7/1/2001 | 3 MINUTE READ


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While environmental change is demanding in terms of getting commitment and buy in, it isn't hard.


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"My kids have a much higher sensitivity and awareness of environmental issues than I do—and I'm an environmental professional. I get paid to work in this area," noted Tim O'Brien, director, Environmental Quality Office, Ford Motor Co. Which should not be taken as a notion that O'Brien isn't sensitive to the environment. Far from it. Although many of the recent reports about Ford seem to concentrate on its foibles and failures, one of the underreported aspects of the company is the fact that its manufacturing facilities are ISO 14001 certified. And that's all of its manufacturing facilities: 106 plants in 25 countries.

ISO 14001 is not the quality standard. It's the environmental management standard. O'Brien, describing how they were going to launch the system at Ford in the early 1990s, writes in the recently published Ford & ISO 14001: The Synergy Between Preserving the Environment and Rewarding Shareholders (McGraw-Hill; $99.95), "We didn't want the Ford environmental system to be viewed as another ISO system." When I asked him why they were concerned about that perception, O'Brien answered that there were some people in the company who came to the conclusion that ISO equated to detailed, bureaucratic, paper-intensive programs, that it was more about filling up three-ring binders and having expensive auditors coming in and less about substantive, valuable, positive change. And so far as he and many of the people at various levels with the organization were concerned—are concerned—there are some outstanding things that can occur when the environmental issues are concerned and addressed in an active, meaningful way. O'Brien and his peers wanted to facilitate that.

Lest you think that this smacks of tree-hugging, it should be noted that O'Brien explained the environmental approach at Ford as being one that is completely congruent with good manufacturing practice. There is the Ford Production System. There is the Ford Environment System. Both are concerned with waste—with the elimination of waste. "In our company, we regard waste as anything that leaves the plant that's not part of the product. Waste is cost. People can understand this in business terms. It's not a great leap to understand this environmentally." If you're throwing stuff away or wasting resources, then not only is there a financial cost, but there are environmental costs, as well: that which is tossed has to be handled in some way; that which, say, goes down the drain, could be gone for good, nonrenewable, and what's the value of that?

While environmental change is demanding in terms of getting commitment and buy in, it isn't hard. When I asked for an example of a tangible savings Ford has realized, he cited water conservation. They reckon they are saving on the order of three billion gallons per year and operating costs of $5-million. How? Simple: Like shutting off the water when it isn't being used. And it is exceedingly unlikely that Ford people are alone in their former water-unaware ways. "This isn't about the proverbial low-hanging fruit," O'Brien said. "This fruit is laying on the ground." One of the real benefits of an organization of Ford's size is that by being aware of things like water and compressed air use is that because of the magnitude, the savings are large. But organizations of all sizes can realize value—especially smaller companies, where the margins may be a whole lot thinner.

His point about the generational difference regarding the environment is echoed in another point. There are some people who maintain that the economics of doing things in an environmentally responsible manner aren't there, that it is too expensive. O'Brien said they discovered things that provided recognizable payback "even under the most conservative economic model." He added, "These are things a three-year-old could tell you make sense financially." Perhaps all of industry needs more kids.