Life cycle thoughtfulness

For years we’ve made progress in “life-cycle thinking”, increasing our understanding of the life cycles of products, services and facilities.  In the last two weeks I’ve seen some promising signs that we’re moving toward the next step, “life-cycle thoughtfulness.” By “thoughtfulness” I mean going beyond all the analysis, taking the time to think through the implications of our life cycle understanding, especially for our own responsibilities and actions.

The big challenge in moving from life-cycle thinking to life-cycle thoughtfulness is often organizational more than conceptual.  We get the life cycle idea.  But in many companies, our own processes and roles make applying this idea difficult.  For excellent reasons, many companies manage key activities through a stage-gate process. Big projects – especially big investments like opening a new facility or developing a new product, for example – move through a staged process with structured “go/no-go” decision points.  Unless a project makes it through each decision gate, it cannot move to the next stage.

In theory stage-gate is a good control system.  In practice, stage-gate can be the enemy of life-cycle thoughtfulness.  Stage-gate processes often are interpreted to mean “my job is to move the project to the next gate; what happens 5 or 10 or 20 years from now is somebody else’s job.”  Questions about the long term can be reduced to box-ticking exercises needed to get past the next gate.  This has the unintended consequence of shortening people’s attention span to the current stage rather than extending it to the full life cycle of the project.

This distinction between thinking and thoughtfulness is at the heart of sustainability.  One definition of sustainability is “extending farther in time our awareness and understanding of impacts; and bringing back into the present our responsibility for taking action to prevent or minimize those impacts.”  Life-cycle thinking gets us halfway there, by helping us anticipate and understand impacts.  But unless we’re thoughtful about those impacts, including what we can and should do now about them, not much changes.

One positive sign of life-cycle thoughtfulness came from a client in Brazil.  Two weeks ago, I joined my colleagues in Rio de Janeiro for a client seminar, a light-hearted romp through “Integrated Financial Reporting Standards.”  We knew that the discussion might quickly turn to mine closure, an issue we’ve worked on extensively, especially from the remediation perspective.  The financial reporting standards could trigger accounting for mine closure at early stages of mine development.  But would this discussion trigger life-cycle thinking (“how do we do the analysis, account for it and tick the box?”) or more challenging life-cycle thoughtfulness (“how does mine closure affect our decisions and actions when opening a mine?”)?  The answer came shortly after the seminar when I received a very thoughtful email from a client who had participated in that seminar.  Writing late one night before heading back to a mine the next morning, the client wrote: “Organizations create risks throughout their lifecycle, liability increases as growth increases … When risks are recognized then it is possible to take a proactive approach to minimize and prevent those risks — driving value to the company.”

Another positive sign came just yesterday from a client in a very different industry and location. We met with a health-care client in the US.  The client has done excellent life-cycle thinking, performing life-cycle analyses of specific products in response to customer and marketing inquiries. The client is moving from this reactive work to something more thoughtful and powerful.  The client now defines their objective going forward as not just to do better analysis, but to “profoundly influence the design process.” They have identified 12 distinct but related stages at which they can influence the design process.That’s a pretty clear example of life-cycle thoughtfulness.

I’m even seeing promising signs of life-cycle thoughtfulness closer to home.  As consultants, it’s one thing to talk about all this stuff, and another to take your own medicine.  During my trip to Brazil, my colleagues began to look at the life cycle of our own projects, from marketing to sales to delivery to the residual relationships.  Then my colleagues took a facility life cycle slide (originally drawn with my colleague Jeff Gorham 18 years ago) and applied it to our own work in ways I’d missed completely.Together, we looked at decisions we make at each stage and which of those decisions might be improved by putting them more in the context of the full project life cycle.  In other words, we thoughtfully began to overcome our own stage-gate limitations.

I was sent down to Brazil in part to teach.  As usual, I learned much more than I taught.  Obrigado.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]

One comment

  1. having survived a course in LCA last term i can tell you that this is hard to get your arms around – but it is extremely important. in fact in the world of sustainability there’s not much that is more important. you like to eat ice cream? what happens to the cow manure? think in a circle, not in a line. close the loop!

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