Green or Many Colors?

Grant Tate, the bridge, ltd

Ask the average person on the street to define sustainability, they’ll probably say, “Oh, it’s that green stuff where they try to recycle or save energy.” Indeed, many people including leaders of our businesses, government, and other organizations think of sustainability as strictly relating to the environmental movement. But, Wikipedia defines sustainability as, “the capacity to endure.” Given that definition, what does it mean to organizations? What is a sustainable organization?

Years ago while I was working at IBM, a new general manager was appointed to our Endicott, NY manufacturing plant. H. W. “Bud” Thue was a first class intellectual who was brought in from Douglas Aircraft, which was a rare situation in IBM, a company that normally promoted from within. I remember many stories about Bud, but one of his words continues to stand out—perpetuity. Bud may have picked it up from Peter Drucker, but to most of us in the plant, it sounded like a foreign language. When Bud said, “We need to focus on perpetuity,” what the heck did he mean?

Today, Bud’s word might have been sustainability, the ability to endure ... pretty much the same idea as perpetuity. How do we plan and manage our organizations and management systems to operate efficiently and make the best uses of their resources ... raw materials, human effort, energy utilization, time utilization, facilities, transportation, and supply chain? In other words, a sustainable organization is an efficient system that serves its constituents, meets its goals, and adapts to its physical and economic environment.

Sustainability from this point of view is a systems issue. Piecemeal planning and execution does not produce efficient systems. A sustainable system should at least exhibit the following characteristics:

  • It adapts to its external environment and has the sensors to detect and anticipate changes in its environment.
  • It has a clear view of its customers and other constituents, understanding and serving their respective needs.
  • It has an adaptable internal structure that can adapt to its environment and innovate new approaches.
  • It has well-honed management methods to assure the system is operating according to its plans and specifications.
  • It has measurement systems that encourage positive behavior and assure the organization’s goals are met.
  • It has the leadership and culture that promote high performance.
  • It makes efficient use of all resources.
  • It has a committed leadership team throughout its internal organization and its supply chain.

Given these characteristics, how might an organization design a sustainability program? Or to put it in systems terms, what can the organization do to make its system more efficient and effective? To answer that question, management needs a well-defined analysis and planning method to evaluate their organization, define clear goals, and design an action plan. The result of such an approach can save critical resources and possibly even save the organization.