By reviewing cardboard recycling metrics across its Ohio facilities and renegotiating its arrangements in aggregate, Whirlpool saved more than $1 million.

The brilliant Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh once observed: “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” His sentiment, expressed in a letter to his brother, was specific to artistic inspiration but it also has very real relevance for the way in which corporate strategy unfolds.

One vivid illustration draws from the experience of the giant appliance manufacturer Whirlpool. From a management perspective, its manufacturing sites enjoy a great deal of autonomy. And for the past two years, the company’s thoughtfully multidisciplinary sustainability team — representing expertise in environmental compliance, materials and regional context — has armed around 40 of them with a software dashboard from technology firm and energy management specialist Schneider Electric to keep tabs on energy usage, water consumption and waste metrics.

The idea originally was to provide the local teams with much more insight around where processes can be improved. But by stepping back and considering the data in aggregate, the team has found ways to scale its impact more quickly.

Within months of adopting the software at three plants in Ohio, for example, the team realized that all three shared a similar challenge — figuring out how to handle more than 20 million pounds of corrugated cardboard boxes used to package incoming components.

Sure, each site could have figured something out on its own. But by reconsidering the situation holistically, Whirlpool was able to negotiate new recycling arrangements that will save it at least $1 million over the next two years, according to Ron Voglewede, global sustainability director for Whirlpool. The trick was to stop thinking of the material as waste, he said, and look for business partners that would value the material differently.

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