Busting “it can’t be done”
Years ago I did a waste minimisation visit at a big furniture factory. One of my recommendations was to get a lean manufacturing expert in to cut the massive amount of ‘work in progress’ (WIP) – partially-assembled products sitting around clogging the factory and asking to get damaged. The environmental manager told me that there were very good practical reasons for the WIP and removing it couldn’t possibly be done. Plus there was no money…
Fast forward 12 months and I bumped into my contact again and asked him how he had got on with my report. “Oh, things have changed a lot since you were in.” he told me “We got some lean manufacturing expertise from our parent company and removed all that WIP and waste has gone way down.” I brightened up and said “So you did implement my recommendation after all?” He frowned at me “Err – I don’t remember you recommending that. No, it was our own decision to do this.” I gave up.
“It can’t be done” is the bane of the sustainability practitioner. Time and time again I am told this and then, as if by magic, the impossible suddenly becomes possible.
So why does it happen?
- Not invented here: if people have no ‘skin in the game’, it is very difficult to persuade them to adopt your ideas;
- Fear of failure: people rarely get criticised for continuing to do things the way they have already been done – if you try something new and get egg on your face, then you get finger-wagging and/or sniggering;
- The system doesn’t measure and/or reward the benefits of the new system;
- Institutional inertia – these issues seem to increase exponentially with the number of people involved so small barriers get magnified into large ones.
How do you overcome these problems?
For a start, the standard Assess, Diagnose, Recommend consultancy model I was using at the time walks slap bang into this trap. Now I generally get stakeholders within the organisation to identify and solve problems themselves – usually using a workshop format which points them in the right direction. This generates excitement and ownership, which in turn can overcome fear and reduce institutional inertia. The remaining task is to remove those systemic barriers to progress – often the easiest of the four, although the workshop format helps identify required changes to bureaucracy as well.
But the bottom line is – if you’re getting ‘no’ for an answer, you’re probably asking the wrong question.