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Leadership & Mentoring

Using Compassion in Manufacturing

Compassion and empathy are the basis for good business, good communication and good relationships, but they are not common traits the manufacturing sector is traditionally well-known for. Senior Manufacturing Advisor Geoff Crossley explains why that needs to change.


Many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Sir Cary Cooper, an internationally renowned psychologist and expert in organisational health. I’ve been a big fan of him ever since. According to Cary Cooper, the difficulties many manufacturers face with productivity are less to do with technology and production, and more to do with people management.

I recently came across the brilliant Compassion at Work Toolkit, for which Cary Cooper had written the foreword. Written by Fiona Meechan, an organisational development expert who works with the College of Policing, the Toolkit sets out what happens when empathy and compassion are missing from the workplace, the improvements we experience when we nurture them in work, and crucially, how we can embed them.

What is empathy and compassion?

As explained in the Toolkit, empathy is when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and resonate with their feelings. Compassion goes one step further – it’s about recognising and empathising someone else’s circumstances and being compelled to take action to help.

A workplace without empathy and compassion, where there is little effort on the part of managers or decision makers to meaningfully connect with their employees, leads to people feeling de-humanised, undervalued and unmotivated.

Think of compassion as a people management tool and skill, to be practiced and perfected, that will get the best out of you and the best out of your staff. People working under compassionate leadership are more productive, more likely feel committed to their job and are less likely to experience burnout or illness.

Why it’s so important in manufacturing

As Sir Cary Cooper points out, manufacturers tend to lag behind in this area. There are several reasons why. The first is that manufacturing, by nature, is all about measuring and producing units. It lends itself to Taylorist-type thinking, which if you’re not careful means you end up treating people like cogs in a system. Owners and managers in manufacturing businesses also tend to be engineers by trade rather than ‘people managers’. They know their process and product inside out, which is great. But managing people is very different to managing machines.

In addition, there are real, physical barriers between management and staff in manufacturing environments – one party is mostly based in the office and the other out on the shop floor, all wearing ear defenders! This distance and isolation, if unmanaged, can create a cultural divide that is difficult to bridge.

As Fiona explains:

“Compassion is a fundamental human trait, and we simply don’t do well when it’s missing. Ethically, treating other people with compassion is the right thing to do, but in addition it also boosts productivity in the workplace. Many jobs are inherently mentally and/or physically demanding, because of the nature of the work or the environment, and in these circumstances it’s even more important for us to show people that they are valued, appreciated and supported for the effort that they invest and work that they deliver. When we do that, people are even more committed and motivated.”

Building compassion into the day-to-day

The principles of Lean Manufacturing are a great foundation for building compassion into your working relationships. The last of the 8 Wastes refers to getting the best out of someone – if you don’t it’s a waste for them and for you!

Helping people to achieve their potential requires building strong human bonds, and for that, understanding how to use empathy and compassion will improve your skills as a manager.

For example, one of the best Lean tools for preventing the relative isolation of life on the shop floor from driving a wedge between managers and staff is the Gemba walk.

Doing the Gemba Walk

A Gemba walk involves walking the factory floor, seeing production first-hand and capturing concerns from a shop-floor perspective. But most importantly, it’s about engagement. By getting involved and talking to staff on the shop floor, about how they are feeling, about how they think things could improve, you build a better understanding of your business and your staff. This is the perfect arena for practicing your empathy and compassion skills!

A pragmatic approach

This is not about problem solving as we know it. As engineers we are by our nature people who ‘problem solve’. It’s what we do every day. When machining a component, we can measure to see if it’s the correct size. People are different. They have very real moods, feelings and emotions – good and bad – that affect their performance, not all of which are obvious and can be ‘solved’. However, they can be heard and understood. We should therefore be mindful that, whilst there may not be a direct way to ‘practically’ support an individual, simply listening and understanding their position can go a long way to helping people feel appreciated, which in turn leads to them feeling happier in work and more committed to the organisation.

Compassion does not mean you have to agree with a person or solve all their problems, but whilst you may see yourself as ‘just their employer’, you are also a fellow human being, and when we support each other, we all do better.

What compassion will do is make the individual feel valued, included and part of the team. It also gives them a safe space to be more open and discuss what is affecting their performance at work. This naturally leads to more commitment to the manager they work ‘with’, not ‘for’.

In addition to greater commitment from your team, as a manager you will receive better quality information to work with and understand its qualitative nuances. Compassion mean teams can achieve their full potential.

Common scenarios

As managers we all face difficult situations in the workplace. Take an under-performing employee. In this scenario, you can go down one of two routes. You could let frustration get the better of you, they might become defensive, and you potentially end up in an even worse situation. Or you can choose to empathise with them first and try to understand why they are behaving in the way they are. Understanding empathy and using the foundation of compassion means you are much more likely to get to the root of the problem.

Empathy and compassion are also critical for effectively managing change, especially where people may perceive a loss of control or certainty. I’ve been in a boardroom where the business owner was setting out plans to introduce an important new system, but one of the managers was refusing to go along with it. The owner was frustrated at his stubbornness; they needed both the manager and the new system!

An introduction to Change Management

Disciplining the manager would have made the problem worse. The only way to get through to him was to show compassion and understand his concerns. Incorrectly, he felt his value to the company was only based on his knowledge, and that if the business found out what he knew he would be made redundant (this was far from the truth). At the root of his feelings was fear; he was worried about what might happen. (Owner and manager now understand each other better and the not so new system is working well!)

Crystal Doors in Rochdale is a great example of building a sense of trust and support during a period of change. When the company invested in a spray-painting robot, the head sprayer, who wasn’t tech-savvy, was initially scared of what it meant for him. But management helped him through the transition by buying him a phone, showing him how to use it and giving him confidence around technology. Now he finds it easy and it’s become just another part of his job.

Further reading

I strongly recommend reading the Compassion at Work Toolkit for practical actions you can adopt to embed a compassionate approach to business.

Taking things further, my colleague Matt Ward has written an excellent blog on how to build a healthy, happy manufacturing workforce through good communication and wellbeing support.

I can guarantee with complete certainty that if you introduce compassion into your working relationships, you will see a productivity improvement and a profitability improvement.

Compassion breeds compassion, so it starts with you.

Over to you.

Need support? Get in touch
Geoff Crossley

Geoff Crossley, Senior Manufacturing Advisor

Geoff is a highly skilled manufacturing specialist, practiced in supporting manufacturing businesses to implement lean tools and techniques which will increase efficiency. Geoff is passionate about helping manufacturers work smarter and to do more with less.

With a background in engineering design and experience running a successful business, Geoff is skilled at strategic planning, developing sales and marketing strategies to generate new customers and delivering sustained profitability.

To view Geoff's full profile including technical capabilities and industry experience, please click here.

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