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Management System Models/Standards Provide Road Maps to Sustainability

Posted: 11:19AM February 2nd, 2012 | Comments

We hear a lot about why sustainability is important and about what businesses have already accomplished, through the many impressive case studies.  But what we rarely hear about are the specific processes these businesses use to achieve and maintain these gains.   Figuring out how to start down the path of sustainability can be a little like being lost in a dense forest at night without a flashlight to illuminate the path forward.   Ideas like “The Natural Step”, “The Triple Bottom Line” and " The Global Reporting Initiative" are helpful in informing us of the sustainability attributes we should measure; however, these are really only tools to be used in a larger sustainability management system designed to help businesses to continually improve their sustainability performance.  

Over 50 years ago, Edward Deming developed a process that he called “Total Quality Management (TQM),” which helped businesses to improve their ability to manufacture quality products and delight their customers.  Deming is credited with propelling Japan’s auto manufacturing industry into a position of world leadership.  Later, businesses like GE and Toyota would develop powerful TQM tools like “Six Sigma” and “Lean Manufacturing,” which would help businesses to dramatically reduce product defects and unnecessary waste.

In the 1980s and 90s, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) developed a standard called “ISO 9001,” which businesses could use as a model for a TQM  system.  Businesses around the world have embraced this model and have achieved astonishing results in improving product quality and financial performance.  Most of them would never even consider reverting to the old ways of doing things.

In the mid-1990s, businesses like IBM began to recognize that TQM principles could also be applied to other areas of organizational performance.  This recognition resulted in international standards like “ISO 14001 - Environmental Management Systems” and “OHSAS 18001 - Employee Health and Safety.”  Recently, a new standard has arrived on the scene, known as “ISO 50001 - Energy Management Systems.”  These standards or models have proved to be effective in helping businesses to establish the infrastructure that enables improvement in these important performance areas.  Businesses considering establishing processes to improve their sustainability performance should study these standards/models and borrow from them liberally.  

ISO 14001 helps by creating a comprehensive list of a business’s environmental impacts and lets the business decide which are important to their specific organization.  Businesses can choose to control some of the impacts and improve others at their own pace.  OHSAS 18001 helps by creating a list of the hazards that employees are exposed to and the risks these hazards present to employee health and safety.  Businesses get to choose which controls are needed to ensure minimal risk to their employees.  The energy management system standard, ISO 50001, helps businesses to perform an energy inventory and then prioritize the areas in which investments can be made to reduce energy use.  None of the standards/models expect businesses to undertake efforts that go beyond what is required by law or to invest in things that do not provide an acceptable return on investment.

Embracing these standards/models may be a lot easier than you think or easier than you have been led to believe, especially if they can be integrated with other existing management systems.  This ease stems from the fact that these management systems have been crafted such that they share many common core elements, like management review, monitoring and measurement, internal audits, corrective actions, and more. The models’ power lies in their capability to aid businesses in adopting a systematic approach to their sustainability efforts.

Businesses endeavoring to improve their sustainability performance should learn more about these standards/models to see if they are the right fit for them.  Ample resources are available to aid businesses in assessing the value of these standards/models and to provide guidance on how to proceed.   Overlooking   them as vehicles to improve sustainability performance could unnecessarily delay sustainability benefits and put a business at a disadvantage in the competitive marketplace. 

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