Maybe There Is No Such Thing As Sustainability
Maybe There Is No Such Thing As Sustainability
I just returned from a Canadian Summit on Sustainability, where I had the opportunity to explore the connections between Lean manufacturing methods, Total Quality Management (TQM) and sustainability.
All the speakers had to take the time and define what we meant by ‘sustainability’. The definitions ranged from the Bruntland Definition to an elegant and simply personal interpretation, “[All species] Live Well, Forever”.
Seen from the perspective of Lean and TQM, however, sustainability wouldn’t be defined as a new field of study at all, but a twist on what we already know. It might simply be about creating great, fully-considered products desired by our customers. Is sustainability just another take on quality?
The evolution of ‘quality’ bears some semblance to the journey of sustainability. Quality was not always as easily understood as it is today. Back in the 1980’s (big hair, Flock of Seagulls, Yuppies, and leggings) the Total Quality Movement was just gaining momentum. Companies found it hard to define, asked for ‘the business case’ when pursuing a Quality Management System and waited for customers to demand a certain level of conformance to specifications, like ISO 9000, or other standards to help mold the appropriate level of company response to this new business imperative. Deja Vu?
In 1987, David Gavin published a pivotal piece in Harvard Business Review informing readers that quality in fact did not have one definition, but it actually had 8: Performance, Features, Reliability, Conformance (to specifications), Durability, Serviceability, Aesthetics and finally (Customer) Perception. The first 7 actually build up to the final customer perception. You know quality when you see, smell, touch or experience it. The customer has final say in defining what is a quality product and what is not.
Is sustainability just an extension of quality?
There are sustainable products that easily meet all 8 dimensions of Gavin’s quality definition. LED light bulbs, using significant less energy while emitting lumens meet the extended performance definition, The ‘bells and whistles’ on a hybrid or EV provide a customer with new features. Improved reliability is a result of many energy saving technologies and software. LEED buildings, designed for longer periods of time demonstrate the value of durability.
Sustainable products can conform to, at last count, over 400 different types of third-party and customer specifications. But at the end of the day, sustainability comes down to the customer’s definition of ‘better’. Bite into an organic apple at the farmer’s market on a crisp fall day. Is a sustainable product just a better product?
To understand better, understand worse
When defining what a quality product is, sometimes it is more important to understand what a poor quality product is. It is often easier to understand what something isn’t. What did not work? What did not resonate with the customer? What missed in the marketplace? What are the missing functions or characteristics that contribute to poor quality? Poor quality is often called a defect or a failure mode. Once the failure modes are understood, writing the quality specifications becomes easier.
Poor quality comes at a cost. Striving to eliminate all the defects in the system is a foundation of TQM called Zero-Defects. Logically, waste – in all its forms – could be regarded as defects.
So can we understand sustainability by understanding un-sustainability? Excess waste, excess energy use, toxicity, human rights violations, deforestation, contamination – the list goes on. Once we understand the un-sustainability associated with our products, it then becomes much easier to write the sustainability specification. Just as with the goal of zero-defects, can we have a zero sustainability defect be our goal? Not just less-bad, but truly sustainable?
But, perhaps we are really students and subject matter experts in the field of Unsustainability. It doesn’t look very good on a business card (Chief Fixer-of-Un-Sustainability Officer?). Do we have ‘sustainable products’? Or, do we really have products that are less-unsustainable?
Which brings me back to the customer. Can a product that is un-sustainable be a quality product? If, as a shopper I care about the health of my family, access to clean water, effective use of our God given resources, responsible supply chains, etc., wouldn’t I indirectly or directly associate these characteristics with the quality of product and the quality of the company providing me that product?
Quality and Sustainability share a lot of characteristics. If we blend them into one field, it will be a strong discipline, and perhaps one we can wrap our heads around. If we do, we need to quickly become like the quality six-sigma black belts where we solve the pressing problems and rapidly move on to continuously improve the system. And in doing so, understand how to radically use less of our resources, improve the lives of all impacted by our products and dream of a future where all live well, forever.