A few thoughts on resilience
17 October 2021

In Pathways to resilience, I wrote about seeing performance in two dimensions. The sustainability practices of high performers are both wide-ranging and deep. They have developed ways:

  1. To protect, create and enable value at their intersect with society and nature (breadth); and
  2. To access the resources needed to continue their practices in the face of disruption (depth).

Organisations whose capabilities have both range and depth are likely to be more resilient. What they do may change, but they are more likely to survive with their identity intact. This is based on Snowden’s definition of resilience which is “survival with continuation of identity over time”. (Dave Snowden is the founder of The Cynefin Co and much of this blog series is informed by his complexity thinking. I am retooling my IP to keep it useful.) How do we deepen our practice? Again drawing on Snowden, I see three aspects of Sustainability practice that generally tell us an organisation is getting more mature. These are:

  1. Establishing a set of basic practices that help them make sense of their intersect with society and nature
  2. Coordinating these practices better at the centre
  3. Distributing sustainability practice (such as sense-making, risk detection and ideation) to where the organisation intersects with society and nature.

This is invariably an iterative process which is why I had to stop referring to these as “levels”. We might reflect afterwards and realise that all these aspects are addressed in our organisation, but we can’t know the best order for us to develop them at the start. Given that most of us are schooled in linear thinking, you might disagree with that, so let me take a step back to explain where it came from. My first corporate job was in the automotive sector. It was 1995, democracy had arrived and South Africa was rainbow-hued and brimming with potential…

Kaizen means ‘change for the good’. The Japanese management philosophy is usually translated as ‘continuous improvement’ and in the mid-nineties it permeated the Nissan SA factory at Roslyn, north of Tshwane. As their newly appointed Environmental Manager, I was part of a team implementing the ISO 14 001 Environmental Management System Standard launched the previous year. The Kaizen areas – where factory employees met every morning to share ideas on how things could be improved – were turning out to be integral to its implementation.

Nissan’s burly plant engineer, Chris Jansse van Rensburgh, was also big on the Gemba walk, a Japanese practice by which managers walk around looking for improvements (aka ‘Management By Walking Around’). Chris’s big thing was compressor leaks and he found enough to significantly decrease the electricity usage in the plant. (South African electricity was reliable and dirt cheap in those days, so this was quite a novel idea). As he tracked the trends Chris noticed that the local municipality had been undercharging the plant for several years due to a decimal error. Being an honest chap, he duly informed them, and an agreeable back-payment was negotiated. Despite the unintended consequence (I had over-confidently assured the CEO John Newbury that ISO would yield both environmental and cost benefits), Kaizen and Gemba were clearly critical to the process. While necessary for certification, the reams of ISO-compliant procedures I was helping them to write were like chaff by comparison.

Nissan duly gained the first automotive certification in the southern hemisphere which pleased them greatly; and a green-behind-the-ears industrial ecologist gained an unexpected lesson in distributed sense-making and informal networks – although she didn’t realise it at the time. With 20-20 hindsight, I can see rationally what I intuited then: that there were many environmental practices already underway at the Nissan plant. They just didn’t see them as ‘environmental’. Requiring increasing levels of depth, they were:

  • Clarifying sustainability practice. Informed by best practice as codified in ISO 14 001, our team was busily writing up environmental policies and procedures, dropping them into an accessible database and auditing the paintshop, bodyshop, trimshop, etc., for compliance. As we clarified our practices and aligned with ISO’s expectations, some improvements were made along the way.
  • Coordinating sustainability practice. Care for the environment was not a priority in the factory culture, but safety, health and quality were. Integrating environmental practices into existing safety and quality systems was a small shift and helped improve coordination. Environmental responsibility had already found traction in the CEO’s office: Newbury was one of a handful of South African execs who recognised environmental trends and their competitive implications at an early stage. (As a young graduate, I had written to Nissan requesting a bursary to study industrial ecology. Newbury called to interview me personally on a real car phone… I am indebted to his vision.)
  • Distributing sustainability practice. Fortunately for Nissan (and me), the plant’s distributed sensory network – the informed eyes, ears and hands of the workers meeting every morning in the Kaizen areas and its Gemba-walking managers – did the rest.

Nissan’s environmental effort started at the last bullet point. Without this, the first point would have been far more difficult and I doubt ISO certification would have been achieved as quickly. I suspect somewhere in all of this is a framework for maturity of sustainability practice and a way to think about sustainability practice as a path to resilience. I’m not there yet but I can make a general point: movement towards resilience is unequivocal. When we take our practice to another level (oops, there’s that word again), everything changes. This happens personally and I think it happens in organisations. It may include what Snowden calls a phase shift and I suspect I’m touching on it when I write about accessing energy at the intersect in The Waves II.

I think the unequivocal nature of this shift helps us to maintain identity over time.



Banner image is a photo by Sanni Sahil on Unsplash. Through my lens, it reflects the process of the moon ‘coming to fullness’ as expressed in the Zulu term ukuthwasa. The term describes the process of traditional initiation that catalyses a deep shift in cognition, necessary to graduate as a practitioner.



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