Words fascinate me. That’s a big shock coming from a writer, I know, but hear me out. Without meaning, words are mere marks on a page or random sounds in the air. We collectively decide what words mean and agree on definitions.

Some words are overused. When this happens, meaning disappears, and words become empty clichés. The corporate world is the biggest cliché generator. “Leverage.” “Paradigm.” “Value.” These once-meaningful words roll effortlessly off the tongue these days and land right in the word cemetery.

Here’s another example: “sustainability.” We immediately think of green. The reflex is inevitable because we’ve heard the word over and over again in environmental contexts. How else would we define it?

I won’t undermine the importance of the green movement. It’s real, and it’s critical. However, I will point out that “sustainability” also means enduring without yielding, continuing to exist despite trials and afflictions. In terms of the environment, we want the planet to endure despite our influence.

We also want our businesses to endure despite negative influences. If you think about sustainability in a business context, you might ask yourself: Is my operation sustainable? Can my processes survive the current pace of change?

“We live in crazy, crazy times,” said Jim Tompkins, CEO of supply chain consulting firm Tompkins Associates, in a recent podcast. “Fanny, Freddie, Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns, Merrill Lynch, AIG, valuation of the U.S. dollar, fuel costs, slowing global economy, the whole credit market situation and more and more,” he related. “A day does not go by where there is not another major chaotic event.”

Change has occurred throughout history. Look at industrialization and the Internet revolution. The difference today, though, is the unprecedented rate at which change is occurring. “I have never experienced the level of change we are going through today,” Tompkins said.

As tight credit, high energy costs and economic uncertainty continue their stranglehold on profit margins, manufacturers and distributors will have to develop and maintain sustainable business processes.

Instead of funding massive projects with uncertain return on investment, count on senior executives to support incremental upgrades, retrofits of existing systems and facilities and tactics that make operations leaner and more productive.

Outdated processes, manual steps, redundancies and bottlenecks—anything obstructing the flow of material—will have to be eliminated. The mission of material handling is to facilitate motion within the supply chain. Now more than ever, we must move at lightning speed, with precision and accuracy, and save money in the process.

Yes, it’s a tall order, but don’t despair. Challenges can also be opportunities. In the 2007 Material Mary AichlmayrHandling Logistics Summit Report, released at the conclusion of its inaugural meeting of the minds, the Material Handling Industry of America acknowledges the daunting challenges facing material handling professionals. We can stay up at night worrying about how to deal with them, the report says, or we can look at them as a potential source of competitive advantage.

Summit participants agree that the impact of material handling is large but hidden and this lack of visibility will reduce financial prosperity. We need a serious gut check. Can we sell the value of material handling performance to customers, vendors, business partners and shareholders? Can we escape the shadow of commodity status? Is material handling a worn-out cliché or an exciting competitive edge?

In the end, we decide.

Mary Aichlmayr, Editor in Chief
mary.aichlmayr@penton.com