Sustainability Happens When People and Innovation Collide

This is part three of the exclusive three-part Manufacturing Sustainability series, intended to delve deeper into the dynamics of sustainable manufacturing, what it means, how it is achieved, the value it can bring to the business enterprise and customers. This article focuses on the integration of people and innovation to drive sustainable manufacturing. 

People are the heart of innovation. For America's manufacturing economy to thrive it needs a talented workforce, but one that also understands that a fourth dimension of competitiveness now exists. Companies compete not only on price, quality, and speed to market. They now also compete on their ability to address and solve complex sustainability challenges.

People are the glue that binds ingenuity and technology to create innovations that have sustainable (economic, environmental, and social) impact. Businesses that embrace sustainability within their culture are more apt to integrate (and capitalize on) the potential of their people with the opportunities in the external market.

Without the passion, power, commitment, and accountability of people, the equation for sustainability simply will not add up. People are the continuity between machines and products, policies and programs, performance and results. People embody business culture and enable the organizations to work as an ecosystem of interrelated requirements. If the ecosystem is not in balance the organization suffers.

Harbec Inc. has understood the criticality of the people quotient toward fostering sustainable manufacturing for a long time. In fact, Harbec's top core business value is "employees are our No. 1 asset." As a tooling, machining, prototype development, molding, and production business, Harbec has a wide range of employee skill sets and capabilities. Each employee and the skills they bring to their professional expertise are equally valued by management and customers of the business.

Harbec has a myriad of programs, activities, resources, and support that serve to educate, engage, empower, and reinforce employees' trust in the business. Examples include: family days for regional entertainment and sports, purchasing power clubs, scalable and affordable health insurance for all employees, opportunities for continuing education, employee appreciation days, cost-sharing for employees choosing to buy renewable power, and comprehensive benefits packages.

The company has also introduced internal working groups and committees which employees can choose to be a part of. For example, Harbec's committees for social responsibility, internal energy audits, and safety are employee driven with management team participation. The committees meet monthly to quarterly and represent the top-down bottom-up integration of shared values that guide business decisions.

What differentiates this culture from other companies is the quality of care, compassion, and personal attention that goes into the delivery of benefits to each employee. Management has embraced an attitude of care which enables employees the "freedom to operate." Knowing that someone "has their back" enables employees to be innovative, take reasonable risks, and grow into their positions by utilizing their highest and best talents and skills.

By enabling its people to realize their full potential, business can create a loyal, hardworking, and innovative organization. So when questions of sustainability arise, employees ask how they get involved. This approach to create, support, and drive cultures of innovation within the manufacturing environment is akin to the cultures created at Google, Yahoo, Apple, and other leading edge businesses.

The management team at Harbec puts enough structure in place to guide daily operations but also encourages transparency, teamwork, and a philosophy of open sourced innovation. The net result is a business culture that simultaneously drives operational excellence, seeks continuous improvement, and proactively integrates technology and institutional know-how to create solutions. The culture is balanced and reinforced by a strong internal project management discipline and integrated teamwork approach.

Innovation Offers the Opportunity to Access New Markets

Understanding the limitations of the current economy and constraints on future natural resources, Harbec proactively looks for innovative materials, machines, and customers in support of its mission and goals for business growth. Last week's article highlighted Harbec's pursuit of energy efficiency and operational excellence as a primary objective.

In addition to these energy efficiency, management, and clean power generation initiatives, the firm has also proactively explored environmentally benign, bio-based, and "more sustainable" product designs, materials, equipment, production methods, packaging, and logistics. To achieve success in its sustainability goals however, the company understands that it must manage its business risks and opportunities together with the needs of its customers and the daily demands upon financial resources. This ability to integrate people and machine in ways that have overcome challenges or spurred entirely new innovation with tangible business results is highlighted in its pursuit of metal injection molded parts.

Harbec formed a partnership with Cool Polymers, a manufacturer of a high-performance, proprietary material for injection molding aimed at bringing its zinc-aluminum alloy product Xyloy and its metal injection molding process for the material to a broader market. Leveraging its capabilities in tight tolerance components, Harbec collaborated with Cool Polymers to build and run injection molds of Xyloy. The teaming arrangement has proven successful and Harbec and Cool Polymers have proven that Xyloy can be produced as a tight tolerance high-performance metal part from a mold.

Management sought Xyloy as a molding process that could dramatically reduce the total energy required to develop zinc-aluminum by 60 to 80 percent. Using this process also helps the company differentiate itself.

While Harbec's culture is one that is enterprising and proactive, employees were challenged by the integration of Xyloy molding. The team had to modify an injection molding machine, conduct several trial runs, optimize machine tolerances, and establish quality thresholds so that the parts were produced efficiently and reliably. Management support and effective communication helped make the integration a success. The alignment of vision with trust, accountability, and a disciplined approach to innovation bound by strong communication were the elements that led to Harbec's successful adoption of Xyloy.

By investing equally in the people side of the business as well as in new machines, Harbec has been able to integrate innovation and sustainability in ways that are truly unique and which differentiate the business and sharpen its competitive edge. The management of people is built upon trust and accountability. By fostering an environment where employees grow their careers based upon their highest utilization of their skills combined with an ongoing commitment to professional development, the business is able to retain its talent and position them for optimal success.

Putting the Pieces Together

While it is not there yet, "sustainable manufacturing" may very well become the new status-quo of the industrial world in the next decade. The reason for this is not grounded in altruistic points-of-view, but in pragmatic business realities tied to competition and innovation. For more than 40 years manufacturers have embraced new paradigms for productivity (lean), quality (Six Sigma), and other ways to reduce costs, add-value, and remain competitive.

A whole new world is being created through the lens of sustainability. It is not and will not be perfect, as humans are imperfect. However, what sustainability brings to the business mindset is an opportunity to incorporate more holistic and systems-level critical thinking to the challenges of the day. Sustainability offers a framework to identify, analyze, and prioritize the material issues that impact the business. In doing so the business has a more informed sense of which internal and external drivers may be most important to address first, second, third and so on.

As you dig into sustainability the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of decisions, outcomes, and impacts become more transparent. As a result, over time the collective knowledge, logic, and IQ of individuals and organizations increases, reinforcing critical thinking and informed decision making.

As the transition to sustainable manufacturing has begun, it has been evident competing on price, quality, performance remain as top requirements of suppliers. However the fourth dimension of sustainability has now also become a value-add differentiator for many businesses.

The development of a sustainable manufacturing enterprise does not happen at a press of a button or turn of a key. Rather, it is a long-term commitment to "manufacture sustainability" from within the leadership and culture of the business, and by continuously providing value to your customers, employees, investors, stakeholders, and community in ways which bridge your and their definition of success.

coleman1_bioMark Coleman is business development manager for Harbec Inc. He is the author of the book The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Personal Accountability is Essential NOW!

Throughout his career, Mark has developed a strong focus on the critical areas of energy, environment, and sustainability. His career has spanned strategic and leadership positions in government, applied research, technology development, and management consulting organizations.  This rich and diverse experience has enabled him to have access to, engage, and work with a broad range of regional, national, and international leaders on the subject of sustainability.

Mark resides in Auburn, N.Y., with his wife, Aileen, and two sons, Owen and Neal.

Read part one of this series, Sustainable Manufacturing Is Shaping America's Industrial Future.

Read part two of this series, 
Using Operational Excellence to Achieve Sustainability and a Competitive Advantage.

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