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Polly Mitchell-Guthrie of Kinaxis: Five Strategies Our Company Is Using To Tackle Climate Change & Become More Sustainable

The first thing I’d say is, to ask for what you deserve. What I mean by that is, I feel we often don’t think we can ask questions. But we should. Ask to be in a meeting, ask for a raise, ask for a promotion, ask for a harder project, ask to meet someone you think you could learn from even if you’re nervous. Don’t just take what comes to you as is, expand the scope of what you can do by asking questions.

As part of our series about how companies are becoming more sustainable, we had the pleasure of interviewing Polly Mitchell-Guthrie.

Polly is the VP of Industry Outreach and Thought Leadership at Kinaxis. She has an MBA from the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she also received her BA in Political Science. She has been very active in INFORMS (the leading professional society for operations research and analytics) and co-founded the third chapter of Women in Machine Learning and Data Science (now more than 90 chapters worldwide).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started my career in the nonprofit sector focusing on women’s issues and environmental issues. I eventually moved into philanthropy. Giving money away got me increasingly interested in how to make even more of an impact with those charitable “investments.” I decided to go back to school and get my MBA, which got me focused on the management skills businesses employ to make an impact. After that, I went to work at a business where there was so much turnover that I worked for eight different VPs in quite a short period of time. While challenging, each time I had a new boss the focus area of my work changed, which was a great way to learn a lot of things quickly. One of those changes of focus led me to learn a lot about advanced analytics, which is what I still focus on today. My current role came about serendipitously. I had been working on advanced analytics in healthcare and wanted to continue that but was looking for a new opportunity. I reached out to my current boss, Anne Robinson, for some contacts. It turned out she was hiring so I’m now working at Kinaxis. It all came full circle, because Kinaxis has a focus on sustainability, and I started off my career as an activist focused on environmental issues.

What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

Kinaxis helps companies manage the volatility that is inherent in supply chains. We make software that makes it easier to make better decisions that they can be confident in. We help our customers automate the obvious, by combining the best of machine intelligence and human intelligence so planners can focus on the most complex problems that need their attention. Supply chain planners have to make decisions daily, and sometimes even hourly. What we want to do is help them make decisions that increase their efficiency and their business impact while reducing waste.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

When people think about environmental issues and companies they often think about a factory and smokestack. What most people don’t know is that, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project and McKinsey, anywhere from 60 to 95 percent of a company’s emissions come from the supply chain. Companies must focus on their supply chain if they want to address their environmental impact; said in reverse, if they are ignoring their supply chain they are minimizing their impact. Supply chain planning is the key to doing that because it is the glue that holds supply chains together.

What we are focused on as a supply chain planning company is asking, how can we help companies factor carbon and other environmental impacts into every supply chain planning decision they make? We want to help our customers ask questions and create scenarios that allow them to balance the tradeoffs that come with cutting carbon more effectively. We want to look at decisions not just through the lenses of cost, quality, and service, but through the lenses of cost, quality, service, and carbon. An analyst at Gartner who is researching how to integrate planning into sustainability told me he was talking to one of his clients who said, in essence, “If I can plan better, and have a more realistic plan that helps my company and our partners allocate resources more effectively and efficiently, then we can close that gap between design and reality.” That gap is where the waste occurs. If we can plan better, we can cut down on that waste. But doing this is no easy task.

Let’s say a company wants to incorporate more sustainable packaging into its products. This change is more complicated than it sounds. Some customers may want to keep the old material for longer than you anticipated. Some may want the material sooner than you can deliver it. You want to plan for these scenarios, so you do not have wasted product or packaging. It all circles back to the question of closing the gap between design and reality. We can help companies achieve the goal of creating more sustainable packaging while reducing waste.

The other thing we try to remember when talking about ESG efforts is that supply chains are tradeoff machines. So, the question for every company is, how do you make tradeoffs that maximize business objectives like customer service and profit, while minimizing the environmental impact? A European car manufacturer had the challenge of figuring out how many cars of each model with which features to make. The company needed to think about the questions across all the markets they operate in, while considering sales, customer satisfaction, minimizing waste, and complying with growing European environmental regulations. It is not obvious to us as customers just how nuanced the decision-making can be here. White cars, for example, produce fewer emissions than black cars — that is the level of detail this manufacturer was analyzing these choices at. What the company was doing was trying to make tradeoffs and decisions through a disconnected manual planning process and it was a challenge. Then, the company started using Kinaxis’s software to plan concurrently. That allowed the company’s many supply chain planners to work at the same time with the same information. They used multiple scenarios to examine the metrics associated with different mixes of products. Doing this allowed the company to balance sustainability, compliance, profitability, and customer satisfaction.

It is also important to highlight the role reverse logistics plays in sustainability efforts. Normally when we think of supply chains and planning, we think about how we go from getting raw materials out of the ground, to getting product to the end-user. What we don’t think about is that reaching the consumer is not the end of the life of a product. If you consider the idea of a circular supply chain, you start to consider the actual end of the life of a product. It’s the idea of “reduce, reuse, recycle” on the business level. For example, whether it’s cars or other products, companies can plan on ways to reuse parts from used products instead of just putting them in the dump. Planning is critical to this process.

If a company makes a sustainability commitment, but the supply chain planners aren’t involved, there’s a big disconnect between what is being said, and what is actually being done operationally, since supply chains account for the vast majority of a company’s emissions. To really have an impact, companies need to make the shift from words to actions and integrate supply chain planning into their corporate sustainability strategy. At Kinaxis, we help our customers do that by incorporating sustainability into every decision they make.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

It’s a misconception that sustainability always equals more cost, which has been a significant barrier to making supply chains more sustainable. Cisco, for example, has a great program called Takeback and Reuse, which is all about a commitment to a circular supply chain. Through this program, Cisco has committed to being able to take back 100 percent of end of life products from their customers. Instead of being a cost driver, the program has driven customer loyalty and become a positive differentiator for the Cisco. It is important to note, that nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks “I want to be wasteful.” People only waste because there’s no alternative, or because the alternative that exists is too hard. This kind of program can solve that, while driving revenue.

The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

I’m not a parent, but I asked a lot of parents I work with about this question, and they gave some great answers. The first suggestion I got is that parents need to make living sustainability more second nature for kids. For many of us, living sustainably was something new that we learned as we went. Recycling wasn’t something we did in my household when I was growing up, it just wasn’t an option. It’s much easier to teach kids to live responsibly today, we just have to set a good example.

Another great suggestion I got was to build empathy. We can’t create anything, supply chains included, without having a negative impact on the earth, that’s just a fact of life. That means it’s important for us to help children understand that there are things we can do to minimize that negative impact and maximize the positive impact we can have instead.

Third is focusing on helping kids understand the world around them, both through science-based projects in school, and in everyday life. When you go for a bike ride in the spring and things are blooming, help kids understand why that’s happening. Share why certain insects live on certain trees, which feed certain birds. Help kids understand that if a tree goes down, more than just the tree is hurt. Gardening is another great way for children to learn about nature.

A fourth suggestion is to use daily life as an opportunity to think about sustainability. One co-worker told me he doesn’t let his children buy new toys unless they commit to recycling or giving away an old toy. That’s a great example of helping kids understand the impact of their purchases, and there are other ways to do it as well. Whether it’s the type of toy they buy, snacks or the toothpaste they use at bedtime, we can teach kids to factor carbon into every decision.

My final suggestion is to help kids understand the ways they can make an impact in the world. From an early age, we should help empower kids to feel like they have a voice. We should teach them that if we see something we don’t like, like the removal of trees, or pollution that harms marine life, then we can write a letter or attend a demonstration to push back on what’s happening.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

The first thing I’d say is, to ask for what you deserve. What I mean by that is, I feel we often don’t think we can ask questions. But we should. Ask to be in a meeting, ask for a raise, ask for a promotion, ask for a harder project, ask to meet someone you think you could learn from even if you’re nervous. Don’t just take what comes to you as is, expand the scope of what you can do by asking questions.

The second is to build your own path. Many of us have this notion that careers are linear, but for most of us that’s not the case. So many people apologize to me in interviews for starting out in something different like music and then switching to supply chain work. As I mentioned, I started my career as a community organizer. I learned a lot in that role about how to think about what objectives I want to achieve, how I get other people involved in achieving them, how to be most effective in creating collective action, and how to keep people involved. All of those are skills I use every day in my current role.

I’d also say I wish I pushed to connect more earlier. Not just with people I work with every day, but with people at my company outside my department, and with people outside the company altogether. I’m a big believer in the strength of weak ties, an idea proven out by sociological research. When we’re looking across our network, and searching for a job, our best lead could come from a friend’s coworker we met twice. The people farther away from you, known as weak ties, can expose you to more opportunities and keep you from getting stale.

The fourth thing I’d say, is to make sure you pick your boss. Too many people think they should go for the job that pays the most with the fanciest title. But too many people fail to think about who they will be working for. I would encourage people to take the role that has them working for someone who they trust, respect, enjoy, collaborate well with, and can be challenged by. Too many people think their boss doesn’t matter. A good boss can make a tremendous difference, and a bad boss can make your life miserable.

The last thing I’d say is to listen more. Especially early in your career when you are aware of how much you don’t know. Sometimes, that leads to us being eager to show everyone what we do know and talking a lot. What I’ve learned however is the importance of listening. This is something I still need to remind myself of now. When you ask others for their perspective, you’ll get answers you never expected.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Anne Robinson, who is Kinaxis’s chief strategy officer and the person who hired me, really helped me get to where I am. She was a customer of mine many years ago when we both worked at other companies. She got me involved with a professional association called INFORMS. She was a big believer in getting involved in a professional association. She understood that unlike in previous generations where people would work for one company for 30 or 40 years, many of us will work for multiple companies, and have multiple careers. A professional association can be a constant and allow you to get to know a group of people that, in some ways, perform the same role your network used to if you worked at a company like IBM for 40 years. Anne got me involved at INFORMS, and it has been a very important, fun and productive part of my life. I wouldn’t have the role I have now without it.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

I’d like to inspire people to believe that they have an impact. Don’t dwell on the dismal. You don’t have to quit your job to make a difference. A lot of people think the only thing that makes a difference is working on the front lines. But there’s a lot we can all do. All of us can step up and challenge our company to be more sustainable and take similar steps in our personal lives, in our communities and especially when raising kids. One of the things that prompted my switch from the nonprofit sector to the business world was that businesses had a large impact in the community. I realized that if I worked in the business world, I could have an impact on the world while having an interesting career. We tend to think in binaries, and act like we can either work in the corporate world or the nonprofit world with no in-between, but it’s more nuanced than that. All of us can make an impact by just doing something.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

One of my favorite quotes is from Margret Mead, the anthropologist who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

I first came across this quote in a very activist-oriented calendar of inspiring quotes I had in my college dorm room. It spoke to me in quite obvious ways then. The way I connect it to my life now is that, even though I work in the business world for a supply chain planning software company, I can have an impact by raising sustainability as a really important topic for supply chains. I can raise awareness internally and for our customers and partners and help connect those big corporate sustainability goals to operational realities. A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can be a group of supply chain planners. Supply chain planners on the front lines every day can have an impact. They can raise their hands and say, if we did things differently, or switched suppliers or how we batch orders, this could be more sustainable. We still need activists and non-profit groups to call out what needs to change, but we also need business leaders who are committed to raising their hand and making change happen. That’s the only way we make these big corporate commitments go from the C-suite to reality.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

The best way to follow my work is on my LinkedIn. I try to use that space to share what I’m hearing and what I’m thinking about. You can also find some of my work on the Kinaxis website.

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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