Can Empathy lead to the Voice of the Customer?

This post has been on the drafting table for a couple of weeks now as the concept of Lean Six Sigma in an airport environment continues to push my mental-gymnastic abilities. It started a couple of weeks ago when Dubai Airports announced on LinkedIn a new policy to reject at check-in baggage that lacks a flat surface

I understand that the airport company must be seriously concerned about mis-tracks and other baggage handling system issues that result in delayed and lost bags. But in reading the announcement, I couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing in this decision and after much pondering, my thoughts have centred on the concept of Voice of the Customer (VOC).

Source: Dubai Airports

Source: Dubai Airports

The Passenger Advocate

The relationship between a passenger and an airport is a peculiar one - it's not typically direct. Passenger head charges are recovered through airlines, retail spend through rents and/or revenue sharing and even ground transport through access charges for taxis, buses, etc.*

As such, a role my operations team often adopts in decision making is that of the passenger advocate. With every decision made internally and by other parts of the business, we are always trying to pass it through the lens of the passenger. If we make a change to our security screening queue, we do things like asking ourselves "how will the passenger navigate this space?" and then will we often walk the space trying to critically evaluate the change we are proposing.

I've really taken to this role over the past year and I think I've been a bit smug in my belief that I can truly empathise with our passengers and see the airport through their eyes. After all, I'm quite close to our dominant passenger profile - Australian male 25-35 (okay, I'm a bit older than the typical Queenstown crowd now).


But now that I think about it, even if I was right in the middle of our largest demographic, that's not enough.

The sigma part of Lean Six Sigma comes from the world of statistics and relates specifically to Standard Deviation. To those that know me, it doesn't shock them to learn that I loved maths at school but in case you weren't a nerd like me, here is a very quick run down.

In order to make order of variation in the real world, some really smart people created a symmetrical curve that can be defined by two variables - mean and standard deviation. For simplicity's sake, let's just consider these two variables to relate to the average and the spread.

The "standard" in standard deviation is the way these really smart people decided to describe the spread in decreasingly significant portions of the group being described. One standard deviation or one sigma each side of the mean encompasses 68% of the group, two sigma encapsulates 95% and six sigma (the goal of this concept) is 99.99966% of the group. That equals a variation equal to or smaller than 3.4 defects per million opportunities.

Confounding Conflations

So, even if Australian males 25-35 represented two-thirds of Queenstown Airport's passengers, I'd be lucky to "represent" one sigma of our passengers. Obviously, the absurdity of thinking that I could represent the users of an international airport is as clear as day.

Plus, it would seem that I am confusing process variability with customer demographics and it definitely looks that way, I'll grant you.

The Six Sigma objective is about reducing the variability in one's processes to ensure a consistent outcome. While what determines an acceptable outcome is defined by the customers' requirements, it's process mapping and process control charts that use statistical measures such as sigma.

So why am I talking about VOC and sigma in the same sentence?

The Multi-Talented Mr Passenger

Because the passenger isn't just the customer, are they? In my first Lean Six Sigma post, I shared my epiphany that, in the Airport Operations environment, passengers are the product.

And for this post, I'm going to extend that to add that sometimes the passenger is also the supplier providing an input into the process - such as in the case of checking baggage.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that, once again, taking a Lean Six Sigma view of Airport Operations has resulted in another weird twist to the model but it seems to add to the approach rather than take away from it.

All Things to All People

So, back to the question at hand: can I really use empathy to determine the Voice of the Customer and, by extension, understand my key supplier to the checked baggage process?

In a recent post on diversity, I discussed a concept called unconscious bias. It is based on the idea that our experiences not only influence what we think but how we think about what we think. Even more so, we are often blind to these limitations in our own thought processes and the filtering we use to perceive the world.

Also in that post, I suggested we can combat these limitations by challenging our decisions. Talking a critical stance on not only our decisions but also why we made those decisions. In this context, however, I'm not sure that can be enough.

At best, I share some pretty basic characteristics with one sigma of our customers. But I diverge in some key areas. I work at this airport, I've travelled through plenty of other airports, I write blog posts about airports in my spare time, I'm an airport geek.

Empathy as a Tool, Not a Pathway

Empathy is an essential human quality that must be nurtured. It is essential to productive human interaction with team members and customers.

It is a fundamental skill necessary to understanding the Voice of the Customer but it won't help you hear it.

That will take a different set of skills and will involve the Customers themselves. Once you have heard their voice, you'll be able to understand their requirements, a set of critical to quality requirements.


* parking is, of course, a huge exception to this.