How Much Can Human Behavior Affect Supply Chain Sustainability?

by | Jan 6, 2015

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david dornfeldMy past articles have included discussions of the Ricoh Comet Circle and the circular economy as reasonable representations of several (perhaps oddly) connected elements in a more holistic view of sustainable systems as they influence green manufacturing. Connections in the context of those discussions have been about “material” interactions and movement … what comes from where, what goes where, where is “away” when something is thrown away at its end of life?

Over the New Year break, a number of discussions came to light about the other side of the “circular economy” coin … influence and effects beyond processes, materials, transportation, energy, water and so on. This needs some explanation. What is referred to here is the influence decisions have on other decisions, people, experiences, quality of life, etc. Behind the smooth interconnectedness of our global economy sits a complex infrastructure of people, places, things. Sometimes these are simply referred to as “the supply chain.” But it’s not that simple. More importantly, if it was that simple we’d not be addressing core values of the many actors in the supply chain.

Data, especially that collected at different speeds and representing different “views” of the enterprise from top to bottom as discussed in my last article, is currently focused on these material interactions and movements.  As referred to in my previous article on the digital revolution, communication speeds, computational capability and speed and the hardware spitting out the data from machines and systems are more common, less expensive and more reliable. But, do they tell us the whole story? Or, more significantly, what would be needed (or how would we analyze this data and use it) to tell the rest of the story?

This definitely needs some elaboration! Let’s rely on an old analogy … the “butterfly effect.”  One can find lots about this on the web but, basically, according to WiseGEEK “the butterfly effect is a term used in chaos theory to describe how small changes to a seemingly unrelated thing or condition (also known as an initial condition) can affect large, complex systems. The term comes from the suggestion that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in South America could affect the weather in Texas, meaning that the tiniest influence on one part of a system can have a huge effect on another part. Taken more broadly, the butterfly effect is a way of describing how, unless all factors can be accounted for, large systems like the weather remain impossible to predict with total accuracy because there are too many unknown variables to track.” The site goes on to comment on the fact that there are skeptics that this really works (due, for example, to things in large systems that tend to dampen, or attenuate, effects) but they do argue that is is applicable to complex systems beyond the weather.

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