FM Frequency: Lean Or Green?

By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the January 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Many organizations enter the New Year with a fresh set of goals and objectives. In 2007, countless facilities managers (FM) will be challenged to develop green, sustainable operations and intelligent buildings, where ENERGY STAR® and LEED® certification are considered the pinnacle of success.

Before we discuss the concepts of green and sustainable operations, I hope we can agree that buildings are not intelligent! The intelligent building fantasy is being marketed with the implication that expensive technology can be an end, rather than a means, to smooth operation. FMs and other savvy business people recognize technology is simply a tool in the hands of facility staff members. While combining state of the art technology with a capable department will be a recipe for greatness, a building full of bleeding edge technology is quickly rendered worthless with an incompetent or underfunded FM operation.

If this point is not self evident, perhaps this example would be helpful. Suppose the medical industry markets a brand new “intelligent scalpel” to hospital owners. In the hands of the hospital’s most senior accountant, an intelligent scalpel might be less useful than an ordinary scalpel. But in the hands of a brilliant surgeon, a new scalpel innovation might result in reduced procedure times, minimized scarring, or lower risk of infection. Now that we’ve debunked the intelligent building myth, let me lob a figurative grenade and make this startling proclamation: green and sustainability issues have become a fad. That’s right, you heard it here first! Green and sustainability conversations have eclipsed Six Sigma-and even the Atkins Diet-in boardrooms across America. You can’t pick up a magazine or newspaper without noticing.

Organizations are gladly paying consultants from 50¢ to $2 (or more) per square foot just for documentation related to certifications and plaques reflecting the company’s environmental commitment. But in too many cases, this is little more than a marketing ploy or a classic case of style over substance. Sometimes I wish we could call an industry wide time out and stop the sheep stampede.

Please don’t misunderstand; the record will show I’ve been writing FM Frequency columns for almost five years, and I’ve consistently advocated the need for energy conservation and the reduction of environmental impact of our facilities operations. But haven’t competent FMs and wise executives always recognized these as worthy business objectives with financial and competitive justification?

What troubles me most are the cumbersome processes and enormous expenses required to formalize good facility management practices. We’re wasting valuable and scarce resources (time and money) to certify common sense strategies we should have been implementing all along.

I mention Six Sigma and Atkins, because I think they’re excellent analogies for sound theory being misapplied and taken to extremes. I won’t offer any dietary advice, but I am glad the grain farmers in the Midwest didn’t go out of business as a result of the Atkins craze.

Six Sigma, a system that uses cause/effect statistical analysis to reduce the number of defective widgets coming off a production line, began in the manufacturing world and continues to be enormously helpful when defects can be measured easily. But when Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, began championing it as a management tool, business consultants and executives from all sectors latched on. Suddenly, boardrooms were buzzing as though Six Sigma were a magic bullet for improving stock performance, eliminating hangovers, and solving every other business riddle.

Organizations are still spending tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars training valuable employees to become certified as Six Sigma project leaders. With an engineering education and background, I certainly appreciate formal, methodical, value oriented approaches to problem solving. But I have seen many examples when the formality (and expense) of Six Sigma could have been more efficiently replaced by a small group of intelligent decision makers with a large pizza, a pitcher of beer, and a touch of common sense.

So, how should we respond to the boardroom fad known as green and sustainable? After this commentary, you might be surprised to learn I’m optimistic!

I think savvy FMs will leverage this attention and find opportunities to justify project funding and facility improvements. Rookie FMs will have options for distinct educational interaction through suppliers and peers. Veteran FMs can use certification checklists and comparable property data to audit, benchmark, and improve operations continually.

Although it might be a fad (and sometimes a marketing or PR maneuver), the focus on green offers a wonderful opportunity to celebrate accomplishments, share best practices, and define what it means to be operationally efficient and responsible. If we can actively participate while avoiding the expense and formality of consultants and certifications, I think we’ll find the right recipe for being green.while staying lean!

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.