Part II: My Toaster Wasn't Being Completely Honest With Me When It Said I Didn't Look Fat In These Jeans | 08.19.14 |

There has a lot that's been written as of late about the Internet of Things, including a piece on GE's push to build industrial products that communicate with one another to develop a collective level of self-awareness. There was also a special issue that I enjoyed in Wired that was sponsored by Cisco, which described an Internet of Everything — machines talking to one another, but including us humans in the dialogue in various forms. (Note: This post is not sponsored by GE, Cisco, or Wired, but I am not too proud to take one's money should you choose to throw it at me. Hint, hint. I am not picky. Are you listening Chico's Bail Bonds?)

A lot of what's been projected describes machines within networks sending up a white flag when they need service because they are about to breakdown. That's the type of thing that will be increasingly valued as we move toward an economy that seeks out longevity for the purpose of minimizing the growing costs of materials (Remind me to blog about that at some point over the next few months).

What else will our things tell us? Will they be programmed to inform us if they are having a negative impact on our health and environment, and to what extent? Will they understand us so well that they prod us to get a checkup for various ailments due to the substances to which they've exposed us (OK. I'll place some of the accountability on the human in this relationship who had purchased the object, but only a small percentage. We are weak, and need to fetishize our objects, after all).

Unlikely? Elements of it exist today. Already thermostats are sharing information about your behavior and the energy consumption of your neighbors as a way to drive desired behavior. The same has been happening for a few years with hybrid cars presenting how much gas the driver is using based on how he/she is using the vehicle.

So our stuff will be a networked machine that serves to augment our conscience. That's a good thing, because we need all the help that we can get. But it still leaves the question unanswered as to whether our stuff will be honest with us about how they're harming us, or how they've harmed other people or places throughout their lifecycles. Will my Betamax VCR be honest with me about whether it was made with migrant slave labor? (Yes, they will be making a comeback. That is included in this round of predictions.) If omission is a lie, and the machine hasn't been programmed to tell us everything about their negative impact, than yes, our augmented conscience will unfortunately be only slightly more ethical than we are.

What if I proactively ask my things about their impact on me? Will they be able to lie to me about any harm they're causing me? More importantly, will my toaster be honest with me when I ask whether I look fat in these jeans? Do I want it to?

No. No, I do not. Not if I want another piece of toast.

Part I: Cautiously Audacious Prediction of Personal Predictive Analytics | 08.01.14 |

I'm going to take a shot at an audacious prediction. In X years, the sensors surrounding us, combined with crowdsourced data, advances in computer learning and advanced analytics will be able to predict our health, wellbeing and life expectancy … based on the products we purchase and consume. (OK — Maybe it's not so audacious, since I never actually gave you a date. How about cautiously audacious?)

Think about it … Your medical data will be removed from the world of sloppy handwritten prescriptions, and will become digitized, and dumped into the stew of anonymous aggregated medical data (whether that is via a patchwork of APIs connecting the systems of our health care providers or whether we voluntarily share that via crowdsourced health sharing platforms). Combine that with the fact that most products will have embedded sensors in the product and/or packaging. Your mayonnaise-filled Twinkies (that's another prediction of mine) will tell your fridge that they've arrived. The fridge will tell your personal health database, which will calculate the health impact of that, and every product that has either crossed your lips, touched your skin, or spent a calculable amount of time in your presence, resulting in a neat histogram of the probable date and cause of your death. Neat, huh?

That's an obvious example (well, not really). Let's expand on that a bit more and add a few more examples. You buy a new home, and a new living room set soaked with flame retardants. You also need to do a bit of home repair, so you buy some caulk and paint, and get to work. You finish the project, take a step back to admire your creation, and notice that your watch is flashing a skull and crossbones icon on your wrist, trying to tell you that you've increased your risk of certain cancers by 1%. You whip your watch across the room, upset that you can't even complete a home project without Apple/Google/Amazon/Facebook reminding you of your incessant lurch toward mortality. Little did they know that you actually increased your risk of cancer by an additional 2% because you also sanded the wall that had been covered in fifty-year old lead-based paint that was added well before the days of sensors added to products. You showed him, didn't you? (Actually, the system incorporated that, as it had been detected by the air monitoring system embedded in the air ducts of your home.)

RFID tagged products already interact with their environment within the confines of the retail store (self-fulfillment), and sensors will interact with the appliances and built environment of our home in the near future (Internet of Things). It really isn't such a stretch to think that they will interact with the people who use and consume them in a way that supports the health and well-being of that individual.

I know what you're thinking. This seems like a lot of trouble and coordination. Wouldn't it be easier simply to take the toxins out of products?

Uh … yeah.

Next week - Look for my slightly less cautiously audacious prediction titled, 'My Toaster Wasn't Being Completely Honest With Me When It Said I Didn't Look Fat In These Jeans'.

Out of Control and Rolling Coal! | 07.22.14 |

People say that things are getting more complex. I read it in forecasts and analyst reports, and hear it frequently from colleagues and customers in my industry. My customers design and manufacture products, and are faced with a growing menu of regulatory requirements. (Menu isn't the right word. Make that an All You Must Eat buffet. But it's like one of those mediocre joints that tries to include every kind of ethnic food, and screws all of it up.) What I mean is that the issue isn't in the fact that the products we ingest and surround ourselves with are subject to regulation. The issue that frustrates and confuses many people is the vast array of slightly differing regulations that are mandated simultaneously by multiple municipalities and state- and federal-level agencies. I can have unlimited amounts of substance x in my product in Nevada, but only so much in New York, and even less in Washington State. And don't even get me started on California. What?!? We sell that stuff in Europe? Get me two aspirin, a meeting with our General Council, and a morphine drip!

This is, in part, an issue of collective ownership and governance, and a paradox of the day and age in which we live. Not only do multinationals have a footprint and significant authority that crosses borders, but many have a market cap larger than the GDP of the very countries in which they operate. Their influence and authority, in many cases, trumps that of the local elected official. Yet, those same globe-striding corporate Atlases are subject to obey the laws of the smallest municipalities in which they operate (Assuming that they are enforced, of course. That is a subject for an entirely different post). To compound that, they are not only subject to each of the requirements of even the smallest municipality, but they are subject to the requirements of ALL municipalities where they operate. The might that is acquired by an increasing global footprint is countered by the complexity inherent in operating in so many contexts (legal, in this case, but the same can be said for cultural).

Here's where I'm going with this … People say that things are getting more complex, because of the growing web of regulation intended to keep us safe. Things aren't getting more complex … THEY HAVE ALWAYS BEEN COMPLEX. The difference is that we are only beginning to gain visibility into, and gain an understanding of, the things that have always existed that are at the root of what's driving the complexity. Only recently have we begun to account for the stew of chemistry and social/environmental impact that has been baked into any product assembled in multiple countries with components composed of multiple materials and complex formulations of man-made substances. Just because we are only beginning to discover the complexity doesn't mean that it hasn't been with us all the while.

  • We have been emitting coal into our air for 3000 years.
  • We have been ingesting pesticides since 1847 (Arsenic, to be specific).
  • Slavery can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi (1760 BC)

It's not as if fuels, materials, chemicals and working conditions have suddenly become dangerous. There have been negative environmental, health and social impacts of all of these things as long as we've used them. It's only recently (relatively speaking) that the risks have been accounted for.

OK, so manufacturers, brands, distributors and OEMs are wrestling with this newly discovered complexity, which has been there all the while, but which has been misunderstood, unregulated, underestimated or unaccounted for. There's no need to beat a dead horse … except for the pure sadistic pleasure, of course (to rip off the comedian A. Whitney Brown). I'm going to connect another dot that may seem unrelated, perhaps because I stumbled across this a few days ago and it freaked me out.

Apparently, some climate change deniers are retrofitting their cars to burn more gas and spew black smoke as some sort of protest. It's like cutting out your lungs to spite credible science. (BTW - It's called Rolling Coal, in case you're out of touch with the whole Coal Rolling scene.) Now, it's easy to look at people doing this and lob invectives at them. They are stupid. They are ignorant. They are denying obvious scientific fact. It feels good (like the dead horse beating, for some), but doesn't actually accomplish positive change. I tried to push myself a bit further to have a sense of empathy toward someone who would do something so blatantly destructive and purposeless.

People are freaked out by change. The change, in this case, has been here with us for quite some time; so it's not the contents of it, but the accelerated pace of our ability to see and partially understand it. The more we learn, the more complex things seem, and the more out of control we feel. That's what people mean when they say that things are getting more complex, and that's why some are freaking out and irrationally lashing out with the few things they feel they can control.

That is my society-wide psychoanalysis. I will bill each of you an incremental portion in next month's billing cycle.

Minty Fresh Pesticides! | 06.18.14 |

I recently glanced at the contents of the toothpaste my children were using, and was shocked and dismayed to see that it contained Triclosan, the active ingredient in most antibacterial soaps. If you're shrugging your shoulders and are numb to the amount of stuff in our stuff, let me take you through my own education on the topic.

Rewind a few years, when antibacterial soaps were being marketed fairly aggressively. At that point, most people thought, 'Bacteria bad. Dead bacteria good.' Initially, I didn't think much of it — What's the harm of me pumping my .015% concentration of Triclosan down the drain of my bathroom sink? Gradually, I realized that I wasn't the only person doing the chemical pump and dump, and that in aggregate, we were collectively dumping a significant amount of the stuff into our waterways. If you're still thinking, 'Bacteria bad. Dead bacteria good.' you're neglecting the impact that killing all sorts of necessary bacteria has on the remainder of the downstream food chain. That is a pretty substantial number of impacted organisms, considering that bacteria are considerate enough to line up fairly early in the food chain to volunteer to be a sandwich for the guy next in line. I didn't know the exact impact, but I figured that common sense dictated that it had to be bad, based on the potential ripple effect downstream. (If it's helpful, get a refresher on good bacteria from one of those elementary school film reels with a title like, Your Buddy Bifidus and the Case of the Swollen Colon.)

Fast forward to December 2013, and my suspicions were confirmed (sort of) when the United States Food & Drug Administration issued a proposed rule requiring manufacturers of antibacterial soap to prove that their products are safe for long-term daily use and more effective than washing your hands with plain soap and water. As I peeled the onion further, I came across reports citing triclosan as an endocrine disruptor in animal studies, and other studies that raised the possibility that it may be contributing to the rise in drug-resistant bacteria.

Let's get even more outlandish … triclosan is, and has been since 1969, registered as a pesticide. The stuff you're rubbing all over your hands. And teeth. And everything. Is. A. Pesticide.

And here's the kicker … The article Consumer Antibacterial Soaps: Effective or Just Risky? in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases from way back in 2007 concludes that antibacterial soaps show no health benefits over plain soaps.

So basically, we're potentially making bacteria drug-resistant, we're altering our hormones, and putting a registered pesticide in our mouths … and we're getting zero benefit from it. The only analogy to that I was able to come up with was Johnny Knuckles, The Italian Steelpuncher. Read the article or watch the video, and you'll understand the analogy. Personally, I don't think he's benefitting from his years of punching steel poles, but he seems to think otherwise (if you happen to follow this blog, Mr. Knuckles, please don't punch me. I offer the analogy with all due respect.)

I never mentioned the name of the toothpaste manufacturer mentioned at the beginning of this post. To be honest with you, I don't think that they even realize how inept they are handling their own association with the chemical. Why do I say that? Google 'triclosan', like I did. See which brand name toothpaste comes up in a PAID ADVERTISEMENT … immediately followed by dozens of links telling you how bad the stuff is. Really guys? Can't you make it at least a little challenging?

Injecting Trust into Distributed Manufacturing | 06.03.14 |

I'll share a quote from a recent article in Wired magazine that explores the sharing economy, as it touches upon a number of issues I've been wondering about related to the trend toward distributed manufacturing.

Each of those transactions is undergirded and supported by a complicated series of regulations, backstops, and assurances that go back to the Industrial Revolution.

Before that time, Americans tended to cluster in small towns and farming communities, where citizens built tight-knit relationships over the course of many years. In an economic system like that, where everybody knows everybody else, there's a natural incentive to treat people well: Get a bad reputation and the whole town will know about it. On a broader level, the members of these small, homogeneous communities knew that their neighbors probably saw the world in the same way they did … which made it easier to conduct business with them.

That all started to change around the mid-19th century. As Americans moved from small towns to big cities, small merchants were replaced by large corporations, and local markets gave way to national distributors. Suddenly people couldn't rely on interpersonal relationships or cultural norms to to safeguard their transactions; they didn't know, and often never met, the people they were doing business with.

In the ensuing years, formal systems sprang up as proxies for the trust that citizens had lost in one another. In the decades between 1870 and 1920 saw the explosion of … industries like banking, insurance, and legal services that established rules and backstops for the new business environment. Meanwhile, a slate of government regulations helped establish the rules that this new breed of corporations had to follow. 'Through institutionalizing socially created mechanisms for producing trust … the economic order was gradually reconstructed.' The casual, intimate, interpersonal form of trust was replaced by a centralized system of codified safeguards.

The article goes on to describe how the internet has swung the trend back toward person-to-person transactions and distributed manufacturing. By 'distributed manufacturing' I'm speaking of any combination of::

  • 3D printing parts or entire products in home
  • Purchasing and/or bartering directly with the actual producers (farmers, artisans, etc.)
  • Services rendered as part of the sharing economy

Let's fast forward and take the notion of distributed manufacturing to its furthest extreme. Everyone has a 3D printer in their home, producing any manufactured good they need, filling in the gap for everything else via the sharing economy; therefore they no longer needs to purchase products from manufacturers or retailers who mass produce or distribute. The entire economic order is upended - real wrath of God type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the sky. Rivers and seas boiling. Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes. Volcanos. The dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats living together … Mass hysteria!!

So, it's not likely to tip that far in that direction. Let's dial it back a bit for the sake of thinking through some implications. Let's assume that a percentage of traditional manufacturing and sales are replaced by distributed manufacturing. For the sake of this discussion, let's say the percentage is x.

In all of the write-ups about the prospect of distributed production, with its many democratizing benefits, I haven't seen acknowledgement of potential risks. I'm not writing to be a Luddite, simply to take this to an extreme to think through implications. The earlier quote acknowledged how trust had once been instilled upon communities out of necessity and simply due to lack of mobility. It also went on to describe how a networked world is enabling people to establish reputations and visibility in a way that replicates reputation management in local communities.

That's great, and has already caused significant upheaval and opportunity. That said, I still haven't gotten my hands around how the risks that are managed in formal production environment can or will be managed in an environment of increasing informal production. If the answer is simply via reputation, that works for everyone … except for the guy first in line who is harmed by a product produced in an environment hidden from view from a system of 'regulations, backstops, and assurances that go back to the Industrial Revolution' described in the earlier quote. (That doesn't assume that people aren't harmed in a system of mass production. If you've read this blog, you understand how I feel about that).

So, beyond reputation management, how exactly does risk management take place with distributed manufacturing? Here are a few thoughts.

Specification controls and standards
Here's where I'm going with this — I've got a 3D printer in my home, and I'm looking for specifications or a CAD model of a fork I'd like to print. I find two models — one that is quite effective in scooping fava beans into my gullet, and the other that pokes a hole clear through my cheek. Is there value in a third-party standard or validation by a qualified party identifying specifications that are safe? Perhaps my example is too simplistic. Any idiot can see the different between a run of the mill fork versus one with a prong askew. What can go wrong with a fork? What about more subtle risks? What if a prong of the obviously safe fork was likely to break off twelve months after manufacturing, because the designer tried to get clever with the aesthetics? And what if that broken prong was just small enough to fit into the throat of a small child? The risks don't seem as obvious with examples like that.

Elimination of hazardous materials
This sounds obvious on the surface. It also sounds sort of impossible. This is what I mean in the context of what we're discussing — What are the hazards of the raw material used in 3D printing? How toxic are they? What VOCs are emitted during printing and afterwards? What materials are appropriate for food contact articles? If known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors were to be eliminated from the marketplace, that at least addresses the material risks of distributed and informal production. That said:

  • Just because something isn't a known toxin doesn't mean that it's not a toxin.
  • There are more substances that we do not realize are harmful that those that we do know to be harmful
  • Even if we made all harmful materials illegal, there's nothing to say someone won't slip in a cheaper, illegal option (Hello, Mr. Powdered Milk. I'm Mr. Melemine.)

Please join me for my next blog post when I have all of this figured out, because I will have loaded my own 3D printer with human tissue, and printed a smarter version of myself.

Framing the Big Problem of Ubiquitous Chemistry | 05.22.14

I read a few articles recently that connected the dots leading up to this post. The first was about how the Google X labs frame large-scale problems: Sometimes the problems at Google X are very easy to frame, such as two-thirds of the world does not have affordable, reliable internet access. (Referring to the Google Loon project, in which they have deployed a series of weather balloons that create a mesh network to distribute wireless connectivity to remote regions of the world currently without access.)

The second came from the New York Times article A Toxic Brew in Our Yards: A study by the United States Geological Survey in 1999 found at least one pesticide, and often more than one, in almost every stream and fish sample tested, and in about half of the samples drawn from wells throughout the country.

That would be one way to frame the issue. Or perhaps the accurate way to frame it is that we are surrounded by cancer-causing and endocrine-disrupting substances (In this case, the source is the fertilizers and pesticides we spread across our lawns, so we are literally surrounded by the hazard in this case.)

It is a fairly straightforward problem. Clearly, no one wants to get cancer or have their hormones disrupted (Yes, that sounds funny, but really isn't.) So why is it so hard to solve?

One reason is the challenge of collective action. Something that is so deeply entrenched and ubiquitous, yet invisible to the naked eye, touches such a wide variety of people and organizations with very diverse needs, motivations and perspectives. How do we get David Gilmour and Roger Waters to get on stage to play Animals (including the giant inflatable pig) when they can't stand to be in the same room with one another? I'll throw out a few ideas, acknowledging that these are just pithy suggestions based on the scale and complexity of the problem.

Inform everyone about the risks of the substances in everyday objects. That is sort of happening, but not fast enough, and as many times as you tell someone something, often times they don't want to acknowledge the bad news (or they are fed partial truths, many of which contain less than 0.01 PPM of truth). And that is compounded by the fact that it is hard to isolate the impact of an individual substance when we are subsumed in them. It is hard to educate someone on something that you're not sure is factual (without getting sued).

This is probably the fastest solution, but only somewhat probable. It is happening at present, but unevenly. RoHS/REACH in Europe and some Asian countries. State-level chemical regulations in the US. That said, RoHS/REACH cover some chemicals, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, more that negatively impact human health that either haven't been fully studied, or may not have even been registered or understood. As much as regulation may be the right prophylactic in a situation of such obvious human harm, at best it can be slow-moving, and at worst a blunt instrument. Not to mention that technology reproduces faster than regulation can mitigate its risk. In this analogy, technology is the Gremlin in a wet tee shirt contest, with Zach Galligan playing the part of harried regulator (Unrelated side note: Yes, I Googled that fact. And discovered that Howie Mandel was the voice of Gizmo, and Michael Winslow was the voice of Mogwai. Who knew?)

Technology/Better Product Choices/Market solutions
This is 2.0 of the education point above. Assuming people understand what bad choices are, they will demand good choices. Again, that assumes that the typical consumer is being fed a steady diet of factual, unbiased information, and that corporations are bold enough to accept the constraint of human health when manufacturing ambiguous materials or products, without having it forced on them by Zach Galligan. The paradox here is that we're asking corporations to rapidly develop the technology to solve the problem, while constraining them via regulatory means (Although many great solutions often start by first acknowledging the known constraints).

Essentially, most of those solutions require getting a whole lot of people with very diverse perspectives and motivations (regulators, engineers, shareholders, consumers, etc.) on the same page to agree that they don't want their hormones disrupted (Why does it sound so easy when I say it like that?)

Toll Booths Within the Supply Chain | 05.01.14 |

Global supply chains are dumb and slow, without a great deal of self-awareness. Mind you, they're not as dumb as they used to be, and change is happening at present, some prodded forward by a recent law intended to stem the unchecked violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that will ultimately contribute to beating IQ into this dumb beast.

Section 1502 of the US Dodd-Frank financial reform law, concerning conflict minerals, requires that manufacturers establish practices to significantly increase their visibility upstream into their supply chains, all the way back to the source of their base materials, and then to report on the investigative method and results of their efforts. It's not a surprise that many manufacturers and brands have reacted by repressing the existence of the requirements or by pushing back on them through their trade representatives. At first glance, their resistance is understandable. For one, these companies are incentivized to offer returns to their shareholders. On the surface, the additional requirements appear to be nothing more than an increase in costs these companies must bear, with little return. And even beyond costs, the loose, cross-organizational oversight that the brand, retailer or OEM imposes on their suppliers becomes a tacit ownership of an enforcement role traditionally owned by government (which isn't completely unimaginable, considering that a corporation's influence spills across borders much more fluidly than that of a government.) All of this, on the surface, seems to be a significant increase in costs, with minimal return to the shareholder.

The thing that the resistant brands and manufacturers miss is this — Because of the Dodd-Frank requirements, they are being asked to collectively pay for the global supply network's version of the US Interstate Highway System. With any large-scale infrastructure that is laid down comes the eventual gains in speed and scale. The highways, rail lines and ports facilitate the faster flow of trade. Information isn't any different, which is obvious to anyone who has not been mired in the throes of an ether-induced stupor for the past twenty years.

This highway system is likely to begin as a handful of platforms and initiatives that gradually coalesce, which, in reality, is how most networks emerge. Before the US Interstate Highway system was mandated by the federal government, the network grew naturally from the ground up, in the form of local capillaries of road that gradually snaked their way into one another. This is what we see today, with dozens of SaaS platforms, in-house ERP systems, and organizations that still manage information via cedar chests full of spreadsheets. With the wide-open interstate highways came increased growth of the US economy, faster flow of goods, and the rise of fast food restaurants and big box retailers sprouting like barnacles on the hull of suburban sprawl. We will see the same with the change being forced onto supply networks, as dirt road spreadsheet communication gets paved over with large datasets and workflow automation across organizational boundaries.

The federal government is once again forcing the acceleration of the network, but in this case the network is the supply network, which isn't conceptually different. What is different is that the US government is not paying for the infrastructure this time. The challenge with any shared resource is the question of who pays for it. Once it's laid down, everyone benefits. Although this may seem antithetical from an anti-regulation perspective, by forcing this change, policy makers are forcing the creation of an infrastructure collectively sponsored by the organizations that will eventually benefit from it – some who are outside of the jurisdiction and taxable authority of the US government.

Some day in the not-too-distant future, these same companies resisting the change will look back and wonder how they were ever able to get anywhere on a dirt road paved with spreadsheets. Until then, expect a whole lot more ugly.

The Importance of Scalable Dialogue to Responsible Supply Chain Management (Excerpted from Ethical Corporation - Nov 2008)

In the rush to enter the global marketplace, many businesses have not taken into consideration the risk that poor workplace conditions can have on the success and long-term viability of their business. This risk can potentially impact their workforce, their local communities in which they operate, the customers with whom they work globally, and the long-term value of their business. Well-run multinational businesses have recognized this risk, and have implemented programs to identify and minimize it throughout their supply chains.

Up until now, these programs have consisted primarily of workplace audits, and perhaps some training on general supplier Code of Conduct principles. This approach has yielded some improvements in workplace conditions, but some brands feel that they have reached a plateau. At its root, part of the reason why many well-intentioned brands haven't been able to reach beyond this level is due to the issue of scalability. As an industry, we have demonstrated that we've been able to audit to scale, but change management and organizational development at that same level require more than that. I'll offer a crude analogy to make my point. Most people can tell if a building is on fire. Smoke, heat, flames, the whole bit. That's the easy part. It's much harder to know how to identify the cause of the fire (root cause analysis), how to extinguish it (change management), and how to have prevented it in the first place (preventative systems development). In the same manner, it's proven easier to know what is wrong in global supply chains — issues such as wages, hours, H&S, discrimination, denial of the right to associate freely, etc. It is much more challenging, and requires more time and resources, to identify why there is an issue, and how to permanently change that. (And one note on that — it's actually not easy at all to coordinate the execution of a workplace assessment conducted by qualified staff who have received appropriate training to identify workplace issues, especially in the face of falsified records, coached employees, and the like. The point is, as challenging as that is, that is only the starting point in the long-term change management process.)

So here we are, rifling through a file cabinet of audit reports chock full of workplace issues. Now what? Some brands have been able to minimize risk and affect permanent change, but only in select cases, with talented or committed business partners, or with resource-intensive niche projects. The challenge rises when they try to replicate the small-scale success of targeted projects across their entire supply base.

Scaling this success is so challenging, because it requires several elements that can be extremely resource-intensive:

  • Intent on the part of each business partner in supply chain relationships.
  • Management staff with sufficient skills.
  • An understanding of the needs of workers, and how policy/procedure changes impact their lives.
  • Capital, time, man-hours, etc.

Each of these things become resource-intensive, because they require dialogue in order to be successful; not a one-size-fits-all message broadcast from one to many, but time-intensive one-on-one dialogue.

The first of the essential elements listed above is intent. The challenge of summoning proper intent from a colleague or business partner requires time and energy. This may mean convincing brand management that responsible sourcing programs are incomplete without proper governance related to purchasing practices. It may also mean putting effort into convincing management at the supplier and brand level that directing resources towards improved supply chain workplace systems is an investment that will generate a return. .

Skills building is even more time intensive. Working with line managers to build the skills to help them negotiate between the needs of the business and the needs of the workforce takes time. Working with sourcing staff to incorporate a means of assessing how workplace risk impacts product value at a micro level and brand value at a macro level takes time. Working with agents to develop proactive risk management systems to apply to their supplier selection process takes time. Working with factory managers to develop effective grievance systems takes time. Working with line operators to understand the hazards of the substances with which they work takes time. And on a note of humility, working with auditors at the service provider level to understand the difference between identifying a legal non-compliance versus an understanding of the needs of the workforce also takes time.

An understanding of worker needs is also quite challenging. Most workers in typical supply chains do not have access to computers or broadband outside of the workplace that may assist in mass communication to help scale this dialogue. Cell phones may be a tool to be used, but phone dialogue on its own would present challenges related to the quality of information pushed in either direction, or in the ability to build trust or to connect in a way that allows both parties to truly understand one another. Face to face dialogue is always the best means of understanding worker needs.

Identifying these issues is only a first step. Even more challenging is the how of managing change and turning intentions into operational improvements. I'd like to suggest a few ways to get started: .

  1. Reallocate resources and gather better information at the beginning of the site assessment process. If brands and service providers can continue to work towards minimizing redundant audits, those overlapping resources can be directed towards deeper assessments that give assessors more time onsite to build trust with workers, subsequently gathering better information from a larger number and variety of workers.
  2. Develop scalable means of training. Web-based training may be one way to deliver cost-effective training. If feedback mechanisms are built into those tools, information can flow in both directions. Traditional seminar-style training can also be used, but they should be as participative as possible. Also, if assessors are given more time onsite during the assessment process, they can build more constructive dialogue with management and workers to work to identify root causes and collaboratively solve problems.
  3. Develop scalable means of facilitating dialogue: One-on-one dialogue is essential to building a business case with anyone with P&L oversight at all levels of the supply chain. It is also vital in building skills with anyone who comes in contact with workplace risk at a policy or operational level. My colleagues and I have focused our efforts towards developing tools designed to facilitate, track, and document this dialogue, and act as a connective tissue of sorts to link the complex array of relationships, discussions, questions, challenges, and solutions that each unique workplace issue brings with it. Also, don't underestimate the value of supplier-to-supplier dialogue, and the role that local networks, such as the United Nations Global Compact can play.

If we can solve the challenge of listening to every voice without being overwhelmed by the collective roar of the crowd, we just may be able to accelerate the progress that we've made thus far at improving workplace rights and building stronger businesses and relationships.