“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. What 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,” - David Schatsky, principal at Green Research
As I noted back in August 2010 in a post on Environmental Leader, there are two old axioms:
- “You are what you measure”, and
- “What gets measured gets managed.”
So 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. It’s vital that there be a systematic process in place that maintains focus on continuous 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 them “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. Like when 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.
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.
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:
- Time-based and Normalized
- Unbiased and Validated
Staying on Track Within the Four Walls and in the Supply Chain
As I mentioned in last year’s post, once organizations decide what they need 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.
A few tips to get your continual improvement process started:
- Measure things that add value to organizational decisions. Measuring for the sake of measuring is a waste of time.
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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)
- Get some quick wins under your belt, scale performance incrementally in line with the financial and labor resources that you've budgeted
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.