Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Becoming an agent of change by applying systems thinking

By Jim Hall on July 10, 2009

In my last blog, I applied systems thinking to the concept of sustainability. I explained that the evolution of all systems is governed by a set of natural laws that are consistent whether we are talking about the organization, or the world at large. I also suggested that you could apply these principles to efforts to reduce your company’s GHG emissions, and become a change agent within the microcosm of your corporate culture in order to affect the macro-environment we all live in.

I also promised to return and explain how that might be done. So let’s get down to it.

It starts with you developing a deeper understanding of the corporate landscape you live in, in order to chart an evolutionary path toward sustainability. If you accept the premise laid out in my first blog that all things (naturally existing or manmade, tangible or intangible) are governed by a set of natural laws, you can use that perspective to ‘see’ your company’s future.

Sound far-fetched? Here’s an experiment that might clarify my thinking.

Remove your wristwatch and hold it over your head, count to three and let go of it. What do you think will happen? It’s fairly obvious that the watch will fall to the floor. But how do you know? The law of gravity tells us it will. It follows natural laws, and the outcome is inevitable. Similar laws guide every organization and system.

As you examine your organization’s landscape, use a systems approach to understand the path it is currently on. Take an inventory of your organization’s systems, remembering to keep in mind that systems are not just machines and equipment; they can be people, markets, bureaucracies, or even something as benign as a meeting room.

Now make an attempt to identify and understand the connections between systems in your company. These connections act as conduits for resources to flow from one system to another. Understanding these connections will provide better insight into trade-offs that might occur from any system changes you attempt.

Next, take note of the resources that these systems require of their environment, as well as any contributions – positive and negative – that they make. It’s a good idea to look at these both in terms of relative quantity and of value to the larger system.

Finally, target and closely assess areas that:

  • Consume large amounts of resources
  • Create the most harm to the environment
  • Make little or no contribution to the environment

This approach, unlike any other, can provide sustainability practitioners with a truly holistic view of their organization – and a vital roadmap to making the greatest changes with the slightest expenditures of energy first (not that some changes won’t require larger sacrifices down the road).

Remember that an organization’s supply chain is much more than trucks, packages, parts and inventory. It also includes non-traditional systems like budgets, people, morale, and management. Include them all in your analysis.

Traditional and non-traditional systems can be equally important, not only in enabling the supply chain, but also in helping you better understand how to optimize it for a sustainable future. Taking a systems view, combined with an understanding of natural laws, makes for a very powerful and revealing perspective.

As I’ve mentioned, sustainability is simply a natural evolutionary cycle that is attempting to create efficiency in and remove cost from the environment. The emerging Green Economy will continue to be a reflection of these natural laws. Sustainability at its core is nothing more than a “natural” reaction to increase efficiency and drive out costs.

When you apply these principles and insights to GHG emissions, then the impending regulatory requirement to reduce GHG emissions – and even your efforts toward compliance – may just be natural laws at work. You yourself become the change you seek in the world. You become a sustainability agent of change.