Scores of companies, colleges, and manufacturers around the world are now using or developing what are commonly known as “sustainability dashboards.” Industry observers may have considered these tools a fad several years ago; however, the fact that so many organizations are now involved in this rapidly developing technology indicates that dashboards have found their niche and proven their benefits. Among these benefits, they are helping organizations reduce energy use, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, create a culture of sustainability, and reduce operating costs.
As one might guess, this technology originally took its name from the automobile industry. Early versions of these tools were known as “business dashboards” or “executive dashboards.” Introduced during the late 1960s, they provided up-to-the-minute information about sales, business financials, and the like and were designed to be used by top-level executives such as CEOs and managers.
During the past 20 years, developers have introduced other types of dashboards, including operational dashboards (which monitor day-to-day business activities), database dashboards (which provide very specific sales, vendor, accounting, and customer updates), and now sustainability dashboards, which are sometimes referred to as key performance indicator (KPI) dashboard systems. All of these systems allow managers and team members to monitor what’s going on in an organization—from cash flow to fuel use—at a glance.
While early dashboard systems presented information in a spreadsheet format, the newer and more advanced sustainability dashboards available today present information graphically. They take advantage of visual perception and cognition to present information and statistics in a way that is far easier for people to analyze and understand.
KPIs, Goals, and Creating a Culture of Sustainability
Henry Ford was one of the first industrialists to explore the use of KPIs. Using such tools, he was able to speed up and streamline his company’s automobile production, cutting the time, and thus cost, of manufacturing each car. Ford passed on this savings to the customer. Although the first Model T was sold for $850, the price eventually dropped to under $300.
To begin the KPI process, Ford first determined how long it took to build a car—including how long it took to convert iron ore into a car. This information served as his benchmark. He then set new targets and charged his managers and employees with finding even more ways to make their processes faster.
A KPI is, very simply, a metric tied to a target. For example, in Ford’s case, the metric was the speed with which his company was able to build cars, and the target gradually changed as new ways were developed to manufacture cars more rapidly.
Today, businesses often use KPIs (although they are not necessarily called that) to set sales targets. For instance, they may set a target of selling 100,000 widgets per quarter, and then monitor how sales are going and how far the company is from reaching its goal on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis. One of the subtle but significant benefits of KPIs is that they often cause people to change the way they think; do their job; approach their day; even consider new purchases, products, and entire operating procedures. KPI targets help set new priorities for entire organizations.
When used to promote sustainability, KPIs can help create what is known as a culture of sustainability. This is when all operations, purchases, and procedures in an organization are considered in light of their impact on “the big picture”—including an organization’s staff, the environment, natural resources, society in general, and the local community—in addition to profits.
Future Directions for Sustainability Dashboards
In the past, many organizations gave little thought to sustainability and if they did think about it, it was often in connection with concerns about legal ramifications of some business operations. However, recent studies conducted by Siemens and McGraw-Hill Construction indicate that this is changing. More organizations are putting a higher emphasis on being sustainable, and legal issues are becoming less important. At the same time, the benefits of sustainability—such as reductions in operating costs and related savings—are increasingly taking center stage.
With sustainability becoming more and more important throughout society, organizations of all kinds will likely see the benefits of using dashboard systems to benchmark, measure, monitor, and report their progress. More organizations will adopt corporate KPIs, using dashboards to measure their progress. And as these changes in corporate philosophy evolve, cultures of sustainability will expand far beyond the business world, impacting entire communities and societies.
Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry, and CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools, which offers a cloud-based dashboard that allows organizations to measure, report, and improve their sustainability efforts. He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.