Connecting people to sustainability: the uncomfortable truths

Attending  a recent workshop on sustainable development and regional development, I got involved in a working group looking at the challenge of connecting people and sustainability. The whole exercise gave food for thought so I thought I would share my notes here on my blog.

Suppose you were on the management team of an organization that was failing to live up to the expectations of its owners and, more worrying, showed even less prospects of doing it in the future. What would you do? How would you approach the challenge?

One approach is to use six sigma tools and the process called SIX SIGMA RDMAIC. Here is an overview:

  • Recognize what is most important for your organization, and identify the key initiatives that will have the most impact to your organization.
  • Define the problem, the voice of the customer, and the project goals, specifically.
  • Measure key aspects of the current process and collect relevant data.
  • Analyze the data to investigate and verify cause-and-effect relationships. Determine what the relationships are, and attempt to ensure that all factors have been considered. Seek out root cause of the defect under investigation.
  • Improve or optimize the current process based upon data analysis using techniques such as design of experiments, poka yoke or mistake proofing, and standard work to create a new, future state process. Set up pilot runs to establish process capability.
  • Control the future state process to ensure that any deviations from target are corrected before they result in defects. Control systems are implemented such as statistical process control, production boards, and visual workplaces and the process is continuously monitored.

Each of these steps has a whole tool-kit associated with them. you can choose tools from the tool-kit and use them separately, or choose to run the whole RDMAIC process using several tools for each step.

Suppose the organization was Europe. And the management team recognises that Europe is well on the path of coutner sustainabiltiy and will face major problems related to resource and envrinmental depletion, and that more economic gowth will not guarantee better living.

Our group took a couple of the tools of six sigma and applied them to defining the problem.  The first tool is called asking why five times. You can read more on this tool here.

Here are the results of our group’s  work which was given the issue: People in Europe not connected to sustainability

  1. Why? Because they do not know about it or ways to support it
  2. Why not? Because they have not come into contact with it in their lives
  3. Why not? Because none of the major contact points include it or are set up to encompass it
  4. Why not? Because they would become politically unpopular or economically non-viable if they did
  5. Why is that? Their organisations find themselves in such a context for historical reasons

To analyse the root causes further, we applied the tool called an (Ishikawa Diagram) or a (Cause-and-Effect Diagram) or a (Fishbone Diagram)

(Click on the diagram to enlarge it.) This exercise was extremely uncomfortable to do.  The more we discussed, the more we could see how the very fabric of society is imbued with counter sustainability, from deepest held beliefs to physical infrastructure. As an individual, even with years of working with sustainability behind you, you live in a world that is talking and acting as if action on sustainability is not urgent, indeed it is under discussion if it is needed at all. And well inside any conference room in a gathering of sustainability- oriented individuals, the way forward is often still something for discussion.

These findings were given the title “the uncomfortable truths”.

Standard practice is to study which areas to prioritize, and to create an improvement or remediation plan.

In our case, the aims of the conference host CURE, the Convention for Urban and Rural Europe are:

  • to offer – at the time of the Mid-Term Reviews of EU programmes in 2008-9 – recommendation on policy frameworks and measures which will assist a sustainable approach to the future of urban and rural areas in Europe, achieved through effective partnership between governments and civil society
  • to build a partnership of organisations who are committed to building sustainable urban-rural relations throughout Europe

Studying the diagram, we felt the root causes we could influence were

  1. Indicators
  2. Information and education
  3. Paradigms
  4. Policies

To get started on working with these root causes the deepest held beliefs – our paradigms – is an obvious place to start.

To return to the Management Team analogy for one second: corporations often face this problem, that deep–seated beliefs that have been at the root of the very success of the organization no longer apply in a changed business environment. The process of addressing them is one of the cornerstones of the work of management guru Peter Senge, which he terms “mental models”.

The discipline of mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. It also includes the ability to carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others. (Senge 1990: 9)

One simple exercise is to have a two column list. On the left, the paradigm or mental model. On the right, reasons why it is counter productive given the current or future expected environment.

The notes below show how far we came in our session.

We need to reach a level of economic growth in order to be able to clean up our society Drives economic growth further, and more counter.sustainable investment
Green means putting back progress People become negative to change
People NEED cars Sustainability becomes “what can we put in our fuel tanks”

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