Sustainable Processes

Over the course of the past few years we have written Advisors on Green or Sustainable Processes.  We have considered the problems of waste from processes, and how to recycle byproducts to assure a continuing flow.  We have considered problems facing companies that try to recycle energy and water.  It’s easy to get excited about these issue, briefly, when some specific crisis is upon us, and then forget them when things seem better. 

Thus, for example, California is facing a severe drought – we have had less than normal rainfall for three years running, and there’s no assurance that next year will not be another drought year.  The state has restricted business and individual access to water supplies to assure there will be water for necessities in the year ahead.  This is a major problem for California farmers who grow a large percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the US each year.  Without regular supplies of water, some crops will have to be abandoned altogether.  At the same time, major investments in equipment will be required to assure that other crops can be grown with minimal amounts of water.

A decade ago, following poor policies on the part of the state government, and scheming by unscrupulous energy providers, energy policies in California spiked, and the businesses and individuals in California paid record prices for energy – leading to a variety of energy saving measures.  Those measures were the focus of considerable attention for several years, but seem less important now that new energy supplies have been made available.

Most large organizations are more rational that the local politicians or voters.  They know that between population growth and tightening resources, the problems organizations face are not going to go away.  We are in for a future of shortages.  In some years it will be too little water, and in some years it will be record snowfalls, or record heat waves.  In some years it will be flooding as seas rise.  Over the long run, water and energy will become more expensive.  And, more pressing than all of these, certain key metals and minerals will be hard to get.  Smart companies are planning now for these eventualities.

The place to start is with an audit of major business processes at your organization.  We are all used to studying business processes to determine what they cost.  Most organizations know how many hours of labor are required to produce their products, and think about how labor could be reduced, to save on the cost of producing the product.

In the future we will need to audit the use of water and energy in all out business processes.  We will increasingly find that reducing the amount of water or energy our processes use will lead to reduced costs.  In some cases, as in California in the coming year, being able to grow crops with a minimal amount of water will be the difference between being in business, and having to close down.

It used to be common to share energy.  Factories that produced heat as a byproduct would send it underground, via pipes, to other businesses that would save on their heating bills by using it to warm their workplaces.  At some point, as energy seemed cheap, most companies decided that shunting hot air around was more trouble than it was worth.  In the near future, we suspect that that attitude is going to be reconsidered.

Recently, companies that maintain large amounts of data have begun to locate in Northern regions to use winter weather to cool their computers.  Aluminum companies, that require large amounts of energy, tend to locate in areas with hydroelectric dams, to assure cheap energy from water power.  Location will become more important as the price of water and energy become more critical.

At the moment, cutting edge manufacturers are looking for ways to recycle metals, minerals and chemicals.  Most manufacturing processes generate byproducts that manufacturers have considered “wastes.”   Thus, your industry may normally acquire a chemical, use it in a manufacturing process, and then discard the byproducts.  A chemist, looking that the process may realize that the discarded byproducts from your industry, and another industry in a nearby town could be combined to produce a new chemical compound that could be used in still another manufacturing processes.  Increasingly we will see groups of companies located near each other that will pass byproducts to each other to minimize the “disposal” of byproducts.  As we become more sophisticated at this, we may find that by combining byproducts of several manufacturing processes, we will be able to recycle some chemicals over and over again, but as will increasingly recycle metals from used cans and glass from used bottles.

A nice study of some of possibilities of recycling has just been published by McKinsey & Company, entitled:  “Remaking the Industrial Economy.”  It’s available, without charge, from:

McKinsey tends to treat the topic in an abstract manner.  I, on the other hand, tend to think of it as a great argument for the existence of a good corporate wide business process architecture, and as a driver for business process audits that determine and then track how your organization uses energy, water, and various chemicals.  

There may be many “futures” for those engaged in business process work, but I can’t think of any that are more important than this, for the survival of your organization, or for the prosperity of humankind.  If California agribusiness can’t come up with some creative process solutions for water, fast, the people of the US are going to find lots of food items more expensive or simply unavailable.  Other industries in other locales are going to face similar problems.  The organizations that prosper in the near future will be organizations understand their business processes in ways they have not, hither-to-fore, and that have process redesign people who are very skilled at designing processes that not only minimize labor costs, but also minimize water, energy, and chemicals and other recyclable materials.