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What Happens When Quality and Sustainability Meet?

An integrated approach to quality and sustainability leads to increased efficiency and cost savings.

By Robert Ferrone, who specialises in integrating industrial design engineering, quality, manufacturing, and environmental management systems

Quality and sustainability are two critical aspects of modern business operations that are closely intertwined. While quality refers to the level of excellence or standard achieved in a product or service, sustainability relates to the ability to maintain or improve that quality over time while minimising negative impacts on the environment, society, and the economy.

These two concepts are not mutually exclusive and can, in fact, complement each other when integrated into an organisation’s operations. Bringing quality and sustainability together in an organisation can create synergies that drive innovation, reduce costs, and enhance reputation, among other benefits.

One of the most significant advantages of integrating quality and sustainability is the ability to identify and address environmental and social risks early in the product design process. By leveraging quality management systems, such as ISO 9001, organisations can establish procedures for identifying, assessing, and managing risks that could affect the quality of their products or services.

Similarly, sustainability standards, such as ISO 14001, can help organisations identify and manage environmental risks that could affect their operations, supply chain, or stakeholders. By combining these two systems, organisations can develop a more comprehensive risk management approach that considers both quality and sustainability effects, thereby reducing the likelihood of costly product recalls, repetitional damage, or legal liabilities.

Holistic manufacturing

When quality and sustainability meet, the result is a harmonious combination of two important principles that drive businesses and consumers toward a better future. Quality is the measurement of excellence in products and services, while sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Quality products are designed to last longer, perform better, and provide greater value to the consumer. On the other hand, sustainable products are produced in a manner that minimizes harm to the environment and conserves natural resources. The combination of these two principles creates products that are not only of high quality but also environmentally responsible.

To achieve this balance, companies must take a holistic approach to product development and manufacturing. They must consider the entire life cycle of a product, from the sourcing of raw materials to the disposal of the end product (cradle to cradle). By using environmentally friendly materials, reducing waste, and implementing energy-efficient processes, companies can create products that not only perform well but also have a minimal impact on the environment.

Consumers also play a critical role in promoting sustainability and quality. By choosing to purchase products that are of high quality as well as sustainable, they are sending a message to the market that these principles are important to them. This demand for quality and sustainability drives companies to invest in these areas and encourages them to continue to innovate and improve their practices.

Two departments with shared goals

Quality and sustainability managers must collaborate and work together to achieve the best possible outcomes for their organisation. While their areas of focus may be different, there is significant overlap in their goals, including reducing waste, improving efficiency, and enhancing customer satisfaction.

By working together, quality and sustainability managers can identify opportunities to streamline processes, reduce environmental impacts, and increase profitability. Today, with advances in technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), it is now also possible to collect and analyse large amounts of data to identify trends and patterns that can help organisations improve their processes, products, and environmental effects in real time.

When quality and sustainability meet, everyone benefits. Companies are able to produce products that are both environmentally responsible and of high quality, while consumers are able to enjoy products that not only perform well but also contribute to a better future. This harmonious combination is crucial in shaping a more sustainable future for all.

A framework for sustainable development

As the world becomes more aware of the effect of human activity on the planet, consumers and businesses alike are taking steps to mitigate its impact and ensure a sustainable future. Sustainable development strategy for all organisations has become an important issue around the globe. (Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depth of the oceans.) It has required organisations to review their current systems to improve the overall triple bottom-line performance (i.e., economic, environmental, and social). Rising to these challenges requires transforming management systems and incorporating sustainable management systems throughout the organisation.

Synergies between total quality management (TQM) and sustainable development have been discussed, but further important synergies between quality management and environmental management have not yet been fully explored. Process focus and process management are believed to be important for realising these synergies. Assuming TQM effects on organisations will continue, what types of TQM improvement initiatives will develop in the future to meet the anticipated organisational changes?

Sustainable development frameworks encourage businesses to ask better questions about effects on stakeholders, society, and the environment, and they seek to develop the tools and measures needed to demonstrate improvements. The sustainability of the organisation relies on its ability to monitor the external environment for opportunities, trends, and risks, and also its ability to learn, change, and innovate in response to the results of monitoring. To achieve environmental sustainability, organisations should focus on results as well as process.

An industrial revolution in quality

The quality revolution that took place in manufacturing companies during the late 1970s offers a number of parallels that can help city government and corporate decision-makers understand and address sustainability challenges. At the onset, quality initiatives were viewed by most companies as nothing more than an added cost—something to be tacked onto the end of existing manufacturing systems to prevent low-quality products from reaching customers.

The evolution from quality inspection at the end of a line to total quality management in the United States was in direct response to a quality revolution in Japan following World War II. Japan had a widely held reputation for shoddy, poor-quality exports, and their goods were shunned by international markets. This led Japanese organisations to explore new ways of thinking about quality. The Japanese welcomed input from foreign companies and lecturers, including two American quality experts who changed the world’s leaders’ thinking about TQM. More than a half-century ago, quality pioneers W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran encouraged organisations to ask better questions about corporate challenges, enabling companies to redesign systems for improvement.

It started with a systems approach, and then incorporated quality by means of practical analytical tools to foster product, service, and organisational improvements. In the process of bringing quality improvement, they also elevated quality management’s value to the corporation. Their work inspired corporations to move quality management from a noncritical process to the mainstream.

Quality management has evolved significantly over the years, from a technical and inspection-oriented approach to a more holistic and customer-focused approach. Today, quality management is an integral part of organisational performance, with an emphasis on continuous improvement, risk-based thinking, and data-driven decision making.

Environmental awareness

Two other prominent figures who had a significant effect on the environment were John Kenneth Galbraith and Rachel Louise Carson. Both individuals were influential in their respective fields, and their contributions helped shape the way we view and understand the natural world. Galbraith’s work (The New Industrial State; Princeton University Press, revised edition 2007) helped bring attention to the issue of environmental degradation and its relationship to the economy. His ideas influenced the development of environmental policy and helped shape the modern environmental movement.

Carson’s work (Silent Spring; Houghton Mifflin, 1962) also helped inspire a shift in public opinion regarding the natural world. Her vivid descriptions of the beauty and fragility of nature helped create a new appreciation of the natural world and its importance to human well-being.

Both individuals were instrumental in the development of the modern environmental movement, and their work continues to inspire and influence environmental policy and conservation efforts that are underway worldwide today.

These four individuals had a major influence on business and the private sector. Juran and Deming opened the eyes of industry to the importance of quality management. Galbraith, who was known for his critical analysis of modern capitalism, opened the eyes of the business community to how the economy affects environment issues. Carson’s book inspired the general public toward innovative thinking.

Innovative thinking

There a number of forward-looking organisations that view quality and sustainability as a competitive advantage. Take the case of Toyota: It viewed quality as an opportunity rather than a cost, and its investment in total quality management paid off handsomely. Rather than simply posting inspectors at the end of the assembly line, Toyota integrated quality considerations earlier in its assembly lines and the processes that preceded manufacturing, such as product design, and research and development (R&D). Next, Toyota pushed quality considerations even further upstream by working with suppliers to develop quality standards for the materials flowing into the assembly lines.

Eventually Toyota expanded quality management beyond products into behaviours, asking how its people could collaborate more effectively to ensure higher-quality processes. This deeper, more integrated approach to TQM paid off in the form of competitive advantage, as the success of Toyota in the 1990s and beyond demonstrates. The quality effort took Toyota from the back of the pack to the industry leader in automobile quality, reliability, and sales. In setting the standard for others to meet, Toyota is integrating quality and environmental cultures to gain a true understanding of total waste. In the future, it may set the standard in the auto industry on sustainability management as well.

Sustainability as a business function

Sustainability has not left its infancy, but there are strong signs that select companies are positioning themselves to benefit from sustainability opportunities. Walmart, General Electric, FedEx, Toyota, Hilton, and Budweiser are among those managing environmental risks, just as others used the quality revolution to succeed in their markets.

Rather than treating sustainability as a risk and cost to be managed, leaders are starting to integrate sustainability into their processes and cultures, in some cases collaborating with a broad range of partners, including governmental and nongovernmental organisations and initiatives. A prime example of this collaboration is the Energy Star program, which was developed by industry and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The powerful external forces of competition, government, and consumers are driving sustainability and may soon nudge its evolution into a full-blown revolution. As the development of sustainability programs continues, companies with the structure and talent necessary to integrate sustainability capabilities deeper in their organisations and cultures will have a competitive advantage. As we struggle with approaches to reduce our effects on our climate, the answers may be in the quality tools that all sectors understand.

Sustainability does, however, mean that TQM should not be left as an “act of fate.” It needs to be managed through a strategic perspective, emphasising measurement and action. It should also focus not only on meeting the end-customer’s requirements but also on all those who interact through their products or processes. Companies should look at how TQM could contribute to sustainability by reinforcing the economic dimension.

This could be seen as making sustainability more business-focused. The opposite would be to see how sustainability could contribute to TQM by broadening the focus to all the dimensions of the total business, widening the focus from the supply chain to customers to stakeholders.

New opportunities

The question is whether we can effect a cross-organisational collaboration to build a new approach to sustainability in government, industry, and the private sector. An important issue is whether organisations can build the bridges to bring the culture of quality management and environmental management together. Both have much to offer on the battlefield of efficiency.

I believe there’s definitely a disconnection there. But there are opportunities through collaboration and education, with the same vision and goals in becoming efficient in all areas and cutting waste. I strongly believe in the use of technologies, design, processes, and cultural change as keys to solving global issues and climate change.

By integrating quality management and sustainability management, organisations can ensure that they are producing high-quality products and services while minimising their environmental impact, promoting social equity, and preserving natural resources for future generations. This can include implementing sustainable production processes, reducing waste and emissions, ensuring ethical sourcing of raw materials, and promoting the use of renewable energy sources.

Moreover, an integrated approach to quality and sustainability management can also lead to increased efficiency and cost savings, as well as improved reputation and brand value. It can help organisations to meet the expectations of increasingly socially and environmentally conscious consumers and stakeholders, and to stay competitive in a rapidly changing business environment. It can be a challenging process, but it can also lead to significant benefits for the organisation and society as a whole.

Robert Ferrone specialises in integrating industrial design engineering, quality, manufacturing, and environmental management systems (EMS) for improved environmental and economic performance. He has worked on ISO 9000/14001/50001 implementation with numerous private and public sector clients, including successfully guiding them to ISO certification. Some of Mr. Ferrone’s clients include Robert Bosch Corp., Sun Chemical international, Aetna Industries, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines Ltd., Carnival Cruise lines, Sanyo, and SSI Technologies Inc. Ferrone developed approaches to use an EMS in the EPA and the Chemical Biological Defense Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland. He developed an EMS for Alumax Corp. in Savannah, Georgia, as well as the first EMS auditing course to gain accreditation from the United Kingdom’s Environmental Auditors Registration Association.

Article originated in Quality Digest

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