Turning sustainability into action

Posted on 10 Jan 2023 by Joe Bush

Sven Strassburg, Principal Solution Architect at IBM, explores how to turn sustainability ambition into action and shows the relevant framework that manufacturers can use to address their ESG requirements.

Sven opened his keynote address at Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit by highlighting one of the most significant problems he sees when it comes to turning sustainability into action. Namely, the fact that many organisations get lost in the inertia that surrounds some of the huge numbers being thrown around. This often leaves them wondering what to do next. “People are trying to tackle those big numbers but it’s going to take time,” he said.

Sven Strassburg, Principal Solution Architect at IBM
Sven Strassburg, Principal Solution Architect at IBM, gave a keynote address at Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit 2022

Heading in the right direction

So, the question is, how do we go about making an effective change? When asking its clients and the industry about the major challenges they are facing, it came as no surprise to IBM that almost every company has a target, but most haven’t actually started their sustainability journey or don’t know where or how to begin. Likewise, while the importance of data is often acknowledged, in many cases the vast majority of that data is not actually explored in any substantive way.

Sven added: “What interested us in our discussions was that the companies who have been successful are the ones with the conviction to be an early mover; the ones who don’t wait for things to happen, for legislation, guidance or intervention. In order for sustainability to have a value, we need to be convinced and confident that we can actually deliver.”

He added that another key factor is reliance on open innovation; going into the workforce, local community and the supply chain, and running hackathons, innovations and workshops, to collate ideas and understand what they could mean for your organisation. “Companies that have opened the issue out to a wider audience, and beyond merely the chief sustainability officer and the C-suite, are the ones who are getting really interesting results and ideas coming through.”

Despite the talk around digital transformation, many manufacturers are also still relying heavily on spreadsheets and paper-based, manual processes. This leaves organisations with a plethora of siloed elements that don’t cut across each other. Therefore, there has to be a greater drive towards more integrated systems.

Tangible impact

“One concept we have established is around defining sustainability goals, establishing a clear baseline and to make those goals operational,” added Sven. “This starts to shape the idea of whether the lofty goals and ideals that have been communicated can actually be achieved. A lot of the work I get involved with is around taking those great ideas and interesting, innovative ways of thinking, and bringing them into the operational space.”

He explained that often when speaking to design or maintenance engineers around whether they are aligned to corporate sustainability goals, the truth is they are far more focused on the job in hand. Therefore, in reality, they are often not in sync with what the organisation is actually portraying.

“I’ve had an instance where a facility manager has told me they found out about their sustainability goals from a client, who had heard it from the CEO. The targets were never communicated into the operations of the business; to the people whose responsibility it was to deliver on them. So, it’s important to have those baselines in place and share them. Look closely at your systems and ask whether they are capable of delivering on your lofty ambitions. In our experience the answer, sadly, is often ‘no’.”

Therefore, by defining goals and setting baselines, what then follows is the establishment of a roadmap of components that will be created, and how to get there. Sven added that currently, operations are still very siloed. Systems are clearly demarcated from everything else, often in air gapped environments. As such they are completely at the mercy of any kind of change.

It’s quite common that IT doesn’t get involved in the operational space and vice-versa. However, this is a problem that needs surmounting and an understanding reached that these two elements are part of the same organisation that aim to deliver on set goals. “Until we overcome these operational challenges, we are not going to reach those targets,” Sven warned.

“When I enter manufacturing organisations and ask about the operational systems I often get told to talk to the supplier. When that happens, I get worried. What am I going to find and what are the security implications? I’m also flabbergasted that the operations teams are using software and systems that are out of their hands. We’ve got to be much more in control of all aspects of our operational space in order for us to hit sustainability goals.

“It’s no good setting a target and then just hoping that through certain innovations and activity, that it’s just going to happen – we need better communication. We have to have a bidirectional flow of information, an upward influence on those goals and a downward realisation that they can be reached. It’s amazing how often they are not achievable because of the systems.”

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