The Sole of Understanding is Empathy

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

Grudgingly I will admit to getting older and I hope, with that age, wiser. I do know that one of the attributes of growing old is that one spends more and more time looking backward, reflecting on what one has seen, experienced and learned. Now that I am trying to slow down, for the first time in my life not working 24/7, my subconscious mind drifts back over the years randomly revisiting events—both good and bad—that shaped my life.

Recently, my thoughts seem to keep returning to a common theme. When I entered the business world, it was a very different, perhaps simpler, place. The marketplace and competition were geographically localized; a second-generation workforce exhibited a workmanship pride that assured product quality; and corporate focus was on customer service instead of the bottom line. Plants, big and small, were families with genuine concern for each member of the family. Throughout the 1960s the norm was a continuation of a culture where everyone, including total strangers, was courteous, polite and willing to help others.

Everything seems radically different today. The business world has transitioned from geographically isolated to a true global economy. Advancements in communications and travel have compressed time and space to the point that a hiccup in China elicits an immediate response in America. The resultant pressures have contorted the way we do business to something radically different from that of the 1960s.

The recurring theme is what has changed. Advancements in technology, especially communications, eliminated geographical isolation. When my career started, there were no cellular phones, no fax machines, internet or jet airplanes. We communicated by snail mail, copper-wire telephones and rarely traveled outside our region. If we traveled internationally, trips lasted months not days.

Changes in competition have also been radical. Where once it was limited and regional, it is now limitless and truly global. Entire countries that once relied on a few industrialized countries for everything are now serious competitors themselves. The result of these changes is an intensive focus on survival in an increasingly competitive world. This, in part, is responsible for the dramatic change in work ethic and corporate culture. The norm today bears little resemblance to that of the 1960s. Plants, compartmentalized into functional silos, are dysfunctional and tend toward highly reactive behavior.
Pointing to technology, transition to a truly global, interdependent economy and evolving society is the obvious answer to why our corporations and plants are different today. However, are these the real reasons? That is what has been keeping me awake lately.

I keep thinking that there is another, much simpler, yet major contributor to these changes. It goes back to something my great-grandfather explained to me when I was very young. After observing me mistreat another boy, he sat me down and explained that people are different. Some of us may be smarter, wealthier or better-looking than others, but that does not make us better. He used the analogy of “never judge another without first walking a mile in his shoes.” This was my first introduction to empathy and it has never left me. I wonder how much the absence of empathy has influenced the changes in our business and work culture.

In the culture of the 1960s, one grew within the corporation—starting on the factory floor and rising into supervision and management. As a result, frontline supervisors, middle and executive-level management all fully understood what was required for the plant to be effective—they had walked a mile in all of the shoes below them. Today, these positions are filled by MBAs, new college graduates and a myriad of others who, for the most part, have little, if any, knowledge of what is required to effectively accomplish the tasks at hand.

The question I would like to leave you with is simple. How is your empathy? Do you remember what it takes for your employees and coworkers to accomplish the tasks at hand?

“The sole of understanding is empathy."

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].

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