Practicing Genuine Empathy To Understand Customer Needs

Friend outside during sunset talking
Sandeep Mylavarapu of Caterpillar Inc.
Sandeep Mylavarapu of Caterpillar Inc.

Sandeep Mylavarapu is a mechanical engineer and a human-centered design practitioner. He’s spent more than a decade at the proving grounds, developing various construction and mining machines for Caterpillar Inc. As a Lean Innovation specialist, he’s focused on delivering untapped customer value that results in sustainable revenue growth for the company. He also wears the alumni coach hat on the IDEOU platform, where he enjoys helping learners around the globe discover their “aha moments” through design thinking-based business innovations courses.

What are your different roles at Caterpillar, and how do they mesh?

My day job is as an engineer out at the proving ground for Caterpillar. But I’ve branched out and do lean innovation, too. I like to drive that mindset of “let’s find out what our customers need.” It also helps to keep focus. I’ve supplemented it with disciplines like design thinking that have really helped me understand having empathy whenever we talk to the customer or the dealers. 

The key four words are: Learn before you burn. That’s our model. We run so many different projects ranging from problem discovery, to prototype testing, to what is the best business model. So I’m a test engineer at the proving grounds, and a Lean Innovation Specialist,.

How is empathy a crucial part of Lean Startup?

When you go out there and try to understand, or even start with observing how your product is being used, it is so critical not to judge but to actually fit into the customer’s shoes and try and see how they feel. From their perspective, what problem is our product helping them solve? And what different ways are they using it that we have not envisioned a particular feature for? When we go out and do these observations, it is so enriching to see how the feature is put into the context of their specific application. That unlocks ways for us to develop it, or even just play on the business model.

Do you have a good example of how some aspect of Lean Startup has changed your approach? 

The power of prototyping is very underrated, in my opinion. It’s happened sometimes that I needed to convince people about a change and all it took was a meeting invite saying what the change would look like–just showing it to them as part of the discussion in our hybrid work environment. Being passionate about something is different from showing them, “Hey, something simple, tangible and actionable like this may give us this outcome.”  It really works to turn people around. 

It is so critical not to judge but to actually fit into the customer’s shoes and try and see how they feel.

Are there other areas of life where you rely on this way of thinking? 

The power of prototyping can be used in the personal life as well. If I’m planning something or trying to organize a trip with my friends, putting something very simple out there makes people realize, “Oh, he’s serious about this.” Like a travel plan or a reservation which is not paid for. I put out an itinerary with the Airbnb reservation and our possible map travel route on our messaging apps and just say, “Hey, who’s game for next weekend?” 

Is there a value or principle that you try to live by consistently?

The three words are “don’t complain, contribute.” There’s always something to complain about. But how can I contribute if I’m complaining about something? 

Is there something in the world that you think really needs innovation applied to it?

Mental health. It’s being spoken about a lot and I think there are some subtle things that are gaining a lot of traction. When I think about innovation, it’s all about leading with empathy and  having an iterative mindset. Mental health and inclusion deserve that kind of attention as well. Small, big, get it out there and iterate on it. As soon as you say that, everybody’s like, “I need to be right in doing things.” But in my view, just start. If you’re wrong, you always have a chance to correct yourself and make it better. But if you never start, you’re never moving the needle in the right direction.

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