The Triple Bottom Line

Billy Ingram, Director of Lean Product Development, Interface
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Billy Ingram, Director of Lean Product Development, Interface

Blurb: People are the Priority for the Triple Bottom Line: A New Method for Engaging with Stakeholders to Improve Social Responsibility Performance

The term ‘triple bottom line’, people, planet, and profit, was brought forth as an idea two decades ago. In 1994 John Elkington’s “Cannibals with Forks” was published in which he outlined his then radical views around improving organizational effectiveness with sustainability in mind. In his book, Elkington suggested measuring and reporting on social and environmental activities in addition to economic factors. He proposed that companies should place equal weight on all three components of the triple bottom line. From a sustainability perspective, each component is important. But the people part is arguably the most important.

People are at the core of all decisions. Decisions and how they are made have a great effect on the other two bottom line components. Therefore people and the processes around decision making should be priorities if you want to impact the triple bottom line. As we all know, this is easier said than done.

Agreeing in principle and practically implementing an idea are two very different things. In the past I lacked a practical skill set to effectively measure and report on social responsibility activity much less guide and improve it. Through application, I gained the experience and learnt how to effectively quantify both economic and environmental metrics and improvements. But when it came to social responsibility (SR), I struggled to quantify what I intuitively knew was the right thing to do. Although intuition guides you to trust something is true, the path forward is often not clear. I’ve heard it said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. In my situation, this was the case; not only was I ready, but I was in need of a solution for an important project.

 From a sustainability perspective, each component is important 

Early last year, I met Holly Duckworth, co-author of “A Six Sigma Approach to Sustainability: Continual Improvement for Social Responsibility” at a six sigma conference. Holly and her co-author Andrea Hoffmeier developed curriculum for the Continual Improvement for Social Responsibility Methodology, also known as CISR. The 6-Step SOFAIR Method introduced in this book provides a rigorous problem solving and continual improvement framework, which gives attention to: stakeholders, social responsibility subjects, business objectives, project focus, analysis, innovation and improvement, and sustainability reporting. The method was specifically developed for the implementation of the International Standard ISO 26000, Guidance on social responsibility. This new approach provided me with exactly what I was seeking.

In the CISR Certified Practitioner Course, I learnt a practical way to quantify, analyze, and understand the effect of social responsibility on sustainability. To say the course was rigorous would do it a great disservice. Through the certification process I learnt how to apply lean and six sigma tools which I had used for decades to understand and improve the social aspects of my projects. The most enlightening part and the hardest for me to initially comprehend, was the importance of stakeholder engagement.

Up until this point I had been following the DMAIC approach, which is common among lean, six sigma and sustainability professionals. DMAIC is an acronym for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control commonly used as a core tool in project development and management. However, the application of the SOFAIR method, and specifically the stakeholder framework, sparked a new perspective for me.

My new perspective and fresh insights allowed me to quantify the social aspects of my projects. I began applying lean and six sigma tools that I already knew for a different purpose and with a very different outcome. Some of the tools that I already used includedproject charters, root cause analysis and line balancing. There are many others I could list depending on the project. One of the unique tools specific to the stakeholder portion of the CISR SOFAIR Method is the Stakeholder Engagement Power and Influence Analysis or SEPIA. The SEPIA Tool provided me with a way to identify stakeholders, understand their needs, and anticipate risks. This particular solution informed my past intuition. The instinct that told me there was a practical way to quantify and guide innovation while carefully considering the social responsibility aspects surrounding it. Spring-boarding from the original SEPIA Tool, I used it to develop a plan for how to effectively address issues and communicate more effectively with them. This SEPIA 2.0 version is now used in SHERPA Sustainability Institute courses and workshops.

As I completed the course and CISR Practitioner Certification, existentially I became aware of a greater alignment of my innovation skills as it related to all three of the triple bottom line components. This was in contrast to my previous focus on my more mainstream work experience around the quantification of economic and environmental measures. For me it has been a game changer. As a CISR Coach, I have been able to learn even more; as it is said, we teach what we most need to learn.

Gaining and possessing the knowledge to create a sustainable system is not an easy task. It takes years of learning and practice to truly grasp the concepts and practically apply them. I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to explore, learn, apply, advance, and teach these types of concepts for several decades. Owning and understanding the perspective that allows me to impact the triple bottom line from a social responsibility aspect has and will help me create more sustainable solutions. Every person reading this article has the potential to learn and apply this methodology. I hope you will take advantage of the opportunity to do the same.

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