Quality eLine Newsletter
July 2005
Vol. 7, No. 07

Six Sigma and More: 
Sustainability is among your quality options

by David R. Schwinn

Noticing that I am a professional engineer (P.E.), one of the students in my Principles of Management class asked me about hybrid autos this week. He wanted to know if they were a good idea and if they were really possible. I, of course, responded affirmatively and went on to explain that these expensive autos would become less expensive as the industry progressed along its learning curve and began to take advantage of economies of scale. The conversation reminded me how much we have to learn about sustainability. It also reminded me of an admonition I heard several years ago.

“Include sustainability in your Six Sigma program,” was the challenge given to the attendees at that University of Michigan conference. The speaker was Catherine Greener, principal of Commercial & Industrial Services for the Rocky Mountain Institute. The Rocky Mountain Institute is an entrepreneurial nonprofit organization that fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources to make the world secure, just, prosperous, and life-sustaining. They do that by inspiring business, civil society, and government to design integrative solutions that create true wealth (www.rmi.org).

My son, Steve, reminds me from time to time that many people define sustainability as economic sustainability. That is too limiting a definition for my purposes here. Moreover, economic sustainability all too frequently focuses on next-quarter profits. The definition that I like most is the one issued by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 in its report, Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development, New York: Oxford Press). It defines development as sustainable if it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” My own definition of development is not limited to growth. In my mind, that means:

  1. Don't use anything at a rate that exceeds the resource's ability to replace itself.
  2. Don't release anything that cannot be used or converted into something that is useful.

Some may argue that the Brundtland Commission’s definition is too vague and that my rules are impossible to achieve. “Impossible to achieve” sounds a little like the concept of “falling short of ongoing perfection” that led Dr. Deming to popularize the concept of continuous improvement. And as we know, the Six Sigma movement is based on the concept of continuous improvement, although sometimes we forget. So what Catherine Greener was advocating seems to make a lot of sense. Let’s dig a little deeper.

As I’ve said before, I believe Six Sigma is primarily driven by the result that it reduces costs. We generally start by reducing the scrap and rework costs associated directly with producing a final product or service. We may, however, expand our cost reduction opportunities with a sustainable development perspective. A few examples come to mind.

Most recently, I noticed that the Eagle’s Nest, a local restaurant, began asking patrons if they wanted the dinner roll that formerly was automatically included with the meal. Over the years my wife, Carole, and I have worked with hospitals, restaurants, rest homes, and school cafeterias to reduce wasted food. As a matter of fact, the Jackson CommUnity Transformation Project that we helped guide in the late 1990s had a policy of taking any unused food from our events to the local homeless shelter.

Several years ago, Carole and I worked with a Goodwill agency that noticed that a high proportion of their revenue was spent on trash removal. By revising their intake, internal throughput, and training processes, the agency was able to reduce those costs, expand the skills of their clients (employees), and add new products to their offerings to the general public. And less waste went to the landfill.

Another example involves a die casting firm I consulted with several years ago. We took a “sustainable” viewpoint that resulted in focusing on reducing water and gas usage and temperature loss. By installing meters, plugging leaks, recycling water, cleaning gas jets, and installing vents and covers to capture and redirect heat loss, the firm was able to save a sizeable amount of money. And less water and gas usage and, in a small way, less global warming.

But that is just the start. My recommendation is to dream about your organization as one that meets my rules. Write down all the details of your vision. You might even include a go at ISO 14001 if you are not already involved. Start by tackling the details that show a good, quick return on investment. Then move to the ones that require a little more time, knowledge, and money. Then take on the ones that seem impossible. As I’ve said before, by the time you get to the impossible ones, they probably won’t seem nearly so impossible.

I am sure some of you have a much more sophisticated understanding of sustainable development than do I, so, as always, I will sincerely appreciate your responses. I’m at support@pqsystems.com


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