Change or Perish

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering
As appeared in
Reflections on Excellence

Almost three decades ago I was approached by a major publisher to write a book that defined the tenets of a successful company. Not knowing any better, I accepted the challenge and over the next months the book took form. When it was finally finished and the galley proofs received, I made a slight miscalculation—I asked my wife to read it. You need to understand, my wife was put on earth to keep me humble and she has done an exceptionally good job over our 46 years of marriage. She reluctantly complied with my request—well almost. After reading the preface and introduction, she came into my office, threw the book on my deck and said, “No one will read this book—all you have written is just simple, common sense.” She was right, of course, but what she failed to understand is that there is a void of common sense in the world of business. I am constantly amazed by the almost total lack of common sense or even simple logic that exists in today’s business world. Too many companies seem to be managed—not led—by those who either cannot or will not acknowledge the simple truths that limit their ability to compete in an ever-changing world market.

One recurring, almost universal, example of this lack of common sense is the belief that things—performance, finance and market share—will magically improve if we ignore the factors that limit them enough and just continue to do what we have always done in exactly the same way as it has always been done. Most rational people understand that it is insane to expect a different outcome when one continues to do exactly the same things, the same way. Why is it so difficult to see the fallacy in this logic? Even my father, with his limited education, taught me this lesson with his constant reminder, “Son, if you have done the same thing, in the same way for years, the odds are there is a better way.”

For more than five decades in the business world, I have tried to push down the frustration when dealing with this lack of common sense and tried to focus on understanding the reasons for this inability of so many to see the obvious and use simple logic to made decisions. Success has been slow in coming and at best remains limited. I have finally accepted the fact that a complete understanding will always elude me, but have been able to isolate a few of the more frequent reasons:

One of the most common reasons is the risk-averse mentality that has come to permeate corporate and plant management. Everyone has become so afraid of failure that they will not take any risk. This translates into maintain status quo—do not change anything and you will not be blamed. A classic, recurring example of this is trying to get a client to establish goals that stretch production and the workforce to a higher level of performance. Even when the goals are achievable, they expose the management team to a modest risk—if they failed to achieve the goals, their performance reviews, promotions and bonuses could suffer. More often than not, the management team will refuse to accept the higher goals, electing instead to retain current, or modestly higher, goals—ones that they are absolutely sure can be achieved. Obviously, this is not good for the business, and one would think would not be accepted by higher-level management. Wrong, this risk aversion is not limited to line and middle management. In too many corporations it permeates the entire management team. These companies tend to struggle, maintaining just enough market share to stay in business but never very profitable or successful.

Change is inevitable; one cannot go through life without adapting, without changing. We begin life totally dependent on others to care for us, over time reach some level of independence and as we near the end perhaps become dependent upon others again. Common sense should make it clear that it is no different in business. If there is any doubt, look at commercial air travel. In the 1950’s air travel from New York to Paris took 20 plus hours and two refueling stops on a TWA Constellation, a four-engine, propeller-driven aircraft. In the 1960’s, Pan Am offered direct flights using their new 707 jet aircraft in eight hours. In the intervening years, both TWA and Pan AM failed to adapt to the changing market and as a result no longer exist, yet another example of change or perish.

My reference library is full of books, many written before 1970, that tout the tenets of success. Almost all reference example companies that support their theories of how a world-class company should be run. You know the names: AT&T, General Motors, TWA, Pan Am and so on. These were the shining examples of how to be successful when I entered the business world; but look at them today. Many no longer exist; others retain the name but are no longer the world leader that they once were. What happened? The one common theme for all of them is that they failed to adapt. They failed to recognize the changes that were taking place all around them. They failed to change. How about you and your company? Will you change or perish?

"If you change nothing, nothing changes."

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,
R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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