Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Sustainability as a key driver in creating operational and strategic excellence – and our need to relearn that

Posted in macroeconomics, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on September 6, 2010

The term “sustainability” is frequently used in combination with “Green” and “environmental” and that is for a good reason. Effective Green and environmentally oriented initiatives have to pursue their goals as the outcomes of long-term sustainable practices if they are to succeed long term. I tend to conflate these terms too, and have done so repeatedly in this blog among other places (see for example Social Networking and Business and my various Green and sustainability oriented series there with postings 49-58, 60, 65, 70, 71, 74, and 77.) But the term sustainability applies to areas of business practice that extend beyond the range that would normally be included under the Green and environmental rubrics.

Long term planning and strategy, and long term execution – should at the very least strive for consistency and sustainability. These are crucial throughout businesses and their ongoing operations. I will go further, and state that when too many businesses in any given market or industry fail to strive for long term sustainability and for all of their core areas of organizational infrastructure, entire marketplaces and even entire economies can suffer. Much of our current economic downturn can in fact be traced at least proximally to systematic failure at the top in way too many of our financial institutions. People who were supposedly providing leadership for them were in fact primarily focusing on advancing their own personal short term agendas and at the cost of eroding the capability of their businesses to be sustainable. Their search for personal profit without regard to organizational risk made long term failure inevitable.

I have written several times about the problems this has created in the US and global financial sectors, and cite one of my blog postings here as an example and reference: Leadership from a Foundation of Responsibility and Trust. But this is not the only example I could cite. My admittedly limited if sometimes intense experience in change management has shown me that when a business or other organization is heading for the edge of a cliff it is at least proximally because they are looking forward on such a restricted and short term time frame they do not even realize they are leaving the road. As a bottom line, many if not most businesses fail because they cannot develop and maintain sustainable strategy, planning, and/or execution – and in this the real culprit has to be in a failure of effective sustainable execution as strategy and plans that are simply honored in the breach and lapse do not count. It is in what we consistently and repeatedly do that show our real strategy and planning, or lack thereof.

So I wanted to step back from Green and sustainable, or sustainable in any other specific focus of orientation and examine a bit as to what sustainable means in general, and as general operational capability. And I see this concept and approach as including some key essentials, and the failure of any one of them means a loss of sustainability in general.

1. Sustainable systems have to be grounded in solid, consistently gathered, analyzed data based on clearly understood metrics.

I have mentioned a number of examples in this blog where businesses have failed to effectively track their performance, and even where that means not knowing the cost effectiveness of significant cost centers, or even the effectiveness of their expected profit centers. If you do not know where you are or which way you are going you cannot maintain a sustainable path forward.

2. Sustainable systems have to be grounded in consistent processes and in consistent follow-through on them.
3. Sustainable systems processes have to be oriented towards the organization as a source of value and towards the organization’s mission.
4. And everyone on the team from the senior executives on down, and from the newest entry level employees on up should be striving to develop long term value, and in both their dealings with others in the organization and with the communities the organization connects to.

Sustainability is not an amorphous, indivisible quality. It is a process and the outcome of process steps that have to be consistently followed, tracked for performance and fine tuned. Sustainability is not a buzz word.

And as a final thought for this posting I suggest that any long term recovery with return to more stable marketplaces and higher employment requires a return to sustainability, and as process. We have to restore it to our basic approach at work and in the marketplace. Businesses are not hiring because sales are down and markets contracted, so people who would be their customers cannot buy in higher volumes than they do so they are not getting hired so they do not have the financial resources to buy so …. This is a vicious circle and breaking out of it will mean stabilizing the ground that it is all built on – with sustainably for the long term and not simply with quick fixes such as short term tax breaks or other stimulus package elements.

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