Manufacturing Excellence: Can Sustainability be Sustained?

October 28, 2009
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Disclaimer: I, Praveen Gupta, am not against preservation of natural resources at the cost of the future generation …

I was visiting Ford sometime ago when the company was converting one of its facilities to a green building in a variety of ways including using all of the rainwater for plants. I thought why doesn’t Ford first figure out how to build good cars again?

One of the best innovations of mankind-the car-is anti-green in every possible way. Just imagine if we had not innovated the car, how much healthier our environment would be. We are talking about sustainability after killing the environment. It is like praying for life after the patient is dead.

Why I am talking about sustainability when I am supposed to write about excellence? I feel that America goes by buzzwords. Excellence has already been forgotten, innovation is being overlooked and the song of sustainability is becoming louder. Renewable energy, greening America and carbon footprints are hot topics. I recently heard that it still takes more to produce energy than it takes to consume that energy.

The easiest way to understand sustainability is to go back to the way we used to live. We lived with a lot less, consumed a lot less, obesity was much lower and we were probably much happier.

How many of us would give up half of our assets to begin making a dent on sustainability? As long as one person drives a car eight times larger than he needs, sustainability is hypocrisy.

We do not even feel what it means to be sustainable. Reducing plastics, consuming less energy, walking more, traveling more by bus and train, and finding other ways to create value are some steps toward sustainability. Sustainability means two of largest industries-auto and plastics-must deliberately shrink to rid consumers of excess.

As I look for examples of a sustainable life, I find Amish farmers come close. I am not an Amish follower, but I like many of the things they do because we all used to do those things in past lives. Are we willing to live that kind of life again? We would have to think hard about it.

I read the book “Overworked America” by Juliet B. Schor where a neurosurgeon working in his lab and his wife were talking while she was walking her dog. She asked him what type of lives they were living. They had everything, but he worked in one place and she lived in another; they didn’t have time for each other. She asked him if this life was sustainable. That night the surgeon returns home, leaves his cell phone out in the car and thinks about redesigning their life. They decided to cut their assets by half including the house and start over small.

We are at the same stage where the environment is overworked, and in order to move toward sustainability, we need to cut personal consumption of everything. I mean everything.

In the heat of the sustainability trend, we have forgotten our fundamental weakness of doing acceptable work and expecting excellence. Practicing and producing excellence requires considering all aspects of work, including the environment. Excellence is about optimizing many constraints around the target, not about maximizing one constraint.

My concern is that we talk about so many intangible topics and trends that we forget the basics that define us. What does sustainability mean for businesses? It really means planning for excellence in everything rather than producing a sloppy product and dumping in the marketplace. Sloppy products hurt the environment more than excellent products. Business executives need to focus on achieving excellence in the core business before diverting attention to peripheral issues.

I still believe we all need to focus on learning about excellence in everything we do. Making excellence our attitude, rather than accepting satisfactory performance, is critical. Excellence may appear to slow us down, but so would sustainability slow us down.

I bet we are tired of running faster every day. We all would welcome some slowdown to enjoy the excellence we produce, and save the environment in doing so. Excellence leads to sustainability.

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