Sustainability is the newest and hottest buzzword – and still people ask what it all means. It’s a big topic, but we can break it into manageable pieces. As a first step, it is enough to understand the three broad concepts of Environment, Economics, and Community, and how this bigger picture will fit into your strategic plans and tactical actions.
What does Sustainability Mean?
I am consistently hearing this simple question when I broach the subject. It is laden with subtext – are we talking about hot-button social issues or block-and-tackle business concerns? And there are so many social, environmental, and economic topics getting lumped in – how can we define something so broad with a single word?
I sense a certain amount of exasperation over this term from engineers and technical folks that have been around a few years. Nicely amped up over a beer, we will reminisce about the Roaring 90s, when we were designing systems and processes that lived within the four walls of our respective companies.
Back in the day, we designed systems and processes that were ‘sustainable and scalable.’
We took that to mean systems that were robust enough to keep going over some period of time, surviving the twists and turns of everyday operations.
Building a sustainable system typically starts with technology; what happens when the database changes? Use technical architectures that respect standards. This mindset also applies to non-technical system elements. What happens when demand increases – can the line be easily expanded? What happens when supply changes – can the product be easily adapted? What happens when the operator, the human being who understands how all of this fits together – what happens when they move on to other tasks? Invest in SOPs and training.
From this viewpoint, sustainability is a proactive practice, as we strive to keep the system running for years to come.
Wait a sec … that sounds like ‘resilience.’ Aren’t you designing Resilience into your systems and processes?
Well, yes, but Resilience is a different kind of attribute. Resilience is a reactive approach to risk management, where we want to make sure systems and processes will keep running today, tomorrow, next week, next month.
What happens when the operator enters the wrong information? Add data validation and a thoughtful user interface. What happens when a driver backs into the main unit with a forklift? Build protective stanchions at the corners. What happens when the lead operator calls in sick? Train backup operators.
Resilience is a reactive practice, to keep things running until the end of the day.
Ok … but What does Sustainability Mean … today?
All of this talk about systems and processes is fine, but the world has changed the definition of sustainability, overcomplicating and demeaning a word that was doing quite well for itself. How did we make the leap to Diversity, Poverty, Climate Change, Smart Cities, and Life in the Forest? Clearly, this has become the worst sort of buzzword.
Well, actually, no – we haven’t made that big of a leap. We are still talking about systems and processes, but we are expanding our planning horizon, as it were. These systems and processes are enterprise-wide – how an organization runs internal operations, connects with customers, develops and delivers products, and builds an amazing team to keep those capabilities and relationships moving forward.
COVID has taught us a lot about resiliency at the enterprise level. We have gone through many unanticipated changes in our world – changes that continue to impact companies up and down the value chain. Organizations have had to see, reach, and listen far outside their walls, to deal with changing supply, changing customer expectations, and changing economic pressures.
The first reaction came from our Resilience skills. In short time chunks, resilient organizations were able to adapt and innovate their way out of so many issues. Life is still not “back to normal” – we can quickly agree that “normal” has changed. The scope of risks has expanded outside of the organization’s four walls, just like the scope of the systems and processes we use to run our business has grown. Resilient organizations have been able to innovate and adapt again, so their business can keep running today, tomorrow, next week, next month.
Sustainability has seen the same expansion of scope. We aren’t talking about the basics – internal, operations-focused systems and processes. As other topics appear on the radar screen, we now draw a bigger circle. As we seek to maintain and increase the value that we are creating, we consider our place in the larger world.
- Environment – As we run our operation, how are we managing natural resources – our own use, plus the responsible use of resources by our suppliers and customers?
- Economics – As we expand our markets and locations, how can we operate more efficiently, connect to and with the cities and towns where we work, and drive innovation in our required infrastructure?
- Community – As we develop and grow the people we sell to (customers), the people we collaborate with (suppliers), and (most of all) the people that make up our internal teams. Can we invest time and attention to make their lives better – so that they can become true partners, and significant drivers of our success?
Armed with this simple framework, we can better understand the breadth of new ideas that we are asked to consider. Carbon credits and net-zero operations? Infrastructure and smart cities? Diversity, equity, and inclusion? By grouping the many aspects of sustainability, we can better understand them in the context of how they are extensions of our operations, customers, and products. We can better understand how they will help us create value that lasts.
Can we get back to our beer?
That is actually a wise idea. Companies will typically resonate with a subset of the broad range of concepts and goals that fall under the Sustainability banner. As a first step, it is enough to understand the three broad concepts of Environment, Economics, and Community, and how this bigger picture will fit into their strategic plans and tactical actions.
20 April, 2022
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