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“Continual Improvement” Using Sustainability Metrics Takes Planning, Accountability & Resources

23 Jun

"Jump Start" by Jenny P (CC License)

Note:  This post marks the 75th since I started writing in early 2009.  When I launched ValueStreaming, I did so with the intent of providing timely, relevant, quality content over quantity.  The feedback that I’ve consistently received  is that this blog gives readers detailed, value-added content and thought leadership in the sustainability, supply chain and environmental policy space.   I humbly thank you all for your readership and support…you are the sustaining “wind in my sails”.  Paz, Dave

“On your mark, get set”…BANG.  As a competitive swimmer in my youth, I learned the rhythm of a good start off the blocks, kept my head down and paced myself through to the finish line.  I never won the “big” race, but always went for my personal best.  It’s that way with sustainability initiatives. Having a good baseline and pushing the limits to improve to the next level

Back in the late 1990’s I was working with one of my many semi-conductor clients on their ISO 14001 Environmental Management System.  A hallmark of ISO 14001 is “continual improvement”, focused primarily on going beyond compliance to reducing the overall environmental impacts and footprints of operations.  This particular company had identified hazardous waste generation as a “significant aspect” of its operations and developed some programs and targets intended to reduce generation.

One of the facility engineers was very excited one day when I showed up at the facility, proudly telling me that the company had managed to reduce waste generation by 25% over the past several months since he’d started tracking metrics.  “That’s great!” I said. “How’d you do it?”  He responded, “Well I ‘m not sure exactly”.  So I prodded.  “How has production at the plant been the last quarter?” “Well, it’s down…um, about 25%”, he answered in a muted tone.  See a problem here?  The company didn’t “normalize” the data (pounds of waste generated per number of units produced, for instance).  So in effect, there was no “continual improvement.  Oh well, back to the drawing boards!

Setting the Sustainability Mark…and Missing It

So it was interesting to read a summary of Green Research’s latest report, “Setting and Managing Sustainability Goals: Trends and Best Practices for Sustainability Executives.  I had the pleasure of meeting Green Research’s founder, David Schatsky, at the recent Sustainable Brands ’11 Conference in Monterey,  California.  In this latest report, David seems to have touched on some issues which get to the core of a value-added sustainability initiative…that being, demonstrating “continual improvement”.

As  this week’s by Mr. Schatsky article in Environmental Leader notes, while a flood of public and private companies (across many sectors) are “increasingly using public goals to signal their commitment to sustainability and their superiority to rivals…many are unprepared to meet those targets”.  The report suggests that sustainability planning, implementation, and performance measurement are still in an early maturation phase compared to financial and other operational goals.  Some of the key findings were:

  • A quarter of the 32 sustainability executives surveyed in Europe and North America for the study say their companies have set “aspirational” sustainability goals and lack a clear plan to achieve them.
  • Over 40 percent said progress on sustainability goals is reported to senior management only semi-annually or annually.
  • 57 percent of respondents characterized at least some of their sustainability goals as “stretch goals” – that is, challenging but probably achievable – and 54 percent said at least some of their goals are “realistic”.

 “Despite the best of intentions, even some excellent companies are challenged to execute on the sustainability goals they announce,” said David Schatsky, principal at Green Research

As I noted back in August 2010 in a post on Environmental Leader, there are two old axioms:

1)      “You are what you measure”, and

2)      “What gets measured gets managed.”

As Green Research’s study revealed, without an effective strategy to establish an internal benchmark for continual improvement, it becomes harder to innovate, advance and proactively respond to stakeholder expectations. Finally, good metrics if applied properly will foster innovation and growth.  Therefore, it’s vital that there be a systematic process in place that maintains focus on continual improvement.  Continual improvement is the primary driver for monitoring and measuring performance. If metrics don’t add value, they will not support continual improvement and eventually will not be used.  It’s a vicious cycle that can be avoided if the proper system is firmly implanted in organizational strategy and operations.

Setting Goals That Matter

Many times over the past several months, I’ve been asked by colleagues and clients”what can I measure that means something”.  And I answer them usually by asking “what matters to your organization and its stakeholders”?  “I see what your saying”, they say “but I can’t always see the payback”.  Well, sometimes the “payback” is hidden and can’t always be realized in tangible, hard dollar terms. Sometimes, especially if companies are not water, energy or resource intensive, or don’t produce a lot of waste byproducts, you need to peel off some layers.  What this often means is looking at other production, operational or worker activities that can’t be measured in hard dollars but in terms of “efficiency”.  Sometimes metrics can be measured in terms of avoided costs rather than actual expenditures.  As an example,  a client of mine “avoided” $2.4 million in accrued fines and violations (over a three year period) due to enhanced sewer infrastructure maintenance and reduced response times to effluent spills when they occurred.

"Bullseye" by TimSnell (CC License)

As the Green Research found, many companies initially establish said that “targets for realistic or stretch goals…through a bottom-up process, beginning with a baseline of current performance.”  I view this finding as similar to what I coach my clients to do in environmental management system or sustainability engagements- perform a risk-based evaluation of what poses the greatest environmental, social or governance risk and establish measurable (and achievable) objectives and targets.   Some of my clients like the Natural Step “back casting” process too , which attempts to envision a company’s “desired state”, measure a baseline “current state”, and fills in the gaps with programs and activities intended to reach the desired state.

Remember, when companies establish sustainability objectives (whether they are social, environmental, operational or financial) and define their targets, here are a few simple things to remember about metrics.  They must be:

  • Representative
  • Understandable
  • Relevant
  • Comparative
  • Quantifiable
  • Time-based and Normalized
  • Unbiased and Validated
  • Transferable

Staying on Track Within the Four Walls and in the Supply Chain

As I mentioned in last year’s post, once organizations decide what’s important to measure to meet sustainability related objectives, they needed to assure that they actually track metrics, report, calibrate and keep on measuring.  It’s called keeping your eye on the ball.  And this applies to supply chain management as well.  As I have reported in this space many times before, supply chain sustainability and responsible sourcing are two key ingredients for an organization to consider itself to be “truly” sustainable.  Many of an organizations greatest product and operations related impacts (like carbon emissions, resource or toxic chemical inputs, etc.) actually come from within its upstream supply chain.

Photo by HeraldMM (CCLicense)

A few tips to get your continual improvement process started:

  1. Measure things that add value to organizational decisions. Measuring for the sake of measuring is a waste of time.
  2. Make goal-setting a 360-degree exercise- Look inward through the organization rank and file for innovative ideas.  Seek advice and input from external stakeholders too (your suppliers and customers matter too!).
  3. Commit to what you can control or influence.  Don’t make broad declarations that you cannot achieve because you’ve no influence. Don’t over commit ( although a few heretically goals here and there aren’t too dangerous)
  4. Get some quick wins under your belt.  This will enhance the momentum behind the effort.  Remember to scale performance incrementally in line with the financial and labor resources that you’ve budgeted
  5. Own the goal and be accountable.  It’s not likely that organizations will succeed in meeting their goals without someone keeping track.  Make sustainability performance part of personal or group performance evaluations.
  6. Measure, Report, Repeat.  Don’t stop at the first sign of success or trouble.  Look for ways to press on, raise the bar and continually improve.  Report progress regularly (sometimes monthly, sometimes quarterly.  It all depends on what is being measured. 
  7. Go Short, Go Long.  Set some targets as short term goals, but think long term too (three to five years out), and in alignment with corporate strategies.  Most large companies like my client (Johnson & Johnson), Unilever, Sony and many others usually set five to eight year planning horizons.
  8. Measure things that compare well but slightly differentiate yourselves from your competitors. Novel and unique metrics are just as important to differentiating you as your products.
  9. Seek out globally-recognized metrics (like the Global Reporting Initiative) to assure that multi-national companies who also measure sustainability metrics can apply the data to their own goals.
  10. If you are a large company with multiple department, divisions or sites, the metrics of the subordinate organizations must be able to be “rolled up” in a way that addresses the entire organization but still meets site or department specific needs. 
  11. Report the Bad with the Good:  No one’s perfect and a little self deprecation, even in business can pay handsomely from a reputational point of view.  In this WikiLeaks era, information moves swiftly.  Stay ahead of “the story”, own up to the shortfalls, you’ll be forgiven and given more credit for your successes.
  12. Build off of prior continual improvement initiatives to track perform over longer periods of time.  It’s not like you flicked on a switch one day and became the sustainable organization that you aspire to be.  It takes time.

On second thought, I did win a “big” race.  My freshman year in high school I placed first in a 100 yard Individual Medley event against an arch rival high school in the Chicago suburbs.  That was my greatest moment in the pool…for a race many said I wouldn’t even finish.

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Can Apple Redeem Itself on Supply Chain Sustainability? Taking a Cue on Accountability from Nike’s Playbook

3 Feb

NOTE: Portions of this piece originally appeared as a guest column in Sustainable Business Oregon

Last week, on the way to a business meeting in downtown Portland I tuned into the local sports radio station.  Nationally syndicated sports commentator Dan Patrick (“DP”) was providing his one minute Above the Noise segment.  The focus was on if, how and when sports icons that have fallen from grace (due to an off the field indiscretion) they could ever redeem themselves in the public court of opinion.  And could they ever regain public acceptance to be ‘marketable’ commodities again.  Think player product endorsements.  Think Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest- well the list is WAY to lengthy to cover here, but you get the idea.  Most that have regained endorsement status (like Bryant) have either redeemed themselves through community service and on field performance, but often the public-at-large (er, consumers) just forget.  The past indiscretions have faded from the tabloids.

So I got to thinking that this sounded very familiar when it comes to companies (manufacturers and service industries in particular), and the ways in which they address sustainability matters.  I am thinking of manufacturers who have made environmentally impactful products, and willingly or knowingly conducted socially irresponsible or possibly unethical business practices that have led to public backlash.  And I thought about how some have been able to successfully “redeem” themselves and regain a positive marketplace reputation, while others never quite recovered.

Since this past week Apple was in the news, I thought DP’s radio op-ed was a perfect parallel.  According to a report issued by anti-pollution activists in China, Apple is more secretive about its supply chain than almost every other American company operating in the country. Apple came up among the laggards among 29 major electronics and IT firms in a transparency study drawn up by a coalition of China’s leading environmental groups.  The reports focused on “the openness of IT firms and their responsiveness to reports of environmental violations at suppliers”.  Though Apple is known in the industry for the secrecy it wraps around its newest product offerings, the “mystery of its supply chain is more a matter of covering up than preventing leaks”, the report stated. The report claimed that Apple’s suppliers have been involved in breaches of environmental regulation, including major waste discharge violations in recent years at several Chinese firms that are believed to be  part of Apple’s supply chain.  To be fair, Nokia, LG, SingTel, Sony and Ericsson also fared poorly in the survey, but Apple stood out in how it did not address and respond to the findings.

Apples Supplier Commitment

Of course this revelation was not the first time that Apple’s supply chain management oversight (or lack thereof) has been ‘shaken to its core’. Despite Apples Supplier Code of Conduct, it appears that they are not fully conforming to their own internal commitment and policies.  An insightful post from back in mid 2009 highlighted the series of issues that Apple has had with its supply chain, from human rights violations and pollution to lax supplier oversight and unfortunate subcontractor worker suicides.  Apple itself admitted its complacency in addressing social and environmental sustainability issues in a pragmatic but resolved manner.

Nikes Redemption Story- a Work in Progress

Apples current predicament is not unlike another company that relies on a deep contractor supply chain, whose headquarters in my backyard- Nike.  In the late 1980’s reports were starting to circulate from Indonesia and Asia concerning Nikes alleged “sweatshops”.  Over the course of the 1990’s, continued exposure of unscrupulous labor and human rights practices, combined with intensive public protests and campaigns continued to hound Nike and dragged down its reputation.

By 2001, the issue erupted and Nike was stung by reports of children as young as 10 making shoes, clothing and footballs in Pakistan and Cambodia.  Phil Knight, Nikes CEO admitted the company “blew it”. Nike, like many other companies (like Nestle, PepsiCo, Wal-Mart and other consumer products manufacturers and retailers) learned the hard way that taking liberties with “social license” to operate (especially in foreign countries) has its negative financial and reputational consequences.

That’s not to say of course that all is perfect in Niketown.  But with the corporate and supply chain infrastructure now in place to monitor, validate and continually improve supplier relations and accountability, fewer violations have occurred. Nike has continued to push open innovation and environmentally focused product design with social accountability in mind.  The Ethisphere Institute named Nike as one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for 2010. The Institute recognizes organizations annually that “promote ethical business standards and practices by going beyond legal minimums, introducing innovative ideas benefiting the public and forcing their competitors to follow suit.”   Also, last October, Newsweek magazine took 500 of the largest publicly traded U.S. companies and produced a 2010 Green Rankings List.  Nike, was 10th on the list, and was noted for having a strong commitment to evaluating and improving the environmental footprint of its suppliers.  They also scored a 97 in the reputation category. (Apple by the way scored 65th, with a reputation score of 71.  I guess that low score represents that missing piece in Apples iconic logo.

Stepping Up to the Plate on “Social License to Operate” and Accountability

A great research study from 2002 (from the Center for the Study of law and Society at University of California Berkeley)  highlights the steps that companies in the apparel, forest products, consumer goods, oil and energy and other highly capitalized industries have gone through to “redeem” themselves and restore brand trust.  They’ve achieved this through rigid compliance with local environmental rules, product  and environmental stewardship, verification  and proactive social engagement.

Apple needs to do the same thing and implement a proactive supplier sustainability and verification program.  As I have laid out in prior posts, companies like Nestle, Corporate Express, Danisco, Starbucks, Unilever and the apparel industry stepped up in a big way to address human rights, fair labor and sustainable development in areas in which they operate throughout the world.  So too have major electronics companies like Hewlett Packard and IBM in leveraging their supply chains in assuring that corporate sustainability performance objectives are met.   Further, in 2010 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) unveiled its ISO 26000 Corporate Social Responsibility guidance document.  In addition, two prominent organizations, UL Environment and Green Seal unveiled and vetted two sustainability focused product (GS-C1) and organization (ULE 880) standards this past year, both of which may markedly affect supply chain environmental and social behaviors in the future.  That’s not to mention the issue of conflict minerals, which strikes deep at the cell phone manufacturing sector.  Finally, the age of openness and collaboration has arrived on the heels of Wikileaks and numerous high profile reputational back breakers.

Engaging and Leveraging the Supply Chain

The most successful greening efforts in supply chains are based on value creation through the sharing of intelligence and know-how about environmental and emerging regulatory issues and emerging technologies.  Leading edge, sustainability –minded and innovative companies have found “reciprocal value” through enhanced product differentiation, reputation management and customer loyalty.  Suppliers and customers must collaboratively strengthen each other’s performance and share cost of ownership and social license to operate.  But supply chain sustainability and corporate governance must be driven by the originating manufacturers that rely on deep tiers of suppliers and vendors for their products.

So Apple should take a cue from Nikes playbook- “Just Do It!”  This issue will not go away on a wing and a prayer.  Here’s how to get it done- right:

1)  As the 2009 post that I mentioned said, get your company on the ground and enforce your Supplier Code of Conduct – now.

2)  Open Up and reach out to external stakeholders, not just your suppliers.  Engage non-governmental organizations early and often.   Find a respected international organization or other third-party to facilitate the engagement process.   Treat communities, NGO’s and suppliers with respect.

3) Work with your supply chain and with industry peers to standardize requirements. Create or revisit the resources allocated in internal procurement networks to collaborate on environmental and social sustainability issues.

4) Construct environmental and social accountability requirements at the purchasing phase. Build environmental and social conformance criteria into supplier contract specs and incorporate sustainability and environmental staff on sourcing teams

5) Inform suppliers of corporate environmental concerns. Standardize supplier questionnaires and make sure that the Supplier Code of Conduct lands in the right hands.  Promote exchange of information and ideas by sponsoring charettes to facilitate discussions between customers and suppliers on environmental and social license issues.  Develop a supplier/vendor peer or mentoring program that promotes co-innovation on sustainability issues

6) Build environmental considerations into product design w/ suppliers. Apple already considers Design for environment (DFE) product innovation and life cycle analyses in its product design.  You’d be well served to coordinate minimization of environmental impact in the extended supply chain and work with suppliers to manage end-of-pipe environmental issues.  Give your suppliers an incentive to reduce their environmental loading associated with their products and improved worker conditions.

7) Follow up! Without adequate on-the-ground follow-through, on-going supplier engagement and long-term commitment of human and financial capital, your sustainability problems will persist.

So like sports stars, business stars can redeem themselves and their reputations.  But it first takes admitting that you have a problem before you can start down that path.  Apple has had a pretty rough year, what with CEO Steve Jobs taking medical leave, its products having persistent quality problems and its connection with negative environmental and human rights issues.  I’m hopeful that Apple and others will get the message that ol’ Ben Franklin stated so long ago but holds true today:

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” -Benjamin Franklin

Until then, “I’m a PC”.

Green Supply Chain Management Requires Less Procrastination & More Innovation, Leading by Example

15 Oct

Admit it- we’ve all done it.  Procrastinated. Waited until the brink of a bad outcome.  Not taken the time to thoughtfully, proactively, pragmatically complete an assignment, implement a new ‘leading edge’ technology or launch a disruptively innovative initiative.  Instead we react, overlook great ideas for something less, produce a less articulate response to an inquiry, or implement a semi thought out idea.

Even in the business world, whether in supply chain management or in adoption of the ‘triple bottom line’ in business strategy, there are leaders and there are laggards.  Innovators and adopters.  I was reminded of this when I ran across a research paper that was published in “Sustainability” Journal this past spring.  The article, “Supply Chain Management and Sustainability: Procrastinating Integration in Mainstream Research” presents the results of a study conducted by several university researchers in The Netherlands. The researchers noted that “procrastination can be viewed as the result of several processes, determined not only by individual personality, but also by the following factors:

  • availability of information;
  • availability of opportunities and resources;
  • skills and abilities; and
  • dependence on cooperation with others.”

In addition, in a review of more than 100 additional studies on procrastination, the following additional items were found to likely to influence procrastination:

  • the nature of the task, and
  • the context of the issue.

It is these last two issues that the authors raised as primary reasons for procrastination, especially regarding embedding sustainability research and practices in supply chain operations and management. The authors found that “the nature of the task”, because it’s often complex and requires many internal and external stakeholders, and therefore tends to “generate conflicts”.  Also, the roots of supply chain management and related research are generally grounded in operations management and operations/logistics.  Therefore, the researchers noted that environmental and social aspects of supply chain management are foreign,  “out of context” and not wholly integrated into supply chain management and research.  I would also argue that dependence on others is a key issue as well given the widespread, outward facing challenges associated with supply chain coordination.

So what this means is that if a concept is foreign or unfamiliar or “out of context” it’s either set aside as being non-value added.  Also because of some of the complexities often inherent in grasping and applying sustainability concepts, some just throw up their hands and say “I’ve no time for this”.  This in turn can lead to procrastination in the real-world application of sustainability in supply chain management.

In a study conducted during the height of the recession (late 2009), GTM Research found that despite its growing prominence, “sustainability is not a core part of most companies’ strategies today or …a prime driver of their supply chain agendas.”  The study found that sustainability lies in the middle of the pack of supply chain priorities today, behind cost cutting.  The graphic presents a “leaders vs. laggards” scenario.  The 23% difference between leaders and laggards related to sustainability initiative implementation is large and underscores the work that remains to advance the “value proposition” for sustainability in supply chain management.

Prior posts have described positive aspects of adopting whole systems-based, collaborative and transparent approaches to sustainable sourcing and manufacturing,  and green logistics.  Sustainable thinking in supply chain management also value chain practices supports environmental and social responsibility – so why aren’t more companies adopting these methods?

I know who many of the leaders are in implementing greener and more sustainable supply chain practices in their respective markets and I’ve written about them here – Walmart, HP, Dell, Patagonia, Nike, Intel, Cisco Systems, IBM, Herman Miller, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, Campbell Soup, Timberland, Danisco, UPS, FedEx, Staples immediately come to mind.  Laggards? Well you know who you are, but I am not pointing fingers.

While the future looks bright for a “greener” perspective in supply chain management, there still remains a stigma that a sustainable value chain is a costly one. In reality, there may be some up-front costs associated with some initiatives- very true.  But companies must take a longer view and pencil out the ROI of supply chain sustainability best practices. And its possible by taking a leap and reaping the benefits.  I’m confident that those organizations who wish to lead (and stop procrastinating!) will find a great many benefits including:

  1. less resource intensive product designs,
  2. better supply chain planning and network optimization,
  3. better coordinated warehousing and distribution and
  4. more advanced and innovative reverse logistics options.

Those who choose to lead will realize significant cost savings, improved efficiencies and a more secure and profitable future.

Give it a whirl- what have you got to lose- or should I say, gain?!  C’mon, tell this community what you think.  We’re listening.