Sustainability is a philosophy, not an endpoint. Companies should always be striving to become more efficient and less wasteful instead of assuming they’re already as sustainable as they want or need to be. There’s always more progress to make, and there are real consequences for coasting on existing accomplishments. To understand why simply look at the supply chain. Any company invested in the global economy depends on its supply chain to be the foundation of the business. Everything is built on top of it, including the company’s environmental footprint. How you manage the transformation and transportation of assets in that supply chain ultimately determines the value you create for the world. And if your master plan isn’t streamlined, your flow of value cannot have high quality, consistency, and continuity. Assess Supply Chains in Real-Time Everyone wins when supply chains become more sustainable, but doing so requires a conscientious effort. Evaluating them yearly or even quarterly isn’t enough. Supply chains must be evaluated in real-time because that’s also the speed of waste: emissions, scrap, redundancy, and the like. You need to understand these problems when they happen, not months later, which makes access to real-time data from up and down the supply chain. Not surprisingly, most companies are missing this data. That does not mean, however, that improvements are impossible. My company has done research showing that supply chain managers often fail to properly map out processes, making it harder to identify bottlenecks. They also fail to systematically document supply chain problems, causing them to be forgotten instead of resolved. At the very least, you need to move data trapped in paper notebooks into computer spreadsheets. Once supply chain monitoring is digitized, the focus becomes collecting as much data as possible. Everything that is good and bad about the supply chain — from an economic and environmental standpoint — is represented in the data. Fortunately, there has never been a better time to start collecting thanks to recent innovations that make data more accessible than ever. Better still, these new tools address the kinds of bottlenecks that lead to inefficient and unsustainable supply chains. Here are some examples: 1. Run cleaner on the cloud. Multi production line optimization using nonlinear programming and machine learning on the cloud are steps a company can take to simultaneously care for the environment and its bottom line. Supplier issues can bring production to a halt. Late deliveries, poor part quality, and long lead times can all make critical components unavailable. Sourcing and procurement departments exist to mitigate this issue, but input bottlenecks remain common. Throughput issues are similar. Manufacturing is a precise process that is hard to systematize and just as hard to monitor. As a result, no manufacturer in history has ever been able to capture 100% of its productivity. Technology augmentation and machine learning can make the supply chain more predictable, but in-house servers require a lot of electricity and supporting equipment — cooling units and humidity control, for example — to run effectively. Plus, as the company scales, so does the computing impact on the environment. But the cost of cloud and computational processing power now make it economically affordable for more businesses of all sizes to use statistical optimization and modeling tools to run leaner, have more standardized business processes, and create less waste (through less scrap and rework). You can have expansive data storage and use fewer resources than when using on-site servers. When all of these elements combine, supply chains transform for the better. 2. Use tracking to streamline sales and operations. The sales and operations departments are closely linked yet poorly connected. Because of a lack of coordination, sales will over- or underestimate output forecasts, forcing operations to accommodate unrealistic demands. It’s a classic case of overpromising and underdelivering, and it has persisted for so long because there wasn’t a good way for these two departments to share information in real-time. Radio frequency identification tracking could prove to be a simple solution. Devices installed on any part of the supply chain — a machine, a piece of equipment, etc. — can collect data on that single component to identify inefficiencies that would have been invisible otherwise. RFID technology has already been used to make everything from cattle ranching to grocery shopping easier. Now, thanks to declining costs, it’s viable in complex manufacturing settings as well. After the devices start delivering data, operations can accurately estimate capabilities and communicate that data to sales. With RFID technology, your company can measure local data for any asset or machine to understand local and global flow within the internal and external supply chains of a company. This results in less machine runtime, fewer emissions, and less waste. 3. Standardize output with smart contracts. Some of the biggest supply chain bottlenecks occur as goods are heading out the door. Storage and shipping costs can quickly cut into profit margins. Not to mention that time-sensitive goods such as chemicals and food can spoil as they sit in warehouses. According to research from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 30% of global food waste occurs in the supply chain, which contributes 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Smart contracts link buyers and sellers in ways that benefit both. These contracts execute automatically. For example, when goods are delivered, payment is automatically released. Plus, sharing sales and inventory data and shipment information erases stoppages and uncertainty, which equals a more efficient supply chain. As smart contracts become standard, the waste that is so common in the last stages of production will become a thing of the past. Investing in new technology for the purposes of sustainability can be a hard sell in some organizations. Just remember that sustainability and prosperity go hand in hand, and what’s bad for the environment tends to be bad for the bottom line, too. Fortunately, with today’s technologies, companies can create the most productive supply chains in history. Whether you call them efficient or sustainable, they’re undoubtedly better than what came before. Have you found any other tools that address the bottlenecks that lead to inefficient and unsustainable supply chains? Let me know in the comments!