The pressure is on for organisations of all kinds to become truly sustainable. There’s quite a debate about what ‘sustainability’ actually is. But we can broadly agree that it means doing whatever we do in a way that that can continue indefinitely – keeping protection of current and future generations, our economic progress and the environment in harmony – with the hope that as part of that we will heal the damage we are doing to our climate and our habitats.
It’s a similar situation in some ways to the one that faced the Japanese car industry in the 1950s. Rebuilding their economy after the devastation of war, the Japanese recognised they needed to become successful exporters, and they would not be able to break into the American market (the biggest in the world) by just copying the way Detroit did things. They realised that the best way to compete was through quality – understanding what customers really wanted and setting up their design and production to provide it. And what many American car owners wanted was simple, reliable cars that were cheap to run.
They achieved that through what became Total Quality Management, an obsessive attention to every aspect of creating and making cars that focussed on eliminating costly waste (from bad design or manufacturing faults), getting rid of quality inspectors (so everyone managed the quality of their own part of the process) and constantly striving for perfection. We all know how well it worked.
I think we can apply the same principle to sustainability, using TQM as a model. The phrase Total Sustainability Management has been around for a while, but it is generally lost in jargon-riddled academic articles. What then should be the main aspects of TSM for the real world? Well for a start we need a catchy three letter abbreviation, so tick in the box there.
Sustainability must be seen a priority for the whole organisation. Like quality, sustainability has to be at the heart of everything it does. There must be explicit sustainability goals – driven in part by what customers or service users expect, but also by the ethos of the organisation.
Operations must be set up and run so that sustainability is central to the way they function and what they produce.
When it comes to projects, that means adding sustainability targets to the familiar time, cost and quality ones. At every step of planning, sustainability must be at the front of people’s minds. Measuring project progress should include metrics for sustainability, so that any variation from expected sustainability performance can be addressed. The output from the project must be sustainable in itself, and help to deliver a sustainable outcome (future state) for the customer of the project. Sustainable project creates sustainable output that helps deliver sustainable outcome.
The way work is organised and done can reflect the same principles as TQM, summarised in the picture. TSM means everyone is involved and is focussed on making what they do sustainable. That includes understanding what the customer expects in terms of sustainability and responding to it. There is a cycle of continuous improvement to make the operation (or the project) and what it produces more and more sustainable.
Done properly, over time this will yield a higher level of sustainability delivered at a lower cost. That requires investment at the start in systems, facilities and training, but ultimately (to mimic the words of quality guru Philip B. Crosby) ‘sustainability is free’. In the end it becomes cheaper to be sustainable than not to be. And who doesn’t want that?
For more about sustainability, have a look at Lecture 15 of the PM101 course at Zavanak.com.
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