Ravell Call, Deseret News
President Russell M. Nelson and Sister Wendy Watson Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints greet some of those in attendance following a special devotional in Nairobi, Kenya on Monday, April 16, 2018.

Henry Ford introduced the assembly line for mass-production of automobiles, and many manufacturers modeled the efficiencies in their companies — sparking great growth and improvement. While mass-production works for non-differentiated commodities, it does not work when it comes to serving, leading or elevating individuals.

Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is currently circumnavigating the globe on his first tour as leader of the church. What he is demonstrating, through what appears to be an exhausting exercise of continent hopping, is not the vast reach of the church but that ministry is performed to the uniqueness of “the one.”

Understanding why mass production methods don’t work for people development is vital for leaders driving change in areas ranging from education to intergenerational poverty, executive development to athletic achievement and from addiction recovery to spiritual development. Finding ways to individualize and customize a learning experience is a vital key to lasting change and improvement in people.

In his book "The End of Average," author Todd Rose looked at the reasons why an assembly line style education system was failing American students. Rose used as his premise an example from the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s. Crashes and poor pilot performance were devastating the organization. After blaming pilots, instructors and commanders, a team of researchers eventually began to look at the design of the cockpits.

Cockpits were being created to the average size of a typical Air Force pilot based on 10 physical dimensions. Over 4,000 airmen had their measurements taken and logged. Everyone seemed to be convinced that such calculations, producing the “average pilot,” would transform cockpit efficiencies, reduce crashes and increase performance.

To the surprise of most on the research team, out of the over 4,000 pilots measured, not a single one fit the average on all 10 dimensions. Some pilots were tall in height but had shorter arms, others had bigger chests but shorter legs. The big discovery was that there really was no such thing as an average pilot. In designing a cockpit to fit the average pilot, they were actually designing it to fit no one at all.

Rose concluded that mass-producing education for the masses doesn’t really work.

Nor does ministering to the average. There isn’t an average person experiencing homelessness or addiction. There isn’t an average person suffering from cancer or depression. There isn’t an average person who is lonely or sad. There isn’t an average struggling high school student or neighbor or colleague at work.

Sometimes community leaders, politicians and even religious leaders are content with sweeping generalities about solutions to individual problems, family struggles and societal strains. If such an assembly line approach to helping others worked, most of the problems we face in our country would be eliminated.

Today, people demand individual customization for the color of the seats and the personal accessories for their car, the apps and cases for their smartphone and even in the ultimate assembly line experience, their order at a fast-food restaurant. We should likewise recognize that lifting, helping and serving those in need in our communities must always be driven by and tailored to the uniqueness of the individual.

Mother Theresa, now Saint Theresa of Calcutta, left the comfort of the convent and lived among those she sought to serve so she could understand the plight of the individual. Helping the poorest of the poor was her vision — lifting one unique and suffering soul at a time. Many a teacher and coach has invested time, effort and emotion into a struggling student. Young classmates have befriended a “loner” or stood up to a bully for the new kid at their school. Countless bosses and managers have mentored employees struggling with personal issues. None of these “angels on earth” individual activities can be mass-produced.

5 comments on this story

Speaking of the LDS Church’s new service-centric emphasis, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who is also hopscotching the globe on the ministering tour, taught that members of the LDS Church must rise above “any mechanical, function-without-feeling routine to the heartfelt discipleship articulated by the Savior at the conclusion of his earthly ministry. As he prepared to leave his still-innocent and somewhat-confused little band of followers, he did not list a dozen administrative steps they had to take or hand them a fistful of reports to be filled out in triplicate. No, he summarized their task in one fundamental commandment: ‘Love one another; as I have loved you.’”

From education to social services, community development to faith-based assistance programs the message is clear — there is no assembly line of service because we simply cannot minister to the average. We can only serve, uplift, help or minister to the uniqueness of the individual.