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The Noble Profession Of Process Excellence

th3LS50DQUFlourishing is a remarkable book, and rather heartwarming for those toiling in the vineyard of process excellence.

Remarkable because it’s a radical critique of sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility programmes – and, more widely, of 21st century capitalism – co-authored by two US business school professors and published by Stanford University.

The book is a set of interviews around eight papers by John Ehrenfeld, former Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business and Environment and still, in retirement, a Senior Research Scholar at Yale. The interviewer is Andrew Hoffmann, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

In essence, Dr Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:

“Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”

He proposes instead a wider, richer definition: “Sustainability-as-flourishing”. “Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.”  It’s a definition that includes issues of justice, inequality, wellbeing and social cohesion – with implications for the individual and the community, for every organization and institution.

His analysis is uncompromising: “Growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god”. We neglect human well-being and focus overwhelmingly on material goals – “Our metrics of success are now principally measured in material terms” – so that “in making ourselves rich, we are making ourselves existentially and psychologically poor”.  He asks heretical questions about the value of corporate sustainability measures:

“Sustainability is a systems property. You don’t measure sustainability; it’s only a possibility. You strive to attain it. No single company is going to be able to measure their specific contribution to sustainability. What’s important is whether they are promoting a culture of flourishing or not. Are they structuring their company to promote fairness, wellness, equality, ecosystem health and community cohesion?”

His conclusions are surprising. Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two big ideas. We need to shift our dominant mindsets from Having to Being, from Needing to Caring.  We need to shift from a dominant materialistic mindset to spirituality and love: “Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible”.

In short, it’s a radical vision (especially for a professed atheist) and a long way from current mainstream conceptions of sustainability, which, at best, tend to focus on reducing energy use, waste and reputational risk.

Anyway, it’s a good read and I can’t do it justice here.  The point is that there are some heartening references from a process excellence practitioner perspective.

Dr Ehrenfeld extols pragmatism as an important element of sustainability. This isn’t pragmatism as it’s often defined, as expediency. It’s about inter-disciplinary experiental learning:

“Pragmatism is a way of acting deliberately and consciously within the partial truths of scientific analysis, always watching the results and adjusting to maintain the course towards the ends being sought. We seek truth by continually inquiring, experimenting and acting until we arrive at the end envisioned.”

Warning of the false idol of the ‘heroic, decisive, singular and powerful entrepreneurial leader’, he endorses instead the Toyota Production System (TPS):

“The TPS is fundamentally built around learning on the job, a form of pragmatic learning… which grew out of Toyota quality circles, problem-solving groups that were composed of everybody who had an opportunity to observe what was going on, from the boss to the sweepers. Toyota  recognized that there was no privilege in understanding the system. Understanding came through a continuous inquiry process that was initiated with every serious breakdown. This model has been widely imitated.”

Pressed on how, in the real world, companies can incorporate pragmatic thinking into their sustainability strategies and structures, he returns to TPS and the wider field of continuous improvement:

“Companies can practice some form of discipline based on continuous improvement.  All the popular systems, the TPS perhaps being the most familiar, are forms of pragmatism. They all rely on a community of learners. Solutions arise from the experience of that community, not from computer and engineering analyses… Pragmatic practices take patience and continuing commitment to bring a firm’s (or any institution’s) aspirations into synchrony with the actual outputs, intended and unintended.”

Which won’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with The Toyota Way.  Its foundational principle is a philosophy of service to customers, society, communities and employees; its perspective is long-term; its approach is open, consultative and consensus-seeking; it nurtures continual self-improvement at every level of the hierarchy.   It’s very much in tune with sustainability-as-flourishing.

Putting it all in a nutshell, I think Dr Ehrenfeld’s saying that process excellence geeks rule. So, be steadfast. Think of humanity’s future. Resist those idle thoughts, those constant temptations to give it up and become just a powerful and uber-wealthy entrepreneur.

Related Posts

11 Mar 2014   Scaling Up Excellence, The Toyota Way

19 Sep 2013   What Process Excellence Looks Like in 2020

PS – in case you’re interested, I’ve published a fuller review of Flourishing, from a faith perspective, here

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