Look at any business’s website and it won’t take you long to locate its statements of commitment to environmental sustainability. Goals of energy conservation, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, water protection and zero waste are announced on the sites and, in many cases, in annual reports. Clearly, businesses have caught onto the fact that sustainability is great for public relations. But it’s more than a buzzworthy topic. These organizations understand the value of commitment to protect and improve the environment.
What may be less clear for many businesses is how to go about achieving these well-intentioned goals after they’ve been publicly announced. How do you get from where you are today to where you want to be? How can you measure progress and be sure you are on the right track?
The four stages to tackle sustainability projects
While reading up on this topic, I recently came across an interesting book called The Sustainability Transformation, by Alan AtKisson, a Swedish author and sustainability leader who developed a methodology for tackling sustainability projects. AtKisson talks about a four-stage approach:
"Signals that tell us about what is happening to the world." That is AtKisson’s simple definition of indicators. It makes perfect sense. All change efforts naturally begin with observation and assessment of current conditions – and it’s pretty obvious why: Without observation and assessment, how would you know what needs to change or even what can be changed?
He compares environmental sustainability indicators to the signals your body sends out when illness or infection is present, describing them as essential because without them, problems might be invisible.
Indicators link together into systems, which AtKisson describes as "a web of cause-and-effect relationships." He stresses the importance of "systems thinking," the ability to discern those cause-and-effect relationships and other kinds of linkages, which he sees as a fundamental human skill, and one that is essential to sustainability initiatives.
It is important to note that systems are dynamic. They have rules and behaviors, both natural and imposed. They have points where adjustments can be made and other points where change cannot be made without enormous cost or disruption. Very importantly, they interact with each other. Changes in one system may have enormous and unexpected consequences in another.
When your goal is to improve the way you operate, new ideas are your stock in trade. One problem: Many ideas cost a lot of money. AtKisson writes about sustainability projects in terms that will sound familiar to facility managers: "You will have to find ways to create large-scale changes with small-scale budgets using high-leverage intervention strategies." In other words, look for places where a small change can have a major impact. Do more with less. That is something FMs have always had to deal with.
AtKisson defines strategy in the simplest of terms: A plan for getting from here to there. It may be that strategy can be defined so simply because the complexity of indicators, systems and innovation have been addressed. Strategy builds from that foundation of complex components. That does not mean that strategies themselves will be simple.
Sustainability strategy has two components, which often must be pursued sequentially: Limiting further damage from existing behavior, and then improving results. Since there are no fixed rules for success in the ever-evolving drive to save the environment, strategies likely need to include plenty of room for iteration, for failures, and for reassessment of the data in light of results. If you’d like to read about 8 transformational trends that organizations are exploring for improving their sustainability, you can check out this white paper from Frost & Sullivan.
Facility Management is a natural ally for Sustainability initiatives
As I dived further into AtKisson’s writings, I began to see that there were strong connections between the process he was outlining and the practice of facility management (As a bonus, for those familiar with Planon, AtKisson calls the packaging of these four steps the "Accelerator"). And given that buildings are said to be responsible for 40 percent of the world’s energy use, this kinship to Facility Management and building operations seems quite relevant.
Facility Managers and FM Service Providers have the opportunity not only to be strong participants in organizational moves towards sustainability, they are well positioned to become leaders in the effort. That said, it’s important to point out that sustainability can be a tricky word. FMs are in the business of supporting sustainable systems and operations, in the sense that their job is to keep all of the systems and operations in their buildings functional. Supporting environmental sustainability is a layer on top of that.
In my next blog, Part 2, I will walk through AtKisson’s four stages with an eye toward facilities and Facility Management and point out where Facility Management (Service Providers) & Sustainability professionals could achieve great value by working together.