AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Implementing Sustainability (or anything else)

Copyright 2001 AXIS Performance Advisors

Implementing Sustainability
(or anything else, for that matter)

14 Lessons from past strategic initiatives

If you want to apply the conceptsin this article,
check out the Sustainability Series booklets at the end of this newsletter.

by Darcy Hitchcock

Courtesy sheelamohan, Freedigitalphotos.net

Courtesy sheelamohan, Freedigitalphotos.net

Well, here comes another one, another strategic initiative to somehow integrate with everything else you’ve done: total quality, reengineering,teams, e-business. The latest “growing edge” for organizations is the challenge to become sustainable…not just financially but also environmentally and socially. Right now, economic and population growth come at the expense of the environment. But if we redesign our organizational processes, we can uncouple financial success from environmental degradation, in other words, have our cake and eat it too. I’m not going to go into detail why sustainability is the source of the next competitive advantage–other newsletters have done that–but just to head off anyone thinking that this is just some wishful thinking on my part, look at the following quotes from presidents/CEO’s of major corporations.


Look Who’s Talking

ARCO: “We’ve embarked on the last days of the age of oil.”

BP: “There is now an effective consensus among the world’s scientists…that there is a discernible human influence on the climate….The time to consider the policy dimension of climate change is not when the link between greenhouse gases and climate change is conclusively proven but when the possibility cannot be discounted….We at BP have reached that point.” British Petroleum recently renamed themselves “BP” so they could be known as Beyond Petroleum.

Xerox: “There are good reasons to protect the Earth…It’s the safest and surest way to long-term profitability…The environment is a business issue of strategic importance and Xerox must take the lead.”

DuPont: “In my lifetime the world population has doubled. That’s why I believe sustainability must be taken seriously. We must do what we can to reduce that multiple while simultaneously raising standards for the world’s poor. If we do that right, our businesses will grow too.”

Unilever: “Businesses that fail to operate on that principle [sustainability] will increasingly not be tolerated by society.”

General Motors: “I think one point that tends to get missed is that we’re all inhabitants of the same planet. This biosphere that we live in is life sustaining. With it, we wouldn’t be here. So we all have the very same interest in ensuring the integrity of the environment.”


What strikes me about these comments is who is saying them. These are not people you would normally associate with “tree huggers.” And these are not just cute sound-bytes for the media. While none are without reproach, these corporations and many others are investing billions of dollars into research to develop more sustainable technologies. These CEO’s represent industries which are the some of the first to realize their environmental impacts represent the greatest threat to their ability to survive. They are “hitting the wall” first.

If you accept that we must all learn to become sustainable–sooner rather than later–then the next question is “How?” Since no organization is currently sustainable, we have no proven paths to follow. But we can learn a lot from previous initiatives. This article summarizes some of our findings from the quality and team revolution.

1) Renounce the silver bullet

Every time a new business concept shows up, the people who aren’t doing it yet always want some iron-clad assurance that this will solve all their problems, that implementing this new business buzzword will necessarily lead to financial success, and that this wil lbe the last, final initiative they’ll ever have to deal with. If any of the early adopters are experiencing difficulties, or worse, have a bad quarter or two, well, that’s justification enough to ignore the whole thing andgo back to business as usual.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but there are an infinite number of ways to screw up any new initiative. But the fact that it doesn’t instantly open the door to some business utopia is not an excuse to discount it. Imagine a baby learning to walk. Imagine her first attempt and her first plunk onto her bottom. What if the baby were to say to herself, “Look, this proves it; this walking stuff just isn’t worth the effort”? Organizations must evolve forward in their development too. But moving forward is no assurance of instant success. You move forward because, if you don’t, you’ll get left behind. You still have to think strategically about how and where to apply this new concept and how best to implement it in your own culture. Stop looking for the silver bullet and get to work!

2) If you don’t yet have top management commitment,start small and protect your incubator

It’s a fallacy to assume that all successful change efforts start at the top. Sometimes the top executives are too removed from the front-line realities and have too much invested in the status quo to appreciate the opportunities. In nature and in organizations, most things start small. You will eventually need to win top management support, but if you don’t have it now, you can still get started. Think of it as having a premature baby. We need an incubator, some safe place protected from the outside world, in a carefully controlled environment, for your “baby”to become viable.

What does an organizational incubator look like?It’s usually tucked in a corner of your organization where it won’t draw a lot of attention. You don’t trounce around the corporation handing out cigars, telling everyone of your project. Instead, you quietly, humbly,patiently support the development of the effort.

Please realize I am not saying you should LIE.You just don’t want to draw attention to the effort quite yet. Why? Because people in corporations can be like marauding lions: they kill the babies of other fathers. Don’t laugh; you’ve probably seen this happen: cool ideasthat got shut down or people who got shunned for working on a special project.The lion’s behavior is just another version of not-invented-here.

Pick a project that has both a high probability for success and a big “wow-factor.” When you have your coming-out party, you want people to notice! You especially want to attract the attention of the executives, so be sure there is a healthy return on the investment.

3) Build a clear business case (and a personal case)

If you want people to change, they need to know why. Not vague platitudes about improving customer service or protecting the environment. They want to know specifically how this new idea is going to help them personally and professionally. Why does your idea warrant anymore attention than the zillions of other management buzzwords?

Major changes in corporations usually emanate from either a problem or a passion. Are you threatened by new environmental regulations?Are your competitors in Europe building more environmentally-friendly products?Are you being faced with taking back your product at the end of its useful life? Are customers creating “black lists” of chemicals they will not allow in products they buy from you? These all represent business problems which may become a platform for sustainability. Less common is a passion on the part of the top executive; someone who gets in their heart how much we are destroying the environment and also gets in their head the incredible business opportunity this represents. But you will need to tap into the personal reasons for changing if you are to get much action. Fortunately,this is relatively easy to do with sustainability. Unlike the quality movement where people were “just” trying to improve something for the benefit of the customer and the company, sustainability has to do with leaving a decent world to our grandchildren. Many people can get behind that as a reason to do something differently.

One challenge we face with sustainability is it may look to some people like a “bleeding heart” issue, something that may be good for the world but not necessarily good for your business.So you may need to spend time selling the problem before you try to talk about a sustainability initiative as a solution. Consider the costs of NOT doing anything. What are the risks of your inaction? Show your executives other companies that are adopting sustainability as a strategic issue and talk about the large investments they are putting into research and development to show that they’re “putting their money where their mouth is.”How far behind do you want your company to get?

Once you’ve identified the drivers for change,then you must develop a clear and compelling example of how sustainability can help resolve them.

An example from self-directed teams: Years ago when a natural gas company looked at their process for hooking up new customers, they discovered that an order went through four departments and 15 different sets of hands, all handoffs adding time and opportunities for mistakes. So it was easy for people to visualize how combining people from the departments into self-managed teams could improve the situation.

You’ll need an example that is equally clear. Just spouting platitudes just raises employees’ BS-detectors. When you can drawa picture of at least one way sustainability will improve your efficiencies AND the environment, then you can go public with your intent to implement this as a strategy.

4) Get top management involvement (not just “support”)

While you don’t need to begin with top management support, you eventually need to get it. When you adopt a new paradigm or way of looking at your business, it tends to challenge your thinking about your business model, and unless the exec’s are on board, that “ain’t gonna happen.” Remember how the Swiss lost most of their market share in watches because they thought watches involved precise, moving parts instead of quartz? Remember how, in handful of years, General Motors lost most of their market share to Honda because they thought “Made in Japan”still meant junk? Sustainability is going to unseat the current leaders in the same way, unless they see it coming. But history shows that the new paradigms almost never come from the existing leaders of the old way, so if you work for one of the current leaders, your challenge will be even greater.

So let’s assume you have a fantastic demonstration project hatched from your incubator and a compelling business case. Your executives pat you on the head for a job well done and then go back to their offices unchanged. Now what? You have a couple options:

  • Build a bigger incubator–take on another project that will show even more significant results.
  • Wait for a better time–timing has a lot to do with whether an organization will take on a new challenge. Mergers, the expected departure of a leader, and the top of business cycles are generally not the time to expect any action. You may need to wait for a problem to occur (e.g., a customer refusing your product or a new, surprising regulation) for a teachable moment.
  • Develop the passion of a key leader–Or you can try to develop the passion of someone on the leadership team in the hope that they’ll eventually “get it.” There are a few methods for influencing executive thinking. Executives like to learn from other respected executives, so you may be able to arrange for a meeting or presentation with another business leader that sees the potential of sustainability. Lacking that, give them a book or article written by a respected business leader. Several executives have found their turning point was having to give a presentation on their environmental performance. So ask your targeted executive to come speak at one of your environmental events such as Earth Day or at the launching of your new environmental management system. Executives like to be well-informed, so having to do a presentation often spurs them to do some background reading. Books such as The Ecology of Commerce, Natural Capitalism, and The Last Days of Ancient Sunlight might be ones you put in his or her in-box with a note.

Once you have gotten the attention of management, the next step is to coach them on what you need them to do. Sometimes the top brass thinks all that is required from them is a go-ahead. But what they DO speaks louder than what they say. So in many cases, you may need to ask your CEO to do some of the following:

  • Talk about sustainability at every internal presentation; once you have some successes, talk about it at external functions as well (but don’t get so caught up in carrying the message outside the organization that your business falters).
  • Make some symbolic action that shows their commitment to the concept. Some executives implementing quality threw out an entire production run because one part was bad. A organization implementing empowerment tore down the executive lunch room; another removed executive parking spaces. Encourage the executive to do something that employees thought he/she would never do but that emphasizes his/her commitment to sustainability.
  • Ask their direct reports on a regular basis what they have done to move the corporation toward sustainability.
  • Visit green teams and talk to front line employees about how important their sustainability efforts are. Ask what barriers they are encountering and how management can help. Then follow up and take action.
  • Make sure sustainability doesn’t get lost amidst other corporate initiatives by limiting the number of priorities the organization will take on at any one time; (we think three is a good number).
  • Promote or otherwise reward people who complete successful sustainability projects.
  • Incorporate sustainability into the planning, measurement and performance review systems.

5) If you hire a Director of Sustainability, it should be a temporary position

When the quality movement began, it became popular to hire a VP of Quality. “Phew,” thought the executives, “Glad that’s taken care of.” Not! While it may be helpful to have someone lead this effort, to plan the strategy, coordinate the efforts, and educate employees and managers alike, you need to be careful that the position does not become an excuse for everyone else to forget about the effort. One of the most common ways to do this is to post the position as a temporary one,with the intent of phasing it out in three years or so. That approach often gets you the best of both worlds: someone on the executive team with clout and responsibility to lead the effort but a clear communication that this work will quickly need to be absorbed by others, integrated into the daily life of everyone.

6) Integrate sustainability with the other initiatives so it doesn’t look like program-of-the-month

Americans tend to be event-oriented, seeing the world as a series of unconnected programs. I remember the superintendent of a multinational chemical company huffing in exasperation, “Last week was statistical process control; this week it’s diversity training;next week, we’re doing teams. I thought we were doing total quality management!”While the plant manager had a clear understanding of how all these initiatives dovetailed and sequenced, his direct report obviously did not. And if he didn’t, you can only imagine what the 1000 people who reported to the superintendent thought!

You need to draw a picture. How does this relate to what we’ve done in the past? How does our past provide logical building blocks for this? What are the subsets of this initiative we may need t otake on to get it all done? Why do we need to do X before Y?

And whenever possible, integrate sustainability into your EXISTING initiatives rather than create what would look like yet another program.

In regards to sustainability, we have found at least five distinct implementation paths (see the picture below). After establishing a strategy, four of the paths involve embedding sustainability into practices or initiatives you may already have in place:

  • Fold it into your long-range, strategic planning as part of your “environmental scan”; this is a good place to be begin educating executives about the threats and opportunities.
  • Use your environmental management system, if you have one, to drive and manage improvements; a traditional EMS provides a structure for making improvements–it drives you toward “better” but not necessarily “enough” to be sustainable. So using a sustainability framework such as that offered by The Natural Step can help inform your decisions and build a sense of accountability; you can’t finesse the needs of nature.
  • Partner with vendors by adjusting your supply chain/ purchasing decisions. (Norm Thompson, the catalog retailer, for example, got started on their sustainability efforts by building a “green” office building. Then they wondered, what’s next?)
  • If you have a history of team efforts such as quality improvement teams, you can make sustainability one of their focus areas. (Neil Kelly Company, a remodeling company had prior experience with empowerment and teams which they considered to be an important stepping stone for them.)
  • If none of these approaches fit your situation, then you can implement sustainability as a separate initiative. Many organizations use The Natural Step framework for this purpose although other frameworks like zero waste or ecological footprint may be more useful in your situation. (Collins Pine, a timber company, for example, used The Natural Step framework as a way to change the traditional/autocratic culture of a plant they purchased.)

Over time, you will most likely travel down all the paths, but think about where you need to start or what you need to work on next. What do you already have in place in your organization that can provide a structure for moving forward? [We are developing a set of how-to booklets to help organizations go down each of these paths. See the information at the end of this newsletter for the booklets which are currently available.]

7) Select a framework and terminology that will resonate with your people

The words you use will make a difference as to how easily people accept and get excited about the idea. For example, during the total quality movement, many health care organizations found that when they talked to their staffs about improving quality, the employees thought bitterly, “What do you think we’ve been trying to do, kill people?”They were offended. Instead, “empowerment” became a more helpful banner. In a work place where errors occurred because doctors acted like arrogant gods, empowerment seemed like a potential solution, a means to improving quality. Compare this to the situation the American auto companies faced when the unreliability of their vehicles was a major source of uncompetitiveness.”Quality is Job 1″ made sense in that context.

You will need to think through this same issue with sustainability. While The Natural Step framework is probably the best known, it is not the only one. It works very well with lay people but scientists and engineers tend to be suspicious of its simplicity. And perhaps even talking about “sustainability” may seem too touchy-feely or unattainable for your industry right now; you might try focusing instead on “zero  waste” instead, especially in manufacturing. [For a listing of the most common sustainability-related frameworks, see our new booklet under Products, Sustainability Series, Developing an Implementation Strategy.]

8) Over time, make it everyone’s job

We learned with both total quality management and work teams that the real power lies in getting everyone’s brains engaged,not just a select cadre of people (i.e., management or engineers). So once you’ve successfully incubated a couple projects and gotten top management support, it’s time to move the implementation out more broadly, perhaps to your entire organization.

So let’s talk about what NOT to do:

“Spray and pray” training: When many organizations implemented total quality, they sent everyone in their organization through several days of training. In  one massive information dump, employees learned concepts, tools, and processes.In the training business, we call this “spray and pray” because you’re spraying people with information and hoping some of it will stick. Most doesn’t. Instead, provide just-in-time training, linked to specific work-related projects. Ideally, don’t call it training at all. Call a four-hour problem solving session and embed the training into that. The learning is not only more meaningful but yields results as well.

The 30-minute executive overview: Managers and executives tend to think that they only need a brief overview but that’s like giving airline passengers more training than the pilot. Remember that sustainability or any major new initiative involves rethinking your business, and so this process should not get short-changed.Managers and executives will need somewhat different information and processes than employees (more about strategic issues, management systems, implementation challenges), but they probably don’t need LESS time devoted to learning about and exploring the implications of sustainability on their business.

Over time, you need to slowly transfer responsibility for applying sustainability to everyone. In addition to providing training,you will need to show people how to embed this into their everyday work.Job aids can help: checklists, a step-by-step decision making process, a weighted criteria chart that includes sustainability as decision criteria,etc. If, when people return from training, they don’t immediately see the content reinforced by what the managers ask them, by what they are measured on, by the new projects they take on, then they will assume the trainingwas just a vacation from work and quickly go back to business as usual.

9) Manage the energy so you work on high-potential ideas

Of course, once you get everyone involved and excited,you’re going to get a lot of ideas, many of which won’t be viable or practical.Here are some of the most common mistakes and how to avoid them:

Teams run amok: When quality improvement teams became popular, organizations made the mistake of focusing on how many teams they had going instead of the importance of what they were working on. You need to manage the tension between freedom and control. On one hand, if you allow anyone to take any amount of time to pursue any idea, your business will suffer. On the other hand, if you control things too tightly, you’ll squelch enthusiasm and creativity. The best blend seems to involve a couple components. First, you need a steering group whose responsibility is to select and shepherd high priority projects.This may be your existing management team or some other, parallel structure clearly sanctioned by top management. Then you need a way for random ideas to get communicated to the steering committee, such as a suggestion system.Third, you should set aside a percentage of time any team can work on any idea they want, as long as they communicate with the steering group (to avoid duplication).

Volunteer teams:Another mistake organizations often make is to staff green teams with whomever wants to join. Unfortunately this often results in not having all the appropriate perspectives on the team and the same people always volunteering. Instead,we believe it’s important, at least for the high-priority projects, to design the team. Our pre-launch process involves thinking through exactly what the team is to do and why, who needs to be on the team (or at least what types of people), what their boundaries are, etc.

Rewards that demotivate:In an attempt to encourage people to participate, some organizations are tempted to put together a reward system. But rewards are a complex psychological phenomenon that can have unintended consequences, so they are very hard to do well. All too commonly we see an employee offended by the T-shirt they got for saving the company a million dollars; or other employees nursing jealousy because they helped the team but didn’t get to participate in the reward; or managers giving a reward to a team or individual that everyone else knows doesn’t deserve it; or employees offended that the organization thought it necessary to bribe them to do the right thing. So if you choose this path, do it carefully and involve employees in the design of the program.

10) Provide a flexible process for people to follow

Since people will be embarking on a journey they’ve never traveled before, it’s important to provide a guide/facilitator or at least a guide book. Your green teams will need a step-by-step process so that they don’t waste valuable time trying to figure out what they are supposed to do. One way of providing this support is to hire or train a facilitator whose job it is to lead the meetings and provide the structure.Do not assume that your environmental engineers will be well suited for this task; you may find better prepared people in your quality department.Look for people with good group process skills and knowledge of the quality tools. For those companies that can’t afford outside help, our Sustainability Series booklets provide simple, step-by-step meeting agendas that you can facilitate yourself.

The mistake the quality professionals made was to develop one rigid process and extrude everyone through it, regardless of its appropriateness. While some projects will require rigorous analysis, others are better handled with a quick-and-dirty approach. But all projects will need the following:

  • A clear statement of purpose, goals/criteria, deadlines and boundaries
  • A process to generate alternatives without “solution jumping” (the tendency to jump to a solution prematurely)
  • A process for comparing the potential solutions to the criteria
  • A period to test the solutions and evaluate their effectiveness
  • A system for measuring results
  • A requirement to share their learnings with others.

11) Capture and measure results

There are lots of good reasons for having a balanced set of measures:

  • Just displaying measures can modify behavior and generate better results
  • Measures provide real data upon which you can make better decisions
  • They give people a sense of satisfaction if they are getting better (or a sense of urgency if they are getting worse)
  • They justify your efforts when others question the validity of pursuing this initiative

We believe its important to capture both hard numbers and anecdotal evidence. Years ago, I designed a Team Performance Log for teams at Cadillac. It included a chart describing all the measures each team needed to gather and report,blank and sample charts for the numerical data, and forms to capture the anecdotal or qualitative data. Having such a system makes it more likelythat results and stories will be recorded. While numerical data are important,it is the stories people will remember.

A few pointers about measures:

  • Make sure you have a balanced set: time, cost, quality, environmental impacts.
  • Whenever possible let the employees/teams gather and report their own data.
  • Avoid attaching significant consequences to the measures (rewards, public embarrassment) if you want honest data.
  • Post your “score card” in a public place.
  • Make “up” always mean “better” on your graphs; so measure quality, not errors; efficiency, not waste.
  • Provide both normative and absolute numbers.

12) Disseminate learning

In general, organizations do a terrible job of disseminating learning. At the end of the project, people are usually so eager to move on that they don’t take time to reflect on what they have learned and even more rarely do they take the time to codify what they have learned, notifying others who may find it helpful. Here are some possible solutions:

  • Require all teams to do a Team Improvement Review at the end of their project or major milestones (if the project lasts over 6 months).
  • Report the results of this review to the Steering Committee so they can transmit the knowledge to others who may need it.
  • If possible, create a knowledge system or database to capture best practices (after they have been vetted by a group of experts).
  • Have project teams report their results and key learnings at your department/division meetings.
  • Host an Idea Exchange Conference annually, inviting people from across the organization to participate. Have poster sessions, round table discussions and formal presentations/workshops.

13) Align your business systems

Any major initiative is going to have a ripple effect through all your business systems: how you plan, what your goals are, how people are measured, how the organization is structured, what we purchase, how people are hired and promoted, how people are reviewed and rewarded, etc. In the total quality movement, this is where many efforts stalled. Organizations asked for teamwork but still did individual performance appraisals. They touted quality but rewarded throughput. They professed a belief in empowerment but never involved front line employees in the business planning process. If you don’t change your business systems, the organization is likely to revert to the old state, except there will be a heightened level of cynicism. When employees complain that management isn’t walking their talk, it often relates to the ossification of the business systems as much as individual behaviors.

So one of the tasks of the steering committee is to prioritize and examine the business systems, checking for alignment to the new focus on sustainability. Remember that even the most well-meaning people will have trouble seeing how they should change their own business systems so make sure that “naive outsiders” sit on every task force working on business systems.

14) Remember to fully indoctrinate new people (osmosis isn’t sufficient)

I know a number of team-based organizations that got great benefits from implementing work teams — initially. But after a few years of adding staff, suddenly the team concept was faltering. In all cases, this was because they did not do enough to indoctrinate new hires into the culture, even thought they had been careful to select people with good team skills and gave them a four-hour orientation when they arrived.The new people never learned how the expectations and responsibilities differed in this environment. Sure, they’d read the team charter and team agreements,but they didn’t really MEAN anything. So don’t underestimate the amount of time and effort that will need to go into bringing people into the fold.

While an orientation and training can be helpful,it will not be sufficient. Managers and tenured employees need to explain how the concepts manifest themselves in their everyday work. And the desired behaviors need to be reinforced in a host of ways. You will need an ongoing strategy to keep sustainability at the forefront of people’s minds. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

  • Continually make time in your regular staff meetings to share a new concept, acknowledge a recent environmental accomplishment, or learn about a new sustainability tool.
  • Pick a new initiative or focus area for each quarter or year (e.g., water, energy, etc.)
  • Measure and reduce travel and commuting (e.g., provide van pools and bus passes).
  • Have a contest to name the sustainability initiative.
  • When purchases are made, ensure that environmental impacts are one of the criteria.
  • When new projects are launched, discuss how it relates to sustainability.
  • Over time, reduce the number of available parking spaces.
  • Have a contest to design landscaping with native plants and minimal water and maintenance needs.
  • Install highly visible green building features such as on site waste water collection, solar panels, rainwater collection systems, etc.
  • Host a “Green Fair” for your customers and suppliers. (The City of Portland has done a green fair for several years which includes a wacky and popular green fashion show judged by, among others, Darcelle, a flamboyant local female impersonator.)

Sustainability Series booklets– $10 US each.

After 5 months of work, we’re releasing the first four booklets in our Sustainability Series, a set of how-to booklets around environmental and sustainability practices. Each booklet provides:

–some background reading

–a facilitator guide for doing the task

–quotes from people in organizations, sharing what they have learned and

–relevant resources.

Here are the first four booklets in the series:

Developing an Implementation Plan: How to Embed Sustainability into Your Existing Initiatives. This booklet helps you figure out how to dovetail sustainability with whatever else you have going on so it doesn’t look like yet another program-of-the-month (with all they eye-rolling that usually entails). It describes a process for selecting the most fruitful implementation strategy for your organization. Larry Chalfan of Zero Waste Alliance wrote the foreward, sharing his key learnings from OKI Semiconductor. Since you will need to select language and structure that will work best in your organization, the booklet includes a listing of sustainability frameworks along with their web sites.

Training Employees on Sustainability Based on The Natural Step Framework. This booklet shows you how to tailor training for your staff as well as explains what’s important to do before or after the training. The booklet is filled with learning activities and demonstrations you can use in your own training. Don’t reinvent the wheel with your own training. Start here.

Identifying your Environmental Impacts. This booklet provides a step-by-step process for identifying your environmental impacts. It includes a quick-and-dirty method and a more rigorous one. The Resources section has a long listing of web sites to help you select greener products.

Developing Eco-Metrics and Targets: Once you have identified your environmental impacts, you then should set specific measures. This booklet shows you how to do that. Wayne Rifer of Rifer Environmental has written the foreward, summarizing all he has learned about eco-metrics from his Portland State University class on Industrial Ecology and Environmental Metrics. The Resources section points you toward places to find example metrics for many industries as well as other reading.


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