The day I stood elbow deep in garbage, donning plastic gloves and sorting types of waste, two things came to my mind: I have to send a picture of this to my Mom with the title “career highlights” and … you really learn a lot about when people when you sort through their trash!
Our “tale of three trash bins” is as much a story about sustainability, (or waste reduction and diversion), as it is a story about systems thinking and behavioral change. And what made all of this rewarding for me was seeing that, as a company, as individuals and as communities, we can make a positive impact toward solving big problems simply by understanding our systems better.
We started our “Less to landfill” challenge at 36 percent waste diversion, with a goal of taking that to 80 percent -- and we made it, but not without challenges, ongoing analysis and constant fine-tuning of our systems. The full case study was documented by the uniquely talented team of faculty and students at Presidio Graduate School, with a systems thinking perspective in mind. In fact, they will be sharing this as part of a learning curriculum with their students.
My hope is to provide some real “hands on” (or “hands in,” if you will!) examples for other sustainability professionals working on business transformation initiatives -- and hopefully some inspiration. Here are a few of our key insights:
1. People first
People are at the core of business systems, and change cannot happen without people. Systems are made up of interacting and interdependent components -- and each person relates and interacts with non-living systems very differently. Focusing on people first as the primary “users” of our systems was vital to the success of our initiative.
Our CEO was one of the most important “people” in the system. He made the decision to set the goal to 80 percent (our team had recommended 60 percent) based upon the benchmarking we shared with him, and he announced the challenge to the campus. He remained an active communicator and influencer throughout the process by providing updates to leaders and employees and by providing recognition to the teams’ efforts and success. Our Southlake Eco Team leaders and members were also primary influencers and change ambassadors -- we dubbed them ”Trash Ambassadors.” They devised games such as a “which bin does it go in” relay race to make the challenge fun, they collected precious feedback for continuous improvement, and they provided education for employees on campus. And finally, each time we got stuck, our facility management and housekeeping teams helped ensure fixes and improvements along the way.
2. Listen to the music
"Culture" is the background music of a system; it’s one of the most vague yet prevalent words you hear when people explain the success (or failure) of any business initiative. It is hard to explain, to quantify, to assign merit or blame. It’s like background music -- sometimes you hear it, sometimes you don’t -- but it’s always there. It can be a distraction, making everything feel out of sync or overpowered, or it can bring people together in a harmonized and collaborative environment.
Our music was to the tune of “we” -- WE can succeed, WE will meet our goal. The most striking example was hearing our facilities management company (Jones Lang LaSalle) and our housekeeping company, continually use the words “we” during every meeting. They felt the challenge to succeed as much as our employees did, and were equally committed to meeting the goal.
3. Tune in to feedback
Effective feedback systems are essential for the successful implementation of any initiative. Systems and people are dynamic and can change in response to feedback, so it’s important to allow for flexibility in a plan to incorporate changes along the way. Feedback mechanisms help us gain new insights, gather new ideas, and communicate a sense of possibility towards achieving our goal.
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