Keeping it Simple: Seven Action Steps for Manufacturers and Suppliers to Climb Up the Sustainability Ladder

29 Jun

The authors new three-string Cigar Box Guitar (made with mostly recycled parts)

This past weekend I went and finally did it.  I closed the loop on my dream to play gritty, stripped down delta blues on a cigar box guitar (CBG) in tandem with my harmonica.  At first I went to the local Recycled Arts Fair thinking I’d buy a four string CBG.  But within a few minutes of speaking with local Vancouver, WA luthier Alan Matta  at Hammered Frets (www.hammeredfrets.com), he’d convinced me to start with a 3 string and then think about a 4 (or more) string later.  Why?  Well, it’s simple.  I don’t know how to play the darn thing!  Fewer strings also means easier chords (with many requiring just one or two fingers), and more harmonic simplicity to help a newer player (like me) keep from getting overwhelmed. Plus, fewer strings means less tension on the neck and risk of bowing.   (Sidebar: I do have a musical pedigree, having played brass instruments and harmonica since I was 12), and I get music theory, but playing stringed instruments…can an old dog learn a new trick?)

If you are a small to mid-sized manufacturer for instance, getting started with a company sustainability initiative, or in greening a supply chain is a lot like learning a musical instrument.  Quite often if companies try to bite off more than they can chew (three vs. four string chords), there’s too much stress (like a guitar neck) and greater risk of failure (bowing of the neck).  Simplicity often trumps complexity when getting started down the sustainability path.  This is particularly true if companies are starting from scratch, or lack deep financial or personnel resources.  So before companies start to feel overwhelmed, there are ways to “ease” into sustainability, without the stress.

Last year I wrote about how the “look” and “feel” of sustainability depends on the level of enlightenment that a company has, the desired “end state” and on the depth of its resources to execute the change.  Also, I spoke about the importance of adequate resources to make the leap and a systematic process to keep on track.  I advocated systematic planning before moving  ahead.  This involved:

  • Building a system to plan, implement, measure and check progress of the initiative.
  • Looking for the quick wins.
  • Building an innovation-based culture and reward positive outcomes.
  • Measuring, managing, reporting and building on the early wins.
  • Building the initiative in manageable chunks.

A Systems Framework to Get the Ball Rolling

Let’s accept for a moment that if you are reading this, you already understand that sustainability as a term means many things to many organizations.  An effective sustainability roadmap and the systematic framework to manage sustainability must consider four key focal areas: compliance, operations, product sustainability and supply chain sustainability.  Bearing in mind that “one size doesn’t fit all”  there still needs to be a systematic way to get to the “desired goal”.  A systematic framework like an ISO 14001-based Environmental Management System (EMS), offers a set of processes and tools for effective accomplishment of sustainability objectives.  But in the event that a company isn’t quite ready to make the leap into the ISO world, there are alternatives.

A Cycle of Continual Improvement

“Plan- Do-Check-Act” Creates Shared, Sustainable Value

One such alternative comes from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  The OECD has produced a “ Sustainable Manufacturing Toolkit”, that as they say “provides a practical starting point for businesses around the world to improve the efficiency of their production processes and products in a way to contribute to sustainable development and green growth.” The OECD addresses the four key sustainability focal points that I mentioned previously.  As an aside, a collaborator with SEEDS Global Alliance (Sustainable Manufacturing Consulting) had a hand in contributing to this valuable project by providing detailed feedback on the toolkit.

According to the newly launched site, it offers two parts: a step-by-step Start-up Guide and a Web Portal where technical guidance on measurement and relevant links are provided.  I tested out the site, and while parts appear to still be under construction, the information there is pretty intuitive and gives the novice some basic information that they can use to get started.  For manufacturers in particular, the guidance offers 7 action steps to sustainable manufacturing:

Prepare [Plan]

1. Map your impact and set priorities: Bring together an internal “sustainability team” to set objectives, review your environmental impact and decide on priorities.

2. Select useful performance indicators: Identify indicators that are important for your business and what data should be collected to help drive continuous improvement.

Measure [Do]

3. Measure the inputs used in production: Identify how materials and components used into your production processes influence environmental performance.

4. Assess operations of your facility: Consider the impact and efficiency of the operations in your facility (e.g. energy intensity, greenhouse gas generation, emissions/discharges to air and water [ and land]).

5. Evaluate your products: Identify factors such as energy consumption in use, recyclability and use of hazardous substances that help determine how sustainable your end product is. (I’d also add water consumption and wastewater outputs).  It’s here that the upstream supply chain becomes a very important consideration.

Improve [Check/Act]

6.Understand measured results: Read and interpret your indicators and understand trends in your performance.

7. Take action to improve performance: Choose opportunities to improve your performance and create action plans to implement them.

What more can a small to mid-sized manufacturing company ask for if they are seeking basic actionable steps for starting up the sustainability ladder.  Remember folks, it’s better to start in small, incremental steps, with a scalable internal (risk and process driven) and external (supply network enabling) plan that provides “sustainable value”.

Implementing a sustainability program is best done in stages, like learning that cigar box guitar.  No organization has the resources (or appetite) to tackle the “whole enchilada” at once.  That’s why I’m keeping it simple and sticking with the three-string…for now.

4 Responses to “Keeping it Simple: Seven Action Steps for Manufacturers and Suppliers to Climb Up the Sustainability Ladder”

  1. jkalpathy July 7, 2011 at 12:47 am #

    Hi Dave,

    I ran across your post which we cross-post in our BlogNotions Manufacturers Blog and enjoyed the part about cigar box guitars (sorry, I didn’t read the manufacturing part :))
    I’ll have to check out the CBG’s sometime – if you have a recording of yourself on one, I’d love to hear it.

    Best wishes,
    Jay Kalpathy
    CTO, NetLine Corporation
    (and amateur musician)

    • Dave Meyer July 7, 2011 at 5:13 am #

      Hi Jay and thanks for commenting. Trust me, you do NOT want to hear me just yet, but hopefully by the fall (of this year I hope!), I’ll have the hang of it. CBG’s have that primitive rural blues/folk sound I’m looking for that evokes a much simpler time…hence my title. Regards, Dave

  2. Robert Eastman July 8, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    Dave, Some terrific insights here. I have contributed some thoughts of my own in “Sustainability Strategies for the SMB / SME”, http://smbresearch.net/blog/sustainabilityforsmbs/, on the SMB Research Blog, adding this piece as a ‘Recommended Read’.

    Bob Eastman
    Managing Director
    SMB Research
    Boston, MA 02205

    reastman@smbresearch.net
    ph (781) 904-0408 x734

    http://www.smbresearch.net
    http://www.smbresearch.net/blog
    smbresearch (twitter)

  3. Logistics Guy September 20, 2011 at 4:55 am #

    This is the first time I see solid methodology towards greener manufacturing. OECD Sustainable Manufacturing Toolkit is a very good resource. Model worksheets are ready to use and really useful, thanks for sharing!

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