Clarity, Focus, and Execution

Creating a sustainability culture

Year 2008 was a time of great volatility. Financial volatility. Oil price and commodity-index volatility.

Geo-political volatility. Given such upset, it would be easy for companies to lose focus on their core business operations, financial controls, environmentally green initiatives, and other key areas required for success.

The response to such volatility is sustainability. In addition to working to recover shrinking revenue driven by a down economy and recovering brand erosion caused by a lost focus, businesses will be energized to create a more sustainable business model.

Sustainability comes from having controls in place in key areas of operation that form a buffer against potentially disastrous events. Having spent more than 20 years in the airline industry—an industry characterized by volatility—I have been able to apply many of the principles that engineers bring to the workplace to influence success.

I believe that the goal of "sustainability success" can be achieved by focusing on key areas of strength. The first areas—clarity, focus, and execution—are key to achieving improved results at a faster pace:

Clarity: Be clear about what you really want to achieve, both in business and in life.

Focus: Avoid distractions and concentrate on high-leverage activities that produce the most significant results.

Execution: Use strategic communication to exceed expectations and get faster results.

Process: Clearly define processes in all areas of business that work for employees and customers. This includes processes to ensure financial controls, and, in a service industry, processes that ensure consistent delivery for all customer touch points. It is also important to have processes that ensure that environmental goals are achieved. As consumer expectations change, or as manufacturing and technology change, processes must keep pace with the change to remain effective.

Ownership: Engage employees at all levels when a process is

designed, implemented, executed, or changed. In this component, there must be clear ownership at all levels of hierarchy within the company's infrastructure. Senior management must be engaged to offer direction, support, and investment; mid-level leaders must be committed to overseeing the day-to-day operations; and front-line leaders, along with employees, are essential to effective delivery.

Accountability: Employ simple metrics that are understood by all, communicated frequently, and measured often to ensure that your business is aware of changes caused by external volatility and can adapt and manage appropriately through turbulent times. Customers expect quality products in manufacturing and consistent delivery in service-oriented businesses.

The key is to keep it simple. Volatility breeds complexity. A simple approach to sustainability will ensure a desirable end result. A constant review of the six key areas for effective sustainability, coupled with an intense focus on execution, should lead engineers down a path towards sustainability in their chosen fields.

-Mark Mitchell (BSIE '85) is managing director of Customer Experience for American Airlines.