Understanding the Bigger Picture
“People always ask me, ‘What is it that you do?’” says Dan Guide, associate professor of operations and supply chain management at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business. His answer is, of course, “I’m a college professor at a business school,” and while this may seem like the correct response, there’s actually more to Guide than meets the eye.
Guide is involved with many different aspects of sustainability from research on consumer perceptions of remanufactured products to optimal design of reverse supply chains to working with industry leaders like Xerox and Kodak. He warns that he’s uncomfortable with the word “sustainability.” “It’s a buzz word now and I get nervous since ‘sustainability’ can be so vague as to mean almost anything,” he says. He wants to be clear that he approaches the topic from a business perspective, which he defines as “remanufacturing and product recovery systems that provide the foundation for environmentally and economically sustainable industrial systems.”
If you ask Guide how he got involved with sustainability issues, he’ll tell you it was a complete and total accident. During his second year as a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia in the early 1990s, Guide received a call from a Navy commander in California. LCDR Sarigul-Klijn, stationed at what used to be the Alameda Naval Air Station and Naval Aviation Depot in the San Francisco Bay, offered Guide the opportunity to work on scheduling jet engine overhaul and remanufacturing for the Navy’s flying program. He accepted and spent four months in California, where he was granted full access to the flying program and discovered the enormity of this business.
As a doctoral student, Guide was fascinated by the original work that was done in remanufacturing and something clicked in his head. “I realized that if I want people to do the right things environmentally, I need to show them a way to make money. Then, it’s not a decision anymore,” he says. “I think the way to motivate people is economically. If you want a company to make the right decision, tell them how to make money doing it and you get exactly what you want.”
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
A few years later, Guide had a session at an academic conference with what turned out to be one of his most enduring research collaborators, Luk Van Wassenhove from INSEAD in France. Together, they started a series of annual workshops titled “Business Aspects of Closed-Loop Supply Chains,” which are rolling into their tenth year. While both currently have advisory roles, they organized the first four workshops together with financial support from the Carnegie Bosch Institute and the National Science Foundation. Guide said they wanted to have a forum where they “could get both American and European researchers together to discuss how to best promote the study and practice of sustainable operations.”
He also stresses the importance of interdisciplinary conversation. He and Luk understood the necessity of bringing in people from all disciplines to discuss what’s already been done and what needs to be done. “The problem with all of this, not only in business but also in academia, is that we tend to silo problems,” says Guide. “In order to solve all those problems, you have to go across silos and break down the language and research barriers.”
COMPANIES ARE KEY
For the past three years, Guide has been collaborating with Xerox. In the early stages of their relationship, the senior vice president for strategy asked him, “Why is it that sometimes we make money off of remanufacturing our products and why do we lose money other times?” Together, they’re currently collecting data and trying to figure out when to design a product for a single life cycle or when it’s more profitable to design a multiple life cycle product. Guide hopes that the results will have practical implications for all managers. “There ought to be a way for managers to sit down at the planning stages for a product and decide whether a product should be designed for a single life cycle or multiple life cycles,” he adds.
Guide has worked with companies his entire academic career and wants to stress the importance of these relationships to his students. “I try to infect my doctoral students by putting them with companies,” he says.
A MOVING TARGET
Reflecting on his style as a researcher, Guide wants to present himself as a moving target because he says they’re harder to hit. “The way I do this is find a problem that’s not even understood or documented in academia, show it’s pervasive, come up with a good initial model for understanding, then walk away and find another problem,” he adds.