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A Systems Perspective on Sustainability, Supply Chain Management- The Intelligent Choice

18 May

As we approach the mid-point in 2011, the tea leaves of the economic recovery have ‘sustainability’ in supply chain planning and management firming up as a key “rebuilding” block in company activities.  Two recent studies from two different continents bear that notion out.  First, consultancy BearingPoint Ireland has released a report which says two-thirds of companies surveyed in Europe believe that a green supply chain is a strategic priority. The report, entitled Green Supply Chain: from awareness to action, is the fourth of a series of “supply chain monitors” from the private consultancy.  The study was conducted among about 600 European decision-makers by Novamétrie between 2010 and 2011, with a position within Supply Chain, Sustainable Development or Industrial Divisions.   Key industries captured includes: consumer goods, transportation, construction, automotive, industrial goods, retail, energy and utilities, chemicals, IT/electronics and pharmaceuticals, among others.

The goal of the report, according to the authors was to summarize “the evolution over the past two years in terms of mindset, maturity and actions efficiency [and] explores the green Supply Chain practices in Europe, in order to identify the significant improvements in the most representative industries. The results clearly underline a growing interest of executive managements in developing products with a low environmental impact. What was seen as a constraint is now considered as an opportunity.”

Executive Management Mandates, Reputational Risk Management Are Key Drivers

A notable “inflexion” occurred between this survey round and prior surveys.  For instance, in 2008, findings suggested that supply chain ‘greening’ was primarily being driven by important environmental and regulatory developments (such as REACH, WEE, RoHS or the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme).  Now, with compliance programs associated with these initiatives firmly entrenched or in initial development, the drivers appear to be shifting toward meeting internal executive management commitments and addressing reputation management and/or consumer demands.  In other words, according to the report, “Environmental actions presently address new constraints and motives, which are more mature and integrated to companies’ decision processes.” Key findings from BearingPoint’s report include:

  • 70% of surveyed companies declare that green Supply Chain is a true economical lever.
  • For 47% of the companies, the return on investment of a green Supply Chain is reached within 3 years.
  • More than half of European companies now use environmental criteria to assess their Supply Chain performance: share of recycled packaging material, CO2 emissions.
  • Two-thirds of companies adopted or plan to adopt a green policy for their purchases.
  • Manufacturers must be able to measure and reduce their carbon footprint if they are to succeed on export markets
  • Over half of the respondents in the survey said they did not renew contracts with suppliers who did not respect their green charter.
  • Buyers are preferably choosing suppliers with certified processes such as ISO 14001.

According to Bearing Points recent press release, Irish Exporters Association chief executive, John Whelan, said: “There is no question that Irish businesses which produce transparently environmentally positive products, delivered by carbon neutral logistics services will succeed on international markets.”

Sustainability Drivers Both Inside and Out the ‘Four Walls’

In yet another study, Prime Advantage, a buying consortium for midsized manufacturers, unveiled its seventh (2011) Prime Advantage Group Outlook (GO) Survey.  This survey queried small and midsized North American manufacturers, and found that more than 80 percent of North American companies surveyed indicated that they developing more sustainable or energy-efficient products largely driven by customer requirements and compliance regulations.  According to the study, “the biggest driving factors behind these changes are customer requirements (80 percent), followed by compliance regulations (53 percent) and shareholder directives (12 percent). In addition, 57 percent of respondents have also started buying more sustainable indirect products for internal consumption.”

A Systems Perspective Breeds Competitive Intelligence

The Bearing Point study made a statement that caught my eye and for which I wholeheartedly agree.  Identifying with a systems-based mindset that recognizes the intrinsic and realized value sustainability-focused business management is a critical fulcrum for green supply chain practices. I noted in a post last fall that The Fifth Discipline and The Necessary Revolution author Peter Senge argued (in the October Harvard Business Review) that to make progress on environmental issues, organizations must understand that they’re part of a larger system. Senge also makes a great point that companies will be in a better competitive position if they understand the larger system that they operate within and to work with people you haven’t worked with before.

I’ve cited companies like Hewlett-Packard and Danisco as supply chain innovators in their product sectors.  These companies, among other innovators like Intel, P&G, IBM, GE and others, who’ve viewed supply chain in a systematic or holistic manner, organizations successfully have been applying that “big-picture thinking” needed to be truly innovative. Doing so can create leverage points that companies never realized they had before with their suppliers.

Clearly, the environmental (and often the social) footprint of a product extends beyond the four walls of the company who “brands” the product.  This footprint extends upstream and downstream, and must capture, control or influence inputs and outputs all along the way.  Some of the largest footprints (like energy and carbon) lie upstream or in the final hands of the consumers.  This is why leading companies are rethinking the global extents of their supply chains, exploring local sourcing options and implementing other operational efficiencies.

The results of the recent surveys indicate that companies in a wide number of sectors are waking up to the fact that sustainability is more than business innovation- it’s business intelligence.

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Survey: Leading Organizations ‘Embrace’ Sustainability, Create “Cultures of Innovation”

17 Feb

follow_the_leader.jpgOn the heels of my most recent post (Surveys Lift the Lid on Innovation & Sustainable Supply Chain Management, Uncovering Value & Leadership Traits http://bit.ly/h941Jb) comes another survey by the MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group.  Like the Aberdeen and Capgemini studies, Sustainability: The ‘Embracers’ Seize Advantage uncovered two distinct camps of companies: “embracers” — those who place sustainability high on their agenda — and “cautious adopters,” who have yet to focus on more than energy cost savings, material efficiency, and risk mitigation.

According to the MIT/BCG study , the survey indicated that many companies view sustainability as eventually becoming “core,”; however the more advanced “embracers” were already acting on the belief that the sustainability ‘business case” was already a functional, core element of its organizational risk management and efficiency strategy. Embracers were also seeing the “payoff of sustainability-driven management largely in intangible advantages, process improvements, the ability to innovate and, critically, and in the opportunity to grow.”  Plus, and this is no surprise, embracers were found to be the highest performing businesses queried in the study.

Key MIT/BCG Findings

Several interesting findings emerged that synced up well with the Aberdeen and Capgemini studies, from an innovation and leader/laggard perspective:

  1. Embracer companies are implementing sustainability-driven strategies widely in their organizations and have largely succeeded in making robust business cases for their investments.
  2. All companies — both embracers and cautious adopters — see the benefits of strategies such as improved resource efficiency and waste management.
  3. Embracer companies are assigning value to intangible factors (employee engagement, stakeholder concerns) when forming strategies and making decisions.
  4. Embracers are more aggressive in their sustainability spending, but the cautious adopters are catching up and increasing their commitments at a faster rate than the embracers.
  5. The sustainability-driven management approaches of embracer companies — which claim to be gaining competitive advantage via sustainability — exhibit seven shared traits that together suggest how sustainability may alter management practice for all successful companies in the future.

From a supply chain perspective the study found that embracers appear to be able to make a more compelling business case for sustainability, developing and integrating sustainability strategies in “everything from procurement and supply chain management to marketing and brand building.”

The MIT/BCG study discovered seven practices or characteristics that “embracers share. They are:

1. Move early — even if information is incomplete. Embracers tend to be bold and see the importance of being a “first mover” from a competitive perspective. What the study found most compelling was that embracers generally accepted that they need to act before they necessarily have all the answers.

Embracers are not paralyzed by ambiguity, and instead see action as a way to generate data, uncover new options and develop evidence iteratively that makes decision-making increasingly effective. Movement diminishes uncertainty”.

2. Balance broad, long-term vision with projects offering concrete, near-term “wins.” Leading companies find a way to balance corporate visions with concrete, action oriented projects that will produce short-term successes.

“Smart embracers balance those aims with narrowly defined projects in, say, supply chain management, which allow them to produce early, positive bottom-line results. They exhibit relentless practicality”.

3. Drive sustainability top-down and bottom-up. Embracers find ways to engage its organization vertically and horizontally early and creating champions that can collectively ensure the 360-degree perspective that’s vital to sustainability.

4. Aggressively de-silo sustainability — integrating it throughout company operations. Embracers openly encourage cross-functional problem identification and problem solving and seek ways for more open innovation, group-think and collaborative action.

5. Measure everything (and if ways of measuring something don’t exist, start inventing them). I am not certain that I would measure EVERYTHING, but rather look for key performance metrics that matter to the core vision of sustainability that organizations seek to satisfy.  Measure what matters, don’t just measure just for measurements sake.

6. Value intangible benefits seriously. Embracers are clearly distinguished from cautious adopters in their readiness to value intangibles as meaningful competitive benefits of a sustainability strategy. However, embracers accept that it takes time to develop their ability to measure — or even to understand fully — intangible advantages, and they need to make their investment decisions on the basis of a combination of tangible benefits, intangibles and risk management scenarios.

7. Try to be authentic and transparent — internally and externally. Finally, companies leading the charge on sustainability are fundamentally realistic. They do not overstate motives or set unrealistic expectations, and they communicate their challenges as well as their successes.

The Evolution of a Sustainability Mindset- From Laggard to Innovator

The results of all three studies compare well with Peter Senges and Bob Willards remarks in several of their books, mirroring the development phases in organizations toward a sustainability culture, governance and business strategy. Willards model shows how as companies progress toward being sustainable enterprises, they can be roughly nested into a five-stage sustainability continuum. They evolve from an unsustainable model of business in Stages 1, 2 and 3, to a sustainable business framework in Stages 4 or 5. Willard explains that “executive mindsets also evolve from thinking of “green,” “environmental,” and “sustainable” initiatives as expensive and bureaucratic threats in the early stages, to recognizing them as catalysts for strategic growth in the later stages.”

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Source: Bob Willard- Fives Stages of Sustainability

As leading organizations implement more efficient, creative, less resource intensive and wasteful practices, they quickly can realize direct and indirect financial and brand benefits. Truly innovative, agile and resilient companies with a leaning toward change management tend to ‘embrace’ this new paradigm as part of organizational ‘core values’ as successes rack up…it’s like a snowball effect.   The more that is achieved in the name of sustainability, the greater and larger the positive benefit.  Sustainability can become positively addicting!  At the same time, the chasm between the leaders and followers tends to widen, and the followers have to spend much more time, energy and resources to play catch up…if they catch up at all.

With the MIT/BCG and other two studies,  one common thread that is clear to me (and hopefully you) is that organizational dynamics have a lot to do with how well companies adapt to change, especially when it involves issues surrounding the three legs of sustainability.  The MIT study hit the nail on the head when it stated that “Where companies struggle when it comes to making sustainability an integral part of the business is often not so much with the technical side of things but with the human dimension of managing it.” In fact it was Peter Senge (in The Fifth Discipline), who states that a learning organization is one in which “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

image_carrousel.jpgSeeing business from a  “whole systems”  perspective is truly what characterizes innovative, leading organizations from the competition.  Embracing organizations typically are more agile, adaptive, and (ultimately) more productive.  As businesses seek stronger competitive positions and reach outside their four walls to integrate innovations across supply chains, one critical, intangible element will still remain- the “human dynamic”.

Upcoming posts  will dive into management and organizational culture, its effects on driving the sustainability business case, and approaches to drive “cultures of innovation” and leadership beyong “the four wall” and throughout the value chain.

Redwood Forests Provide a Clue to Business Sustainability and a Greener Supply Chain

26 Oct

Thoreau did it.  So did Carter and Brezhnev, and Reagan and Gorbachev too.  They all took a walk in the woods, like I did on a recent weekend…to explore and resolve internal and external issues.  My hike took place in the coastal redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains on the central California Coast.  A hike through these beautiful groves of ancient redwoods is truly an awe-inspiring, reflective experience. Redwood forests are complex ecosystems. From the tallest trees in the world to the tiniest animal, the whole forest is a working system in a very delicate balance. Everything has a role to play in this forest.

Coastal Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are also known for their resistance to fire.  They are protected by a very thick bark that lacks the highly flammable resin of other tree species. These resilient trees in some cases, can live for more than 2,000 years, making them one of the oldest tree species in the world. Also, unlike most trees, redwoods lack a taproot. Instead, they have a shallow root system that can extend up to 100 hundred feet outward, forming a network of connected root systems with other trees. But despite the connected roots, high winds and/or flooding can bring these massive trees to the ground.

Now substitute the word “forest” with “supply chain”, “tallest tree” with “largest company” and tiniest animal with “smallest supplier”, and you hopefully get where I am going with this post.

I mentioned in prior posts that to make progress on environmental issues in organizations and in supply chain management, organizations must understand that they’re part of a larger system. Fifth Discipline and The Necessary Revolution author Peter Senge makes valid claims that organizations are in a better competitive position if they understand the larger system that they operate within and to work with people you haven’t worked with before.  Like a forest, where all parts depend on the other, if the balance is upset, there can be chaos and poor ecosystem health.  A supply chain is in effect a business ecosystem.  And a supply chain functions the same way as a redwood, in that it has interconnected roots rather than one strong taproot, but can be blown down by external forces that it may not be able to control.

The Concept of Business Ecosystems

Author James Moore developed and popularized the strategic concept of business ecosystems in his 1996 book The Death of Competition: Leadership and Strategy in the Age of Business Ecosystems. According to Moore, a generic business ecosystem is defined as the economic and social environment that consists of organizations, individuals, regulatory structures and controls, government organizations, customers, competitors, suppliers, and the many entities with which a business interacts. The principal purpose of the business ecosystem is to align its members towards a shared vision that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Business ecosystem value is created by the combination of participants and their contributions – and their role within the ecosystem to enable the achievement of a combined vision or goal.

Many organizations have sought ways to deliver greater product and customer value through innovative supply chain solutions. The common link is that customers’ receive value from a whole solution, which takes into account all value chain contributions.  Think HP, Microsoft, Cisco, IBM.  Traditional high tech companies.  But this thinking extends to consumer product and apparel manufacturers (Herman Miller, Procter and Gamble, Unilever, Nike, Keen, Patagonia) and major retailers like Walmart, Starbucks, Kohls.  The list grows weekly.  Each of these organizations have created business ecosystems through redefining the nature of the value for the client.  They have further created new competitive environments, with new rules and practices that account for sustainability and that challenge their industry norms through green supply chain innovation.

While my recent post called out many large companies for being procrastinators and laggards, I continue to applaud the industry leaders who’ve seen how each tree (supplier) contributes to a stronger and healthier forest (supply chain).

So go take a walk in the woods.  Breathe the air, take in the silence…and think of ways that you can help your company refocus its sustainability efforts and supply chain health for future generations to enjoy.

Sustainability, Peter Senge, and the Necessary (Supply Chain) Revolution.

29 Sep

I just finished reading an interview with Peter Senge in the October Harvard Business Review.  Senge, for those of you that are unfamiliar, founded the Society for Organizational Learning, is a faculty member at MIT Sloan School of Management, and the author the The Fifth Discipline and The Necessary Revolution.  Senge maintains that to make progress on environmental issues, organizations must understand that they’re part of a larger system. Senge also makes a great point that companies will be in a better competitive position if they understand the larger system that they operate within and to work with people you haven’t worked with before. And while these two skills might seem distinct, in practice they’re interwoven. This is generally because systems are often too complicated for one person to grasp, crossing over many boundaries, both internal and external.  It’s these external boundaries that supply chain management issues begin to become apparent.

According to Senge, and as I mentioned last month in an earlier post about Starbucks, supply chains support whole systems thinking because they focus on the “nature of the relationships”. In the HBR article, Senge maintains that in most supply chains, 90% of them are still transactional.   Manufacturer or retailers still pressure upstream suppliers to get their costs down and little incentive is given toward innovating together.  This in turn erodes trust, however, as I have mentioned in this space, changes are everywhere.  Some companies like Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Walmart are also partnering with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and working in an open source manner with industry associations to innovate.   Successful ventures like Walmart/Environmental Defense Fund, Unilever/Oxfam and Coca-Cola/World Wildlife Fund are taking a collaborative approach to problem solving that drives innovation, breeds trust and industry “cred” and offer NGO’s a wider voice in addressing social, environmental performance issues in the supply chain.

But success in levering supply chains to impact environmental performance ultimate resides with corporate leaders.  Senge maintains to successfully engage thousands and thousands of people around the world from multiple organizations, you’ll need technical innovations, management innovations, process innovations, and cultural innovations.  And to effectively achieve these innovations take bold, often heretical leadership.  Organizations need to often take a step back from the details and “see the forest for the trees” (and hopefully not just see more trees!)

Research and practice in supply chain management is beginning to prove once and for all that supply chain as a “practice” offer unique learning opportunities related to triple bottom line based sustainability.  Learning experiences can range from relatively simple, incremental modifications to a current knowledge set – for example, new environmental regulations like REACH and RoHS – through to complex new approaches which will involve experimentation, small scale piloting and larger scale adaptation (such as those designed to help transporters manage their carbon emissions).

How does your company use “whole systems” thinking to manage supply chain issues? In coming weeks I will begin exploring supply chain learning and management through a sustainability lens, and share some findings from various manufacturing sectors.  It’s my hope that readers can then begin to understand how to apply whole systems approaches across enterprises in the supply chain.  It’s my grand plan that these ideas will gel into practical steps that add value and become a core operating principle in your company.