Mixed greens

Balancing act

Posted 3/9/22

It’s an axiom of sustainability that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” The saying is often attributed to Edwards Deming, a pioneering engineer and statistician …

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Mixed greens

Balancing act


It’s an axiom of sustainability that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” The saying is often attributed to Edwards Deming, a pioneering engineer and statistician who transformed the business world in the mid-20th century. He developed management techniques that used statistical analysis to improve product quality and a systems approach that encouraged continuous improvement throughout an organization and among its individual members.  

Our knowledge of climate change is based on countless scientific measurements. Climate scientists have calculated the global warming potential (GWP) of various compounds and chemicals and assessed their impact on a scale based on the GWP of carbon dioxide. They’ve measured the actual volume of emissions and correlated them to their natural and man-made sources, so that we can develop effective strategies to manage or eliminate them.

Until recently, emissions measurements depended on industry’s self-reporting; now, satellite technology is providing increased transparency, especially in detecting methane leaks from oil and gas operations.

Practitioners use all of this data to benchmark the climate impact of our buildings and vehicles, energy production and consumption, manufacturing, the extraction of raw materials and the ways we process, recycle, or dispose of everything at the end of its useful life. Benchmarking enables us to quantify cost savings associated with specific energy strategies and make the case for investments in efficiency and the transition to renewables. Most recently, analysts have developed effective methods for calculating the health costs associated with our continued use of fossil fuels, framing the projected health benefits in terms of cost savings as well.  

These complex cost/benefit calculations are vitally important, but sometimes I think we need to remember that they are not the whole story. We choose what to measure, favoring metrics that can be easily translated into financial projections to make the case for sustainability, and when financial costs are the primary focus, we may discount factors that are not so easily measured.

For example, we can measure the annual medical costs of emergency room visits related to childhood asthma and calculate the value of parents’ lost work time associated with those medical emergencies. But how do we measure the damage related to constant anxiety, lost school days, and the emotional strains on parents and siblings of a sick child? What is the financial value of healthy children and the psychological well-being of their families?

A major 2013 study found that mortgage borrowers living in Energy Star-rated energy-efficient homes were 32 percent less likely to default on their loans. Fewer defaults mean cost savings for mortgage lenders, and lower energy bills mean more disposable income for homeowners, but how do we put a price on the housing security, enhanced health, and better quality of life experienced by those families?

There’s considerable irony in the fact that, according to the W. Edwards Deming Institute, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” is Deming’s most-misquoted statement. What Deming actually wrote was this: “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it—a costly myth.”  While he advocated for the effective use of data where it is appropriate, he also understood that some aspects of human systems are not to be understood through statistics, and that those intangibles shape the character of organizations and individuals. “We must preserve the power of intrinsic motivation, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, joy in learning, that people are born with.”

I’m so glad that my serendipitous curiosity about the origins of that mandate about measuring and managing led me to the work of Edwards Deming. When we talk about climate change, we have to balance our compelling data with a vivid vision of the transformation that is possible. The benefits have value that transcends the balance sheet, such as protecting health, delivering environmental and economic justice, preserving biodiversity, avoiding conflicts over endangered resources and creating a system in which we can thrive without harming others. That is a collective ongoing process. In Deming’s perspective, what we need is transformative leadership, the ability to “help people to pull away from their current practice and beliefs and move into the new philosophy without a feeling of guilt about the past.”

measurement, climate change, climate science, emissions measurements, climate impact, Edwards Deming


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