Pain versus Pleasure

By: Perry Sink Marshall

The worst pain in the world is the pain you cannot feel.

This wisdom is according to Dr. Paul Brand, author of The Gift of Pain. This book unfolds the story of his research into the psychology of pain, complete with fascinating detail about the marvelous complexity of the nervous system.

The book also delves into deeper issues. Though we greatly fear pain and avoid it, it is actually one of the most precious things we have. Without it, we invariably destroy ourselves. With
it, we have the best possible problem solving indicator.

My first position out of college was as an acoustical engineer in Chicago, designing car speakers assembled in Lumberton, NC by $5-per-hour factory workers. We engineers liked to design "lab queens" and "throw them over the wall" so that those yo-yos in Lumberton had to figure out how to put them together. We all knew that if a product was hard to assemble, it was simply because the factory workers’ knuckles had been dragging on the ground too long.

I eventually discovered that those "uneducated" factory workers knew far more about putting speakers together than I, and had a ton of valuable information, if only someone would listen to them – if only someone would feel their pain. But nobody wanted to do that, so instead the company would hire expensive management consultants to tell them how to improve their designs and their business.

One of those consultants had a really great method. He would go visit those line workers and find out what they knew, then charge the company $2,000 per day to pass along the information. Apparently, it was less painful for management to receive advice from an articulate guy from the East Coast with an MBA, cufflinks and expensive cologne than from a sweaty high school dropout with a southern drawl.

Hey, at least they were listening to someone. But how difficult it is to tell the difference between the moaners and complainers versus those who uncover legitimate, solvable problems. And how ironic it is that the manager who best applies new technology is not the guy who has a Ph.D. from MIT, but the one who simply listens to his people.

There are two kinds of people when it comes to technology: Those who adopt technology because it is pleasurable, and those who only use technology to rid themselves of some kind of pain, feeling that the technology itself isn’t pleasurable.

I’m a techno junkie. I’m what marketers affectionately call "an early adopter." I bought my first CD player in 1985 and started using E-mail in 1995. I read Wired Magazine and listen to I’ve got Linux installed on my computer and I publish my Christmas letters on the World Wide Web. I’ve also got a pretty thick skull.

Given that, it should be no surprise that it took me a long, long time to figure out that my industrial automation customers don’t make equipment choices based on pleasure – not even slightly. I made way too many bubbly, animated, exciting "new technology" presentations about DeviceNet, Interbus-S and PC based control before I figured out that nobody was going to buy anything because I was excited, or because it was new, cool or just pleasurable.

The only thing that drives change in automation is pain. If the cars are happily rolling out the door on their way to paying customers, the plant manager ain’t going to change a single thing. However, when he knows he’s losing $2,500 per minute while the line sits idle for a day and a half, he becomes fiercely determined to make changes.

For OEMs, it’s a different set of pain: servicing obsolete, 10-year-old equipment that’s still out in the field; supporting multiple operating systems and PLCs; writing software four times to support each of four different networks; servicing those machines via the Internet at risk of introducing security problems; waging war in open-architecture finger-pointing contests; and not being able to communicate with some other company’s I/O because it contains special, undocumented "features." (I’ve written another paper that discusses those pains.

Joseph Schumpeter, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from the WWII era, coined the term "creative destruction." Growth and prosperity inevitably lead to excess and painful correction. Precious resources are directed towards visions that ultimately fail, so then buildings and machines sit idle, until someone with a greater vision comes along and takes advantage of the buyer’s market. Where the forest has burned, new vegetation grows in its place. Growth and progress cannot exist without disequilibrium and discomfort.

In our industry, the present slowdown will provoke change in places where it was formerly resisted. Following the 1998 Asian crisis, frenetic Silicon Valley slowed to a dreadful pace. Companies were laying people off, and engineers who previously wouldn’t interrupt their schedule for a personal visit from the Pope now had time to see me. They were open to hearing about the latest networks, operating systems, materials and processes. When business bounced back, the surviving companies also bounced back with even better products.

With the pleasures of the "technology bubble" behind us, and a sluggish economy in its wake, some lament their fate and the bygone days of "easy capital." But those of us who feel the pain and listen to what it tells us will discover opportunities that were not apparent before. New designs and enterprises will grow in places where seemingly strong trees
grew before the "fire."

The great dot com technology crash is itself an object lesson about pain and pleasure. Jeff Bezos, founder of, has been vilified for hawking billions of dollars of overvalued stock to a gullible public. But Bezos never pretended that his company was making money. I think it’s just that most Amazon investors were Amazon customers, and the shopping experience itself was such a pleasure that the company intuitively seemed like an investment goldmine. (No doubt, those who invested in the mid 1990s and got out by the Millennium did experience great pleasure!)

But plentiful investment capital anesthetized 20-something executives as they grew a small business with small losses into a multi-billion-dollar business with billion-dollar losses. When the company had an unlimited supply of cash, it expanded wildly into seemingly every possible market, though every single product was virtually going out the door with dollar bills taped to the box.

Pain has now replaced pleasure at The denial days are over, and the company is fighting for its life. It is starting to do all the wise things that its cousins in mail order had already been doing for years – selling more aggressively to existing customers, renting its mailing lists to third parties, cutting business units that don’t make its numbers, marketing not only via the Internet but with direct mail and catalogues, monitoring the results of every marketing campaign to determine the ROI. It took pain to turn a dream business into a real business.

Perry Sink Marshall is a founding member of the Industrial Ethernet Association.