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We work in a sea of ever-churning reliability acronyms, buzz words, and descriptive labels with multiple meanings. It’s not easy to effectively communicate with our peers or, worse yet, with top management when we use uncommon terms with assumed meanings. Such terminology can confuse the issues or be misinterpreted in real time. Forgive the pun, but in light of the above title, oh, for the sustainability of a common vocabulary in the world of reliability!

Before you read on, though, please note that this article goes beyond the use of the word “sustainability” in environmental terms, which is among the main focuses in many of Drew Troyer’s sustainable-manufacturing articles for The RAM Review (see them in “The Sustainable Plant” section of our website). My focus here is on the different, but related, meanings of “sustainability” in the RAM arena. It’s important to understand them.

Click Here To Read Drew Troyer’s Articles About Environmental Sustainability
In “The Sustainable Plant” Section Of The RAM Review

As Dr. Stephen R. Covey taught us many years ago, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Consider the following real-world example.

That was a key point of discussion in an actual meeting of thought leaders several years ago. Most of our conversation focused on the characteristics of reliable equipment and systems as components of a successful manufacturing, facilities, and utilities. Eventually the discussion got around to the “sustainable” portion of the question being discussed. The predominate examples referred to reliability program longevity and endurance, culture change, and business results.

We then attempted to define what it would take for our equipment and systems to be continually reliable, to perform as intended, regardless of who operate, maintains, or manages them, i.e., a sustainable-reliability work culture.

♦  “SUSTAINABLE” Synonyms: continual, continuous, viable, maintainable, supportable.
♦  “RELIABLE” Synonyms: dependable, predictable, stable, steady, safe.

Then it happened. Someone from the Environmental, Safety and Health (ESH) group asked why we weren’t addressing environmental issues. “What?” After all, this wasn’t an ESH meeting. So the group quickly agreed, reliable environmental equipment and systems that control emissions, discharges, and other forms of pollution were essential. Just as essential as the manufacturing, facility, and utility equipment and systems.

No. No. That’s not what the ESH person meant. The discussion then explored “environmental sustainability” as conformance to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), European Union Environmental Legislation, ISO 14001 Environmental Management Systems, and ASTM E3096 Standard Guide for Definition, Selection, and Organization of Key Performance Indicators for Environmental Aspects of Manufacturing Processes.

Whew! That’s when we realized the word “sustainability” had two distinctly different and, yes, related meanings. On one hand, “sustainability” means “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level” (“the sustainability of equipment performance”). That definition fit the intent of reliable equipment and systems very well.

The other definition of “sustainability” homes in on “environmental sustainability.” According to the United Nations (UN) World Commission on Environment and Development, “environmental sustainability is about acting in a way that ensures future generations have the natural resources available to live an equal, if not better, way of life as current generations.” In a similar vein, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines “environmental sustainability” as “the capacity to improve the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of the earth’s supporting ecosystems.”

As those in that meeting of thought leaders learned, our profession tends to speak in foreshortened terms whose meanings we all learned in our educational and experiential journeys. When we are speaking to those with like backgrounds and experiences, we communicate very well, i.e., what is spoken is understood.

There is, at least, one important difference: “Reliability program sustainability” is not necessarily a regulated industrial process. “Environmental sustainability,” on the other hand, is regulated.  (It also is an emotional term when related to climate change, global warming, and the like.)

Compared to the term “reliability” that has been in regular and growing printed use for more than 100 years “sustainability” is relatively new in print. According to Google’s Books Ngram Viewer, in a search of books from 1800 to 2019 the word “sustainability” began a meteoric rise in use from obscurity in the early 1980s, to a peak in 2019. And, as the same source showed in a search of books from 1800 to 2019, the term “environmental sustainability” made a huge leap from obscurity in 1987, to a peak in 2019.

Somehow, in the past decade or so, the terms “sustainability” and “environmentalism” became synonymous in one context, while the traditional definition of “sustainability” prevailed (and continues to prevail) in others. For RAM professionals, my message about this possibly confusing situation can be summed up best by Stephen Covey’s Habit 5, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand then be understood.”TRR

Bob Williamson is a long-time contributor to the people-side of the world-class-maintenance and manufacturing body of knowledge across dozens of industry types. His background in maintenance, machine and tool design, and teaching has positioned his work with over 500 companies and plants, facilities, and equipment-oriented organizations. Contact him directly at 512-800-6031 or bwilliamson@theramreview.com.

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, sustainability, workforce issues