable operations

Their sustainable practices extend to other areas, too. For instance, minimizing pollution in truck transport through efficient loading. Or minimizing material waste through rightsizing, which reduces avoidable off-cuts – something many construction companies overlook. Recycling construction waste also presents challenges. They recycle the packaging and repurpose excess wood materials for heating, which is especially useful when temperatures reach as low as minus 28°C in the factory!

The secret is planning

Nora explains that achieving sustainable performance goes hand in hand with meticulous planning. Sufficient time for planning ensures only necessary items are procured, in the right sizes, reducing avoidable waste. Nora believes that incorporating waste allowances in planning inadvertently grants permission for wasteful, unsustainable practices. Sharper planning means unnecessary processes and materials can be trimmed. Construction companies that allow for waste face added complexities, including storage challenges and the need to “go shopping” for leftover materials. In the confusion, this can even trigger additional procurement that is not actually needed.

Nora’s advice to those on the journey

In conclusion, Nora offers the following valuable counsel to those starting out in their sustainability journey:

  • Look wider and think more long-term.
  • Educate yourself.
  • Planning and design are crucial to reducing waste, cost and environmental impact.
  • Put more time and effort into the early stages, to greatly reduce effects of products and operations on the planet.


The current condition is that only 28% of C-suite roles are occupied by women, with 6% being women of color. Moreover, fewer women in managerial positions lead to fewer promotions for women. Despite improvements from decades ago, the numbers still fall short. Research shows that women hold strong pro-climate views, and nations with greater gender equality have 12% lower carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, countries with more women in leadership roles are more likely to support international environmental treaties and exhibit more effective responses to pandemics. Women also excel in essential interpersonal skills, including inspiration, motivation, communication, and collaboration, supporting the need for increased representation. As the proportion of women decision-makers increases, so global challenges benefit from their perspectives. Women bring unique viewpoints to problem identification and resolution. This is well worth taking advantage of.


This article specifically highlights women making a difference in commemoration of International Women’s Day, but it's the perspectives harnessed from all genders and groups that enable the wonders of diverse thinking and action. It’s encouraging to hear Nora and Janina’s success stories, but they acknowledge they do not act alone. Perhaps their influence, from the top, is a major success factor. Throughout history, women have made significant contributions to sustainability, such as Eunice Foote's discovery of the greenhouse gas effect and Elinor Ostrom's work empowering communities and local governments to address the climate crisis. More recently, young activists such as Greta Thunberg have taken on governments for their inaction. Women shape history and are instrumental in shaping the future. However, no woman is an island, and they are likely most successful as part of an inclusive, equal, and diverse team.


Creating a problem-solving culture is where Lean Thinking truly blossoms. To tackle the sustainability challenge, we need everyone, every day, solving problems that matter. Everyone includes diverse cultures, backgrounds, identities, and perspectives. When we embrace this idea, we stand a greater chance of addressing both known and unknown problems, together, handing future generations fewer challenges to contend with.

The figure above summarizes some of the elements key toleading the way for sustainable transition, not dissimilar from any significanttransition. Janina and Nora touch on these themes throughout the article

Rose Heathcote is a speaker, lecturer, writer and adviser focusing on the symbiotic relationship that lean and sustainability thinking share. For the past three decades, she has coached companies of all sizes from different industries and continents.

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