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This page contains information that you may find useful on your journey to continuous improvement. Please feel free to use it where ever you like. If you'd like to reference me, that would be great. If you'd like anymore information please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Making stuff stick

What is sustainability?

In order to better understand the concept of sustainability and in to develop strategies and mechanisms to encourage it we should start by understanding what it is not. We can do this by contrasting sustainability with something it is often mistaken for. A tool. Sustainability is not a tool.

Sustainability vs. Tools


We can show someone how to carry out a 5C or 5S activity. Should we choose to, we could force people to carry it out. 5C is a distinct activity. You can see it.  You can say “we will do a 5c session at 3.00pm”. Having set this target, we can check achievement of this task. It is a wholly tangible process and has either been carried out or has not. The only intangibles are:

  •  How good is the result, as this is at least in part subjective
  • Is it complete yet, as by the nature of continuous improvement and the fifth improvement spirit There can be no end point or ultimate target

In the above scenario, you can follow the four steps of the PDCA loop easily and clearly. All continuous improvement tools follow the PDCA logic and structure


Can you teach someone how to do sustainability? Anecdotally possibly? i.e. How have others continued in a self sustained manner.  Can you force someone to sustain continuous improvement?  If you are forcing someone, then you must be applying some form of outside influence, and if this is true then the activity is not self-sustaining, as removal of the outside influence will cause the activity to cease. I suggest that Sustainability could not, in itself, be an activity. You cannot tell when sustainability has started or indeed when it has been achieved.

Lets try applying the PDCA logic to sustainability.

Sustainability and the PDCA Model

In common with all PDCA loops, we should start by determining our plan. This should be a statement of intended aim action or goal. If we assume the obvious statement for the Plan stage is “Achieve sustainability” .However, if we apply equally simple and obvious logic to the other stages of the loop, we will immediately see the problem.

Plan Acheive Sustainability
Do Implement Sustainability
Check Has Sustainability been achieved?
Act Repeat or refine



The first problem is that we do not know how to DO sustainability! Indeed as we discussed earlier, sustainability is an intangible and so, through logic, it should be impossible to DO sustainability. The second problem is how do we judge that sustainability has been achieved? Does an improvement that has been applied in a workplace last week and is still in place today, prove that the improvement is sustainable?

Having reached this roadblock in our logic, it is important to re-state that which we know to be true.

  1. It is impossible to DO sustainability
  2. We know sustainability exists
  3. We know that sustainability can be achieved
  4. We want to achieve sustainability
  5. We want to support sustainability

Is there another model, which fits the above known facts?

To keep a plant growing tall and very straight.

Although it is possible to say I will grow a plant, we as humans cannot “grow” a plant. We certainly cannot DO a tall straight plant. We know tall straight plants exist. We know that growing a very tall and very straight plant can be achieved. We want to achieve a straight tall plant. We want to support this straight tall plant.

The above is a far from perfect substitute model for the original problem, however, it does raise some issues.

It is not possible for any of us to walk into a room containing a plant and “grow it straight and tall” Growing something is not an action we can physically take.  However as growing a plant is something quite familiar to us the problem appears less complex than the parallel question of sustainability.  If we wish to make a plant grow tall and straight, then we know of a number of actions that we should take in order to support the plants own efforts to grow straight and tall.  We would ensure that it had the correct soil and the correct food and just enough water. We might position it so that light was coming from above to encourage the plant to grow up towards the light and therefore straight. If the plant started to lean over one way, we might rotate the pot through 180 degrees in order to get it to grow the other way. After an interval we would then check the effect of this plan before acting again.

What the above model demonstrates is that the act of growing a tall straight plant is not something that we can DO. The plant does this. What we can DO is create the environment, which we believe will best encourage & support the desired effect. We then review the effect and adjust the environment as necessary. When viewed in this way, we are in control of all of the variables and we can support the desired effect.

Internal drivers

An extension of the plant analogy is that we can create the same supporting environment for two plants, One is a sun flower and the other a spider plant. The spider plant will never grow tall and straight as it has a different internal driver. Where the sunflower wants to be tall and straight as that satisfies its own internal driver, (Reach above all the other foliage, get the most sun as quickly as possible and drop it seeds). The spider plant’s internal driver is to spread wide, and shade its soil to preserve water. Companies and people are the same. You can provide the perfect environment for them to sustain improvements, but if they do not want to sustain the improvement then they will not. The art is in either:-

  1. Identifying what their true internal driver is, and ensuring that your improvements help them satisfy this
  2. Replacing their current internal driver with a stronger or more urgent one. This time aligned with the desired change. A “Burning bridge scenario”

Sustainability vs. Lean

Sustainability is better likened to ‘Lean’ or ‘continuous improvement’. Many companies claim to be “Lean” this is in fact an impossible statement. You can be leaner than you were yesterday and you can have plans that will make you leaner tomorrow but you never achieve lean. It is an unending journey of continuous improvement. Lean is a direction rather than a destination. Think of a company proclaiming that they “are now lean” in the same way as stating, “I am east!” Yet you can always move just a little further east.

Sustainability is similar. You can have sustained an improvement from last month until today. But the essence of sustainability is that it carries on into the future, and no one can know if that will happen until we reach the future, and of course the problem with the future is, that it is always tomorrow!

So sustainability is a direction and a journey no different to the lean journey. What I hope to share with you through future instalments on this site are some of the secrets of creating the right atmosphere, circumstances and environment in which sustainable continuous improvement and change are highly likely to occur. Additionally I will share some tools which, as previously discussed cannot and do not “create” sustainability, but they will enable it.

Do you have a question or an opinion on the philosophy shared above? I would love to hear your thoughts. Email me on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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