July 2005



Thinking about Sustainability (H. Thomas Johnson)
Forum 2003 keynoter Tom Johnson shares some thought-provoking and challenging insights about the nature and depth of rethinking required to transform the modern enterprise into one that practices sustainability as a business way of life.


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By: H. Thomas Johnson

Sustainability currently ranks as one of the most popular programs being touted by management consultants, business gurus and MBA educators. As with so many programs for "business excellence" that have gained popularity in the past fifty years - including synergy, strategic cost management, total quality, reengineering, organizational learning, lean manufacturing, leadership, innovation and more - sustainability promises great benefits. But just like those past programs, it does not encourage business leaders to reconsider conventional thinking about what it means to do business. Consequently, sustainability programs build on the flawed assumption that economic well-being depends upon endless growth - a growth that is now occurring at a suicidal rate.

"...sustainability promises great benefits...[but] it does not encourage business leaders to reconsider conventional thinking..."

It is a well-known fact that our push for ceaseless economic growth is creating very adverse conditions for life as humans have always known it on Earth. Driven for fifty-some years by the imperative to maximize their owners' financial wealth, businesses relentlessly produce more and more goods for humans to consume. "Restraint" and "moderation" are no more words in their lexicon than is awareness of Earth's inability to sustain this wild production pace. Addressing the adverse impact of this production on Earth's system calls for new ways to think about doing business.

Today, the industrial economy uses Earth's resources at rates that hugely exceed the capacity of Earth to regenerate and restore those resources. Making this possible is the fact that humans in the past century began to generate energy from Earth's fixed supply of fossil fuel at a rate several thousand times the rate at which the Sun supplies energy to the Earth each day. Over a few billion years, Earth's life-support systems adapted remarkably well to the Sun's daily supply of energy. Then, the human economy recently imposed a wildly extravagant flow of new energy onto those support systems, significantly dislocating the chemical balance of Earth's atmosphere and causing increased and intensified human occupation and degradation of Earth's habitat. In turn, this atmospheric dislocation and habitat disruption have resulted in long-term climate change and a sharp rise in extinction of non-human life species.

If, as many experts claim, business activities are primarily responsible for severely diminishing Earth's resources and throwing the ecosystem into dangerous imbalance, surely business leaders must revise the way they think about their mission. However, sustainability programs do not seem to be altering their basic, conventional assumptions about the role of business in society. Advocates of sustainability do propose changing the way businesses design, produce, and sell the products that most humans consume. These sustainability programs advocate that businesses promote "eco-efficiency," the steady pursuit of ways to produce each unit of output with less energy and less raw material, especially less fossil fuel. Unfortunately, sustainability programs do not introduce new ways of thinking about the purpose of business, notably the notion that a business exists to maximize its owners' financial wealth. Because sustainability programs do not question conventional thinking, they do not mitigate the drive to sell more and more. That imperative remains intact, unchallenged. Consequently, gains in resource efficiency that sustainability programs achieve are invariably offset by increases in total output.

Eco-efficiency is not sufficient to eliminate the problem that our industrial growth economy poses for Earth's ecosystem because it does nothing to question the thinking that originally created the problem it is trying to solve. New thinking is required that challenges the accepted idea that economic welfare requires humans to consume more and businesses to grow year after year after year. Whereas sustainability programs currently encourage people to improve how efficiently they perform an activity, they ought to be asking...

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Dr. Tom Johnson, a Professor of Business Administration at the Portland State University School of Business Administration, has authored numerous papers and books including Profit Beyond Measure and Relevance Lost, and was a featured keynote speaker and workshop leader at several In2:InThinking Network conferences.

Review by: Brian Atwater & Sharon Atwater

Beating the System:
Using Creativity to Outsmart Bureaucracies

Authors: Russell L. Ackoff & Sheldon Rovin
Publisher: Berrett-Kohler Publishers
Length: 175 pages

Russell Ackoff's latest book, Beating the System, co-written with Sheldon Rovin, is an easy, enjoyable read. The authors discuss how many mindless, bureaucratic systems abuse the poor souls who have to interact with them. Ackoff and Rovin provide real life examples that help readers devise strategies for overcoming bureaucratic tangles. The book is organized into three sections. Section one provides a quick overview of systems basics and discusses methods for stimulating creativity. Section two offers six fundamental techniques for beating systems. Additionally, the authors provide several entertaining examples for using each technique to overcome problems. In the final section the authors recap the basic rules for overcoming systems and discuss how to design systems that don't need to be beaten. Stories are also categorized by system type (e.g. airlines, education, healthcare, etc.) so that readers can easily locate the corresponding pages when they are faced with specific problems. The authors' request for readers' system beating experiences hints at future editions.

Fans of Ackoff and Rovin's previous writings will find this book fun to read. They will recognize stories from former presentations and books presented in a new light that stimulates thinking and illustrates specific creative system-beating strategies. Beating the System is a short, inexpensive paperback that will make a good addition to your systems thinking library!

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  • In2:InThinking Network President Bill Bellows will be taking the stage at the IQPC's Lean Six Sigma West joining other notable industry figures including Jack Welch. Presentation details will follow in an upcoming Newsletter. Conference runs October 26-27 in Las Vegas.




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