R. Keith Mobley's Introduction to Reflections on Excellence

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

At the cajoling of friends and associates, this is the first in a series of letters that will share my experience and observations gleaned from a career devoted to continuous improvement in manufacturing. If nothing else, almost 50 years of involvement at all levels of plant and corporate management has shown me what does not work and hopefully what is needed to be successful and competitive.

As the oldest son of a millwright, the official start of my career was working the night shift as a maintenance technician to pay for my education. I was introduced to the business world by stories my father shared about his perception of management and how its “baling wires and band aid” mentality destroyed equipment and morale. This perception seemed to be confirmed when viewed through the eyes of an 18 year old engineering student.

After college, my career evolved much quicker than most – growing from a first job as a plant engineer to plant manager at 25, V.P. Engineering and Manufacturing at 30, and E.V.P and C.O.O. at 40. Looking for even more of a challenge, I have spent the past 27 years helping clients around the world transform and achieve their full potential.

Two factors are responsible for my fast-track growth. First, a God-given talent for seeing beyond the surface conditions and truly understanding the underlying cause of problems and factors that limit performance has been the cornerstone of my growth and success. I have dedicated my life to honing what was given and using it to its best advantage.

The second factor was pure, dumb luck. When I needed it the most, I had the opportunity to meet and work with three gifted men who also had the insight to understand what companies need to succeed. Dr. Edwards Deming, Philip Crosby and Joseph Juran helped me to focus my vision on how to create a sustainable, highly successful company. I treasure the education and mentoring that these gentlemen provided to a brash, perhaps egotistical, young man. Without them, my career would have been quite different.

Now, as I too quickly near the end of my career, it is time to share as much as I can with others and this series of letters is one avenue for sharing what I have learned. As you know, I live to work—nothing gives me more pleasure. At 67 I must face the realization that no one lives forever, but I am still convinced that we can create legacies that do. While I don’t presume to be on the same level as my mentors, creating a legacy is important to me. Hopefully, the lessons that I have learned the hard way will help and in some small way be my legacy.   

In this series of letters, titled Reflections on Excellence, I will share my observations of the characteristics common to all highly successful companies; how they were able to overcome the myriad problems that limit performance; and the pitfalls that should be avoided in your journey to sustainable world-class status. I think that these characteristics may surprise you. They are not complex or sophisticated. In fact, most are common sense and cost nothing to implement.      

As a taste of what is to come, let me share a recent conversation with a colleague. We were discussing the sources of limiting factors that we all face in business. To prove his point, he cited one of Dr. Deming’s better-known sayings: “85% of problems are caused by management issues.” My colleague was arguing that management decisions, too often based on opinion, partial or skewed data, or emotions, are at the heart of our inability to be competitive and profitable. What do you think? Are 85% of the problems that you face each day caused by faulty decision-making? From my perspective, I think that Dr. Deming was an optimist. The contribution of self-induced limiting factors is much more than 85% -- perhaps 90% or more.

Let me share an example. A few years ago we evaluated the performance of a food processing plant and found that their asset utilization was 27%. They controlled 70% market share, but with only a marginal operating profit. When we sat down to discuss these and other issues, the client could not or would not accept that low utilization was a problem. Once this was overcome, we tried to discuss possible solutions that would better utilize their installed capacity and improve their operating profit. The client was adamant that nothing could be done. We suggested private labeled products as a means to increase utilization; exporting to larger markets; and consolidating plants to match their footprint to demand. For each solution the client had 101 reasons it would not work.

It took two years of almost constant education, but the client finally moved away from their “it cannot be done” attitude. They are exporting products, producing private brands for the domestic market and have consolidated plants to eliminate duplication. The result is a much-improved operating profit and positive growth trend that should take them to the next level.

Unfortunately, I must close. I still have to make a living and duty calls. In closing, I wish you and your family a safe and joyous Christmas and prosperous New Year.

Best regards,

R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.
“All things are possible—if you are willing to roll up your sleeves and do it.”

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].

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