Real-time information can shrink your waste

It’s true that many businesses and organizations could save a lot of money by reducing the amount of “stuff” they have to buy, stock or throw away.

But it’s also true – as the saying goes – that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. And when it comes to operating as efficiently as possible, there’s a lot we don’t measure.

IBM logoDoes your company, for example, know exactly how much out-of-date or unusable materials are sitting in its supply rooms and inventories? Do you still have boxes and boxes of blank computer disks, last-generation employee manuals, obsolete sales brochures, expired coffee creamer and unsold old products lurking in the dark corners and storage closets of your office?

All of those materials had to be paid for at one point, and now they’re gathering dust or headed for the scrap heap. Either way, that’s needless waste and money down the drain.

And what about inefficient processes? Customer service suffers when planning is poor, decision-making is slow and companies lack insight into what’s needed where and when. And when customer service suffers, so too does your bottom line.

In other words, wasteful habits and business practices are expensive. What’s more, they’re often more expensive than you realize. But by measuring and managing the right data at the right time, you can reduce that expense considerably.


  1. Take a closer look at areas of potential waste you might not have tracked before, and start collecting data on them. There are a growing number of tools – online and off – to help you do this. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for instance, has a free program called WasteWise with a web-based data management system for monitoring waste generation and reducing waste. Using this system, the furniture company Krueger International was able to cut its need for disposable shipping materials in favor of reusable supplies.
  2. Go for the biggest wins first. When Continental Airlines (since merged with United Airlines to become the world’s largest airline) began reinventing itself in the late 1990s, it launched a program called First to Favorite with the goal of becoming the most-favored airline for its passengers … especially high-value ones. By implementing a flight management dashboard with real-time tracking capabilities for metrics like arrival times, connecting flight departure times and distances between arrival and departure gates, it was able to identify which high-value customers would need ground transport and baggage help to make their connections. The $30 million investment ended up improving Continental’s bottom line by more than $500 million.
  3. Where possible, watch your performance in real time. Monitoring the right kinds of data in real time increasingly makes it possible to reduce waste and save money on the fly rather than days, weeks or months later. One of the biggest benefits of big data in the public sector, for example, comes from being able to adjust traffic lights in real time when travel patterns, accidents, weather problems and other factors threaten to snarl streets and highways, a recent TechAmerica survey of federal and state government IT decision-makers found. Real-time data-enabled management could help save the government 10 percent or more every year, the study concluded.
  4. Use big-data insights for fine-tuning and even more savings. By implementing an IBM system for data management and mining, the San Francisco-based firm Recology was able to better understand how different neighborhoods had different waste collection and recycling needs. That enabled the company to target its services more effectively and improve its performance city-wide. Between 2000 and 2011, that helped San Francisco to cut the amount of trash going to landfills by nearly half. It was also able to increase glass and metal recycling rates, reducing the need for 19 million gallons of oil and saving enough energy to power its cable car system for almost three years.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.


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