Can You Feel Their Pain?
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Can You Feel Their Pain? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine April 2003

We members of management are often expected by the front line people to help justify improvements that will make their jobs easier or safer. At the same time, there is often a lack of tangible justification for such improvements, especially when they involve changes that would primarily impact safety or morale. For example, we often have to attempt to justify a safety improvement that would reduce the potential for accidents, even though no accidents have been reported to-date for that job.

With each of my employers over the years, I have found myself in such a position more than once. After reviewing the job in question, and in many cases, after actually performing it, I was convinced that a change was needed. At the same time, the data I was actually able to collect was not sufficient from a pure ‘dollars and cents' perspective to justify such a change. In a sense, the justification was difficult to verify unless one was able to actually experience the job in question.

Needless to say, like many of you who have been in similar situations, I was at a loss as to what steps to take next. As I have been through this type of scenario several times, I thought I would share a few of them with you in an effort to help identify what actions we need to take to help others ‘feel the pain' of the changes we are trying to put in place.

My first employer provided a fairly safe workplace. Accidents rarely occurred. At the same time however, our packers in particular had to stand all day as they did their job. When asked about improvements that would make their job easier, being able to sit down was always named as the top change that could be made. I unfortunately was not able to justify this improvement for them before I left, as management believed that these people would be less productive if we let them sit down.

As my career progressed, my next two challenges of this nature came along in the form of lifting challenges and shift rotation. In the first case, we were able to justify an improved lifting system after almost two years of analysis. At first, management was reluctant to spend the money unless there was a history of lifting injuries. At the same time, the primarily younger workforce was able to ‘tough it out' and avoid getting hurt. Over time, logic and common sense led the management team to go ahead and make the change.

Battling the physiological impact that rotating shifts every two weeks had on this same team of people proved to be even more daunting. Even though I doubted that there was a manager in the building, or in the corporation for that matter, that would personally rotate their lifestyles every two weeks, I left this company after five years with this change still longing to be made. Over fifteen years later, this system is still in place, even though the workforce is that much older as well.

Problems such as these exist in my opinion because management is not able to ‘feel the pain' of the current job or other type of work system that is in place. Had a given manager been expected to perform this type of work themselves for even a week or two, it is likely that a greater emphasis for change would have existed. These managers however had their own challenges when it came to successfully translating this pain upwards through the company. Unfortunately, the ability to transfer pain upwards was limited for these people as well, even though they made a lot more per year than I did.

As the years have gone on, I have continued to find jobs that people do each day that I would not want to do that often. In each case, it was within my province to help improve the task in question. In some cases, I was successful, but only by finding ways to show management how painful, cumbersome, or otherwise ridiculous the current way of doing things was. I have come to learn that we struggle to feel the pain of our people, and that this shortcoming only increases in severity as one moves further and further away from where the work is actually being done.

Ideally, we as managers should strongly consider making any improvement that our people say is causing them a significant amount of pain, stress, or frustration. We also know that this is not always possible, as financial and time resources always have their limitations. We primarily fail however when our methods for prioritizing projects fails to include a pain or stress index. Without such a factor to consider, we end up making improvements that address problems that appear to be out of control in those cost areas that we can most easily measure. We buy better band-aids, but we fail to fix what is affecting our people the most.

Our greater failure lies in ignoring the problem, either because data does not exist to make the problem obvious or we are caught up in our own work and often miles away from the challenge in the workplace. Some managers even go to the point of avoiding visits with the front line people, as they know that doing so will only bring more problems to light that they do not have the time or money to solve. "Out of sight, out of mind" tends to be the rule of thumb that many managers live by.

Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Waiting until a problem causes significant personal injury or stress is not an effective strategy to pursue either. Every company has their own set of time and money restrictions – the best we can do is (1) make sure that we are aware of all our ‘big' problems and (2) have an effective system in place for prioritizing the problems that are on the collective list. The more common course of action is to focus on those problems that are causing us as managers the most pain and to limit the collection of possible problems to suggestion boxes or managerial opinion around the annual planning table.

It is relatively easy to include a ‘pain index' as part of the project prioritization and selection process. It is more difficult for us as managers to regularly involve a mix of employees in our project selection efforts, but it is the right approach to take if we really desire to have a representative list of improvements to attack. We must learn to trust that if we teach people about the resource limitations that exist, they will work with us to pick those projects that best benefit the company overall.

In closing, we should never expect anyone to spend money or time helping us if we are unwilling to demonstrate the need for a given improvement to the best of our ability. At the same time, we as managers should make our best efforts to understand what our people are going through, even if that means actually doing the work ourselves to capture the full experience of their work experience. Can you feel their pain?

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