This morning at breakfast, I happened to mention my project to my two children. "What's sustainable development, Dad?" they asked. And my mind searched for a good example. It was sitting right in front of me. I asked the two of them if they could think of a business-related situation with which they were familiar.
My son manages a small paper route. He commented that newspapers are a good example of poor environmental stewardship. His rationale was that producing newspapers kills trees and consumes energy, in an era where many people are migrating to the internet as their primary source of newsworthy information. Fair comment. And yes, being an environmentally-conscious young person, I was pleased that he would think critically about a business that was actually signing his paycheck.
As President Obama would say, this was an excellent learning opportunity. I asked them if there were a positive side of the business. We looked at ways that we have tried to deliver our newspapers in an environmentally-friendly manner. We had lots of examples, including:
- he delivers the papers while walking, with a grocery buggy. I could drive him around his route, but we would burn fuel unnecessarily. As a side benefit, the family saves some gas money - maybe just a little bit each day, but over time the savings add up. Lesson 1: being green, and lean can save energy, money, and avoid pollution.
- we did an initial analysis of his customers when he started the paper route. We asked ourselves: does the customer have a mailbox? Do they have a covered porch that would protect the newspapers from the rain and snow? Using this initial analysis, were were guided in our use of materials, such as rubber bands and plastic sleeves. Rubber bands are really only needed to wrap papers to protect them from the wind. If the customer has a covered mailbox, my son simply carefully folds the paper and puts it in the mailbox. Plastic sleeves are really only needed if the weather is, or threatens to be, foul. So, he only sleeves the papers when the weather is poor, and he does not sleeve papers that are going to houses that have no porch protection. He creatively calls the three wrapping options "tortillas" (no rubber banding or sleeve necessary), "tacos" (when the paper needs a rubber band applied) and "taco deluxe" (papers requiring plastic sleeves in foul weather). Lesson 2: being lean and green can please consumers by catering to their unique needs, while reducing waste, saving materials costs, and protecting the environment.)
- he reacts quickly to customers who ask that they be removed from the route, or to those who want their deliveries suspended because they are planning a vacation. He never likes to lose a customer, and he does what he can to make the customers happy about his service, but sometimes customers tastes and needs change for reasons beyond his control. We stop such deliveries promptly to avoid delivering papers unnecessarily. For the family on vacation, it improves household security. He avoids delivering papers that are destined immediately for the trash bin. Changes are communicated quickly upstream to the front office, so that production can be adjusted. We don't waste time and energy delivering unwanted newspapers. Lesson 3: being lean and green avoids unnecessary production and logistics costs, improves public relations and can have beneficial side effects such as improved household security.
- he recycles any unusable scrap material, such as extra newspapers or flyers that cannot be re-used. Contributions to landfill are virtually zero. Lesson 4: Some scrap is inevitable. Try to eliminate it. But when it occurs, re-use it, or recycle it.
Finally, we dicussed the fact that while newspaper production does "kill trees", and we acknowledged that newsprint producers need to exercise great responsibility vis-a-vis the environment, there was no reason for him to feel guilty about being in the industry. It is still of great value, communicating vital information to thousands and millions of people, and acting as a great social catalyst for .
It was a great breakfast conversation. We could have gone on for an hour. And it taught me that lean thinking, and sustainable development, are valid philosophies regardless of the size of your enterprize. And I also learned that this is not rocket science. These principles can be understood, and applied by children.