Posted by: CeciliaWandiga | March 29, 2014

A Strategic Tool for the Sustainable Journey: from baselines to Thriving Lives

Pope Francis has called on world leaders to use their power to end poverty. President Obama has discussed this issue in person and other world leaders are sure to do the same. I’m not at all a world leader and yes, as a Catholic, I do feel an obligation to answer but the best reason to heed comes from my atheist friends. They love to see me run to Church for “ammo” whenever I face a moral dilemma. For them, doing good is just fundamentally logical and an inherent part of self-preservation. They don’t need an all powerful being to set the balance right because balance restores itself and woe to those who fail to recognize this. I will try to do both perspectives justice since they both address the fundamental principle of sustainability: focusing on creating things that enhance healthy life for all people and all species.

The Irrationality of Poverty and Social Inequity

Balance is another fundamental principle of sustainability. We learn balance as children when we play on see-saws (formal or make-shift). Somehow as we push ourselves off the ground and “jump” on our seat to go back down, our sense of fairness is also activated. See-saws are a wonderful teaching tool. We learn interdependence (you can’t play on a see-saw by yourself). We learn control (not just the rhythm of movement but also weights and measures – poundage needs to be relatively equal; pace needs to be negotiated; too many people on either/both sides and the see-saw doesn’t work).

This post is the result of an interdependence of thought. Three months ago a LinkedIn discussion in the TPS + 1 Engineering group forced me to think about Balance. Two months ago, a LinkedIn discussion in the Net Impact group challenged my thinking on sustainability. Yes, sustainability is a baseline but we don’t have a goal. The proposed goal is THRIVING.  I have less than no objections to THRIVING; I love the concept of balanced abundance and THRIVING describes this perfectly.  My reluctance to embrace the concept was rooted in pace.

In Lean Six Sigma philosophy one talks about using measurements to control processes and reduce variation. Variation (which is different from diversity) has a negative impact on quality. Think about your favorite meal at a restaurant. When you spend money to eat out, your satisfaction is rooted in the expectation that the meal will be well prepared, visually appealing and pleasant to the pallet. You probably also want it to taste a certain way (eg chicken alfredo shouldn’t taste like chicken marsala). Anything that doesn’t adhere to these standards and expectations is out of control and we can measure those instances (Six Sigma). More importantly, failure to meet these standards and expectations reduces your delight which causes waste. Lean shows us 8 sources of Muda (waste): 1. you can walk away leaving unused food; 2. the cost (both financial and pollution) of transporting and making the food is also wasted; 3. the uneaten plate is now the worst form of inventory because health & safety standards treat it as a contaminated item that depreciates at an exponential rate and cannot be resold; 4. the plate is a defective product that must be scrapped which runs contrary to the goal of eliminate scrap by designing things correctly; 5. you are left waiting to obtain what you came for – a good meal – and as a result, process excellence is non-existent; 6. the plate is an over production of bad product; 7. given that food wasn’t eaten there was 100% overprocessing (it would have been more efficient to serve you an empty plate); 8. all the people involved (from the farmer, to the food transporter, the chef, the waiter, the restaurant owner and whoever processed your payment) were underutilized because the goal of providing you with a good meal was not met. Needless to say this scenario is not sustainable and it is certainly not THRIVING. All this waste is rooted in a simple issue: a mismatch between what you expect and what was produced.

When it comes to wealth distribution, we have an even greater out of control process. Remember our goal is to create things that enhance healthy life for all people and all species. Right now, I’ll just focus on the human species because the numbers are staggering enough.


  • At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.
  • More than 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where income differentials are widening.
  • Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
  • 1.8 billion people who have access to a water source within 1 kilometre, but not in their house or yard, consume around 20 litres per day. In the United Kingdom the average person uses more than 50 litres of water a day flushing toilets (where average daily water usage is about 150 liters a day. The highest average water use in the world is in the US, at 600 liters day.)
  • 10.6 million [children] died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5 (same as children population in France, Germany, Greece and Italy).
  • Indoor air pollution resulting from the use of solid fuels [by poorer segments of society] is a major killer. It claims the lives of 1.5 million people each year, more than half of them below the age of five: that is 4000 deaths a day. To put this number in context, it exceeds total deaths from malaria and rivals the number of deaths from tuberculosis.

Just in case you are of the belief that things are better now than a century ago:

  • An analysis of long-term trends shows the distance between the richest and poorest countries was about:
    • 3 to 1 in 1820
    • 11 to 1 in 1913
    • 35 to 1 in 1950
    • 44 to 1 in 1973
    • 72 to 1 in 1992

At the most basic level, we have reached a point that threatens business with extinction. The number of consumers available to buy products is at risk. The continued availability of skilled labor to produce, distribute and sell products is at risk. I fully embrace THRIVING as long as it means we are going to fix this mess!

The Role of Business in Sustainable Wealth Creation

I have many friends who feel the non-profit world is superior to the for-profit world. This of course until money is needed to “keep the lights on” or fund a program. Emotional appeals and guilt trips tend to escalate in direct proportion to the need for money which is then translated as “the root of all evil.” I’m not a psychologist nor schooled enough to understand how or why this logical fallacy got created.  I do know that business sees money as a tool. If you want to dig a hole you need a shovel. If you want to pay for things you need money.  No need to attribute existential angst to either shovels or money.

The point that we must concede to as business people is that any tool can have a dual purpose. A shovel can be used to kill people and so can money.  If we are proud to position ourselves as the most efficient and effective generators of money, we have a responsibility to ensure this money tool is used to enhance life for all people and all species. The mess we have on our hands is not going to clean itself. It is also not going to happen for free (as much as we wish it could). Business MUST take on a dual role of (a) developing solutions, and, (b) generating wealth that empowers people to actively implement these solutions in their lives and communities. There is already a model: The principles to drive the model are found in permaculture: (in forthcoming articles I’ll explain how to apply these principles in non-agricultural activities).

It is important to note that “rich” countries have high levels of poverty as well.  Here in the US, the bastion of capitalism and self-made wealth, poverty is better than it was in the 1960’s (i.e. fewer people are in poverty) it is still significantly(15.1% in 2010) above Six Sigma Levels (goal: if we look at poverty as a capitalism production defect and count poverty per million instead as a proxy for defects per million our goal is people in poverty will occur only 0.0000002% of the time, in other words 99.9999998% of the population in the US or anywhere in the world will have living wage rates).

If you are looking for a business tribe, here are three:
The Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business The Facility supports the development of inclusive business models with a particular focus on models that are innovative and have the potential to go to scale. Inclusive business opportunities can engage the poor in commercial activity as employers or suppliers, as consumers or distributors.

Business Fights Poverty the world’s largest community of professionals harnessing business for social impact

World Business Councils for Sustainable Development a CEO-led organization of forward-thinking companies that galvanizes the global business community to create a sustainable future for business, society and the environment.
If you are looking for a tool that enables you to develop integrated strategy and action, attached is my first attempt at distilling the approach I use to help my clients. Goal: to enable your company/business to create a sustainable strategy that measurably enhances healthy life for all people and all species.  There is always room for improvement so feedback is more than welcome.

Whitepaper: Built to Thrive – Designing Business Sustainability for People Planet and Wealth

Strategic Frameboard by Cecilia Wandiga

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