Help Your Career And the Environment

Companies can improve revenues through risk management

by Greg Hutchins

We've all been wondering where quality is headed in the 21st century, and many of the authors of feature articles in last month's issue attempted to answer this question. I asked Darcy Hitchcock and Marsha Willard to look into their crystal ball and try to add their ideas.

Hitchcock and Willard, principals with Axis Performance Advisors in Portland, OR, are the authors of a number of best-selling books on quality such as Why TQM Fails and What To Do About It1 and Why Teams Can Fail and What To Do About It.2

Axis is a management consulting firm specializing in the implementation of high performance work systems and socially responsible business practices. The firm shows its clients how to "do well by doing good" for their owners, customers, employees, community and environment.

Hutchins: What's the current state of quality?

Hitchcock: Every movement and corporate initiative has its rise-and-fall life cycle, and the quality movement is no exception. For years, quality professionals have been busy teaching quality: how to use the tools, how to develop effective measures and so forth. But let's face it. Quality as a field of practice is dying out.

Hutchins: Harsh words. Why?

Hitchcock: Now that it's largely institutionalized, quality no longer provides a competitive advantage for most businesses; it's now the price of admission to any business. So as the quality movement wanes, wise quality professionals are seeking the next generation idea so they can position themselves and improve the competitive advantage of their organizations.

Hutchins: So what's that next competitive advantage?

Willard: It's environmental sustainability. Most people understand that our society is depleting the earth's resources faster than we are regenerating them. And, the human population is expected to double again in the next 50 years.

Hutchins: Is this fear mongering?

Willard: Not at all. What this sets up is a supply and demand problem. More people are demanding more stuff, while the earth's ability to provide those things is declining. If an organization keeps on its current course, it can count on higher resource costs, higher disposal costs, more environmental regulations, more customer pressure and so on. A company's competitive advantage will come from being the first to market with a product or service that is less dependent upon the earth's resources.

Hutchins: Some may think that this is tree hugging or granola munching propaganda? Where's the proof?

Hitchcock: More CEOs see sustainability as a "dollar and cents" smart business issue. Once companies start to look at their operations through the lens of sustainability, they find great opportunities to reduce waste, develop entirely new products and develop unique core competencies, which give them an edge in the marketplace.

Electrolux, a leading white goods manufacturer, has created washing systems that use little or no water. Interface, a carpet manufacturer, saved millions in process efficiencies and has created an entirely recyclable carpet. Nike is swearing off PVC plastics in their new shoes. Xerox is remanufacturing copiers from old ones, improving its bottom line.

Even many oil companies are now accepting global climate change as a key strategic issue, moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. We're in for some really big changes.

Hutchins: You've talked about bottom-line benefits. Are there soft benefits as well?

Willard: Absolutely. Executives who have adopted sustainability are finding that it is an incredibly powerful way to motivate employees. The CEO of Scandic Hotels in Sweden echoes the experience of most organizations. In The Natural Step for Business,3 he's quoted as saying, "Nothing has ever been close to creating as much excitement as this environmental campaign. ... It was incredible that people got so involved in this that they are willing to make some sacrifices and put in some energy and effort to get involved. It brought people together in a way we've never ever been able to bring our staff together before."

Hutchins: So what's the link to quality?

Willard: First, think of this concept as enlarging the definition of quality. Quality used to mean meeting customer requirements. In our world where sustainability matters, quality now means meeting customer and the Earth's requirements through renewable resources. There are a lot of implications to this definition. It enlarges the definition of waste to include process waste as well as product waste. For example, German legislation requires manufacturers to take back products at the end of their useful lives. Just think of it--new products are being recreated from the old. This is true sustainability.

Hutchins: Again, what's in it for quality professionals as a career enhancer?

Hitchcock: While vice president of quality positions are becoming fewer, we're seeing more vice president of risk management positions opening. These officer level positions integrate quality of work (safety), process/product quality and environmental quality. Most importantly, quality professionals are in a great position to succeed in these positions. Quality professionals know how to design improvement initiatives and lead project teams. They know how to improve processes and develop effective measurement systems. ISO 14000 is already the natural step beyond ISO 9000.

Hutchins: So your final thoughts and recommendations?

Willard: We think sustainability will unfold much like the quality movement did. First, corporations will think it's a crazy fad of the month. Just like the impetus for quality, the impetus for sustainability will come from the least expected places. It will make a gradual approach, gain momentum, form a critical mass and then explode.

Organizations can anticipate this trend, phasing in improvements, or they can be surprised. It will be just like the quality movement, where winners in the old world become losers in the new and vice versa. Once again, quality professionals are in a great position to lead their organizations through this transformation.

Hutchins: Where do we find more information?

Hitchcock: Check out The Natural Step Web site at www.naturalstep.org. There are also several interesting books including The Ecology of Commerce4 and Biomimicry: Innova-tion Inspired by Nature.5


1. Mark Graham Brown, Darcy Hitchcock and Marsha Willard, Why TQM Fails and What To Do About It (New York: McGraw Hill, 1994).

2. Darcy Hitchcock and Marsha Willard, Why Teams Can Fail and What To Do About It (New York: McGraw Hill, 1995).

3. Brian Nattrass and Mary Altomare, The Natural Step for Business (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1999).

4. Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce (New York: HarperCollins, 1994).

5. Janine M. Bengris, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1997).

GREG HUTCHINS is a principal of Quality Plus Engineering in Portland, OR, and the author of Working It: The Rules Have Changed, available through ASQ Quality Press (item P740). He is a Senior Member of ASQ. Members wishing to discuss quality profession and career challenges with Hutchins and other ASQ members should visit ASQ's members-only Web site at www.asq.org, then click on forums and follow the instructions to the career forum.

If you would like to comment on this article, please post your remarks on the Quality Progress Discussion Board, or e-mail them to editor@asq.org.

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