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New Bottom Line Volume 4.17 – Do We Suffer From Too Much Progress? Or Not Enough?

August 28, 1995

Maybe progress is not our most important product.

This unusual notion was brought home to me by my wife a couple of weekends ago. I had finally yielded to her pleas to spend the weekend dejunking the house, something we had done so many times before (and always have to do again) and which I never seem willing to find time to do. “OK,” I said, “I’ll do it, and I’m committed to real progress this time.” “Forget that,” she said. “We don’t need progress; we’ve been ‘making progress’ for years. Let’s have a breakthrough.”

Well, we did, but that’s not what this column is about. Because that personal experience got me thinking about progress in the world of business in general, and environmental management in particular. (Funny how an approaching deadline focuses the mind.)

So, looking at it from Jane’s point of view, maybe the industrial world’s commitment to progress is holding us back, keeping us blind to the possibilities of truly leaping forward.

We’ve had years of incremental progress in environmental management, embodied for me in the years that the bureaucronym BACT–Best Available Control Technology–defined the boundaries of expectation. But incremental progress–steady improvement absorbed into the bones of a company–is not all that makes great companies, and vibrant economies. Great leaps are needed too.

Cutting energy use 10% or 20% is progress. Cutting it 90% or 95% is a breakthrough. Recycling is progress. The “zero waste company” is a breakthrough. Conservation is progress. Negastuff is a breakthrough. The amazing thing is, breakthroughs are happening all around us. Today’s unreasonable defines tomorrow’s norm.

A recent article in “Environment Today” profiled the source reduction campaign at Alcan Rolled Products Co.’s aluminum plant in Oswego, NY. While a debate rages (a few pages later in the same magazine, in fact) about the need and feasibility of eliminating or drastically scaling back the role of chlorine in modern life, Alcan reduced their emissions of chlorine gas per ton of product by 96% since 1986.

Motorola’s vaunted quality program followed an ambitious goal of reducing defects by two orders of magnitude by doing it again. In case you’re not following the math, that means they drove their systems to one-ten-thousandth the initial defect rate.

Federal Express launched a company on the radical premise of “Absolutely positively overnight”–and largely delivered. Years later the US Postal Service still thought it was doing “pretty well”–and “making progress”–with Express Mail hitting the low 90s.

A forthcoming book by Amory and Hunter Lovins (of the Rocky Mountain Institute) and Paul Hawken (author of The Ecology of Commerce), “Factor Four: The Next Industrial Revolution” (to be published by Hyperion in 1996) raises the challenge. What would be the consequences of a four-fold increase–that is a 400% increase–in productive efficiency? At one level, it could represent enormous cost reductions in manufacturing processes (which are more riddled with waste than we would care to admit). What company wouldn’t love to cut its costs of raw materials or energy. But at another level, such changes could drive profound dislocation and reconfiguration of industrial society, since so much less feedstock would be required to deliver the same benefit.

“Factor Four is a present reality,” Hawken maintains. “The goal is Factor Ten.” And even that may not define the limit of possibility.

How do you take your company to Factor Four? or Factor Ten? or beyond? The technical issues will vary, of course, from industry to industry. But certain steps should be helpful anywhere:

Step one: Raise the bar. If everyone thinks that incremental progress is all you can get, that’s what you’ll get. Henry Ford reportedly said, “There are two kind of people in the world. Those that believe they can, and those that believe they can’t. They’re both right.” It’s just as true for companies.

Step two: Know what’s so. Monitor “key efficiency indicators” like energy, water, materials use, or wastes generated, per unit of product or revenue, and track the trends over time.

Step three: Tell the truth. Post those trend lines where people can see them, and watch them change–and be sure they understand them.

Step four: Give someone–or better yet, a cross departmental team–the lead; the mandate to discover, encourage or invent; and immunity from turf wars.

Step five: Involve everyone. Leaders aren’t the only ones who lead.

Why make the leap? If you’re still asking that…well, maybe your competitors will tell you.

(c) 1995 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

May be posted intact–including this notice–in any non-commercial forum.
Please inquire at “reprint_rights at natlogic dot com” before reproduction in any commercial forum.