The First Rule of the Triple Bottom Line

By | July 20, 2010

The Saguaro (sa·hua·ro) Cactus is an awesome example of sustainable efficiency. For those not familiar, these are the tall cacti growing in the Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest whose upward-curving branches look like arms reaching skyward.

Legend has it that they never fall over because as one arm is growing, and the core stalk naturally leans from the weight, another arm miraculously starts on the opposite side at just the right height to correct that lean.

So much press has been given to the “green” component of the sustainability equation in recent years that the other two legs, although not necessarily neglected, have been placed on the back burner. The “Triple Bottom Line” or “Three-Legged Stool” of sustainability means treating environmental, social and economic business factors equally to achieve balance and success. Of course the concept is well-known; just look at any Fortune 500 sustainability mission statement. Somewhere in each message, they all say essentially the same thing.

Here, for example is Dell’s very simple, yet well-communicated vision statement: “Dell is committed to being a good neighbor in the communities we call home. We must continue to grow responsibly – protecting our natural resources and practicing sustainability in all its forms – and improve the communities where we live and work through our financial and volunteer efforts.” Did you pick out the balanced environmentally conscious, socially active and economically viable message components?

Of the hundreds of organizations I have consulted with or for, both in the private and public sector I always look for key indicators which play into any entity’s sustainability equation. Do they have a balanced approach? Have they published a strategic plan? What have they done to date? How have they communicated this to their stakeholders?

From the “you’ve got to start somewhere” camp, all the social initiatives which benefit communities and employees, and all the green environmental programs that reach beyond regulatory compliance, don’t amount to a hill of dead Saguaros if they’re not economically sustainable.

I don’t need to tell anyone that efficiency, productivity and effectiveness (along with paying customers, of course) are they keys to an economically sustainable business. Nowhere is this more true than in the printing business. What I will tell you is that there are three things I see on a regular enough basis to be impressed with when present, or quite frankly, disappointed with by their conspicuous absence.

First is a centralized data repository, one where all the information about a customer and their associated orders are flexibly entered, edited, archived and retrieved by a variety of internal stakeholders at any step in the process. The only right way to do this is to have a single-point-of-entry management information system (MIS) in place which links customer profiles to their associated projects, and integrates the order entry, purchasing, receiving, inventory, production, shipping, AR, AP and CRM functions into one searchable and reportable mass of data. Even organizations who have one MIS for production, and another for financial are at a disadvantage if there is even the smallest gap in the ability to share data across the enterprise.

Second is the ability to formally automate logistics into the MIS. Bar-coding is amazingly effective for capturing real-time data, and to instantly record and track a myriad of activities. It has also become extremely affordable. Any organization not employing such accuracy-able technology needs to look closely at the time spent in identification, tracking, inventory analysis and replenishment logistics activities.

 I’ve seen well-implemented systems pay for themselves in less than a year. Whenever I talk to organizations who have recently implemented such systems, it’s always the same. “I can’t imagine how we ever did without it!” And for inventory-intensive (pick and pack) operations, RFID, which is available in varying levels to suit specific needs, is indispensable.

Third and least used in the industry from my perspective, is electronic capture of all hard-copy documents. Imagine a scenario where all documents associated with a particular project are captured into a searchable PDF archive by job number. One scenario is for a print job where all the hard-copy documents (such as supplier order acknowledgements, packing lists, invoices, signed customer proof sheets, AA’s and any other internal handwritten special communication) can all be organized into a specific electronic job folder and can even be cross-referenced (a specific inventory stock SKU used for multiple jobs, fore instance).

The very few organizations I’ve seen employ such a system are absolutely enamored by its effectiveness. Strategic placements of scanners throughout the enterprise are required, and receiving personnel among others must be trained how to use them, but once implemented, the benefits are inspiring.

Do these three things by themselves spell the economic success needed for an organization to be free to concentrate on the social end environmental arms of their Saguaro? No, but they do point to a management ethic that puts operational efficiency and conservation of human resources at the top of the list. It doesn’t mean that the environmental and social components should be ignored either. Think of each of the arms growing at different intervals and speeds, all the while balancing the core and avoiding collapse.

Share this post