Real Leaders Never Say “Burning Platform”

Real Leaders Never Say “Burning Platform”
July 2, 2013 Joseph Paris
burning platform

Those of us who are familiar with Continuous Improvement programs have undoubtedly heard references made to a “burning platform”.  We have come to understand that this is a metaphor for a crisis situation and, along with it, the sense of urgency that is necessary to effectively react and overcome the crisis.  If you “Google” the phrase “burning platform origin”, you get as many people taking credit for being the originator of the phrase as you do postings attributing the origin to some anecdote involving, what else, a burning platform.

Whatever its origin, the “burning platform” has become a nearly ubiquitous business lexicon for a situation that is so dire – so fraught with danger – that people will focus all of their energy to overcome the threat so they will become secure and safe again.  Accordingly, a common belief and approach in organizations and communities of any sort is that: for any major change within an organization to occur, a critical success factor is to find a deterrent that will prevent people from wanting to continue with the status quo – that it is important, in fact, for people to believe that their clinging to their current way is so perilous that it compels (coerces?) them into believing that moving nearly anywhere is more safe than staying where they are.

Recently, I came across a discussion in the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In entitled; “Convincing people to start an Operational Excellence Initiative needs a compelling story.  How do you convey the burning platform?”  I have included the discussion at the end of this article for your convenience and review.

Click here to read the original LinkedIn DiscussionAlthough I agree with the first part of the discussion; that it is important to provide a “compelling story” to “convince people to start an Operational Excellence Initiative”, I do not believe that you need to “convey the burning platform” to motivate people to change.  And I went-on to explain as much.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, much of the comments in the discussion addressed the nuances of phraseology, definitions and messaging.  And as a self-proclaimed wordsmith myself; I admittedly engaged in emphasizing the importance of pragmatic, accurate and open portrayal of the initiative – and its motivations and its objectives – rather than injecting emotional hyperbole.

There were obviously two factions involved in the Discussion.  The first faction were those who felt it was necessary to use fear and intimidation (much like a “burning platform” would conjure in one’s mind) to “compel” (“coerce”?) people to get involved and change the “way things are”.  And then there was the second faction (such as myself) who believe people will change willingly if they understand: the purpose and the value of the initiative (Strategy), how they are going to be successful (Tactics), and the “What’s In It for Me” (Logistics) – only then will they willingly and actively engage (Execution).

Admittedly, the former path is easier for the leader to embark upon than the latter.
… Doing the right thing – or the thing right – is rarely the easier way.

As the exchange evolved, it became apparent that the very people who felt the need to speak of the “burning platform” did not, in fact, believe a “do or die” situation ever exists.  They were merely leveraging the rhetoric of a “do-or-die” metaphor to compel people to follow.  Truly propagandists at heart, which Joseph Goebbels might envy.

It begs the questions; why does everything need to be a panic?  How much is “self-induced”?  Are the emotional and physical states involved sustainable – or will there be “burn-out”?  Is there anything that isn’t a “burning platform?  Is there really any difference between the “drama” we see kids engaging in on Facebook and the “drama” that we often manufacture as adults?

I refuse to subscribe to this mentality. 

If the argument is about the “semantics” surrounding the “burning platform” – and instead of seeing the “burning platform as a crisis situation“, individuals need to somehow see through the rhetoric and just “recognize the need to change” – then why not just call it that?  A “need to change“?  And then rally around that?

As such, I can’t reconcile in my head how “the need for change” is equal to a “burning platform” – or even requires that one exists as a prerequisite for change; as if change cannot occur without the threat of dire, life threatening, consequence.  I just don’t, and won’t, buy this as a requirement for a Continuous Improvement Initiative to be successful.

Burning PlatformThink about it…

You find yourself on an oil platform in the middle of the sea.  All around you is a raging inferno with saturating heat that is hot enough to melt steel.  You know you have to beat the flames and get the situation under control immediately or face your demise.  That is, unless, you can find another way to save yourself.  After all, what do you really care about the platform versus your life?  Not much, I bet.

In the dire situation that is the “burning platform”, I can assure you that each and every member of the firefighting team is going to divide their dedication between accomplishi g tFirefighters and Burning Platformhe mission and self-preservation.  And when the decision has to be made between the two, self-preservation will always win.

Weak Leaders use fear and intimidation as a substitute for reason. I use the term “weak” because fear and intimidation are far easier methods than reason.

The goal of using tactics such as fear and intimidation is to get the emotions of the leader’s “minions” excited to a state of frenzy so that they feel “compelled” to fight an enemy. Sometimes, the enemy is real, even if it is somewhat exaggerated – and sometimes the enemy is fictitious – but the reaction of the minions serves the ambitions of their “leader”.


However, to use reason requires that the leader understands the situation at hand; what has to be done, why it has to be done what it will take to accomplish the mission in real terms, what all the stakeholders have to gain (and to lose).

“But we have a team of highly trained professionals at the ready who are dedicated to responding to such situations!” you might rebut.

No…  No you do not have such a team.  And I am sorry to have to be the one to illuminate the reality.

FirefightersProfessionals who work in such extreme circumstances (such as military personnel and firefighters) spend an extraordinary amount of time being educated, trained, and practicing their skills.  In most cases, these professionals will spend in excess of 90% of their time preparing before being called upon to use their skills.

I can safely say that there is no company that devotes such time to training their Continuous Improvement resources.  And there is a reason for this; the good people in Continuous Improvement (almost always smart and capable) never have to actually fight a “burning platform”.

Several years ago, I worked with a company delivering a workshop on Continuous Improvement.  Over the course of the few days I was there, I watched the management as they tried to manage “situations” (none of which could be considered “crisis”).

It was reminiscent of watching the “Keystone Cops” when I was younger.  A “fire” would break-out, and all available resources were dedicated to “putting out the fire”.  Then another “fire” would break out and management would pull all of the resources off the first “fire” – even though it was not “out” – and dedicate them to the next “fire”.

Keystone CopsThis pattern continued in a series of several events whilst I was there – with none of the “fires” ever being extinguished, and emotion running very high.  Trust me when I say, it (and they) looked ridiculous.  And nothing got accomplished or otherwise resolved.

If everything is a “burning platform”, then nothing is… 

It is unwise, unfair, and just plain wrong to believe – even for an instant – that your Continuous Improvement team can operate at “fire-fighting” levels all the time and for as long as one can see into the future.  If you do, you are setting them (and your program) up for failure.  If you make the mistake of portraying that your company is in a permanent state of crisis, and you expect your people to engage accordingly, they will depart at the first convenient (for them) moment.  In a life-threatening situation, it’s “fight or flight”.

If you believe your team will fight for you, you are wrong.
… But, your team might fight with you; well, maybe… if they believe in you and in the cause.

Maybe I feel as I do because I am all “crisis-ed out”…

Starting with “9-11” and the subsequent years of colour-coded “terror threat levels” (did anyone ever know what “terror threat yellow” actually meant?). Moving on to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the “Financial Crisis” in 2007 which was quickly followed by the “Euro-Crisis” (both of which supposedly continue to this day). Throw on top of it all the “Arab Spring” which is a crisis which started in Tunisia and has moved across Northern Africa and into the Middle East with particular hot-spots in LibyaEgypt, and now Syria and Turkey – and even back to Egypt again.  Not to mention a spat of “mini-crises” (North KoreaIran, and now Snowden and the CIA/NSA/FSI) which have been sprinkled along for good measure.

Then there is all the drama we see posted on Facebookblogs, and the like.  The “pity-parties” invoked by the “woe-is-me” crowd who are always complaining, but never doing what it takes to change their circumstances – even when outright told what needs to be done.  It’s almost as if they find comfort in their pain – even enjoy their pain.  But in reality, it is because their fear is stronger than their pain and they have not been convinced there is a better way – “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t”.  Everyone has a “need”, but it’s only those who have a “want” that will change anything.

Most of the content takes a black-and-white position and demands that you take a black-or-white stance.  Life is not polarized to the black-and-white, but rather it is full of greys – and even all the colours of the rainbow.

I can’t believe I am the only one who has tired of such hyped-up drama.

Just like The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, an Aesop Fable; such a mental and emotional state only serves to dilute the alignment necessary to succeed.  And if there is a never-ending series of “burning platforms“, then people become numb and dismissive.

Think of the “war” on drugs, the “war” on terror, the “war” poverty.  The word “war” is thrown around with such reckless abandon such that the meaning of “war” loses all of the ugliness that is real war.
… Or the over-use of the words “Nazi” or “Holocaust“.   They are used so often, in such inappropriate context, as to dull the horror of the atrocities that were their origin.
… Or the “Euro-Crisis” – which has been going on for over four years.   When does the “crisis” stop being a crisis and just become the “new-norm”?

I don’t believe that people will work better and with greater enthusiasm to “avoid” something as opposed to working “towards” something.  A good leader will know how to get their team aligned to working toward the achievement of a strategy.  And if the leader cannot achieve that alignment; then there is either something wrong with the “something”, or there is something wrong with the explanation, or there is something wrong with the leader.

Start with clarity and openness.  In my world, I say what I think and I do as I say.  People ask the straight question and I give them the straight answer – and I expect the same when the roles are reversed; good, honest, open, direct, concise dialog.  I almost always omit any attempt at “political correctness” – I find it just clouds the message.
I don’t seem to have issues with motivating people (compelling?) to pursue the mission objectives, as they are crystal clear, and the support and engagement of the people for their roles exists (there are no “one-way streets”).  Each member of the team has the opportunity to acknowledge and accept the ownership of their responsibilities – or voice concern.

What’s the Mission? Train the Mission… Execute the Mission.

Make sure to have;
– the right people on the bus (sitting in right seats),
– the preparedness that consistent and intense training brings,
– the commitment of the company in support of the team,
– and the alignment of the resources towards achievement of the company strategies

When it’s time to go; we press on in a professional, confident, and businesslike manner.  No artificially induced drama is necessary.  Why can’t this be the “norm”?

If you feel a need to compel – compel people to this…

Ultimately, if a leader feels that they need to instill the fear, drama, or the anxiety of a Keep Calm and Carry Onburning platform” (whether real, artificial or somewhere in between) to get their people motivated to work towards a goal; then you probably have the wrong people on the team and changes should be made – starting with the leader.

So no… I just don’t buy the whole “burning platform” thing.

… Save crisis-speak for a real crisis – I mean a REAL crisis.

As for me, it’s simply just another mission.
… And I prefer to Keep Calm and Carry On.”

DISCUSSION POSTER • Convincing people to start an Operational Excellence Initiative needs a compelling story.  How do you convey the burning platform?

Original LinkedIn DiscussionJoseph Paris • Why is a “burning platform” necessary?

Although I understand that “burning platforms” serve to motivate and focus, I don’t accept that they are a necessary “starting point” for Operational Excellence – or even should be.

… What about having a program that makes “burning platforms” a thing of the past – and a company is only focused on strategy development and deployment?

Why does everything need to be a panic?  How much is it is “self-induced”?  Is there really any difference between the “drama” we see kids engaging in on Facebook and the “drama” that we often manufacture as adults?  I refuse to subscribe to that mentality.

It’s a mission. “Keep calm and carry on…”

DISCUSSION POSTER • Operational Excellence is a change.  People respond best to change, at the early stages especially, when they understand why the change is happening.  Without that, they are merely “sheeple” blindly following a strategic objective!

RESPONDER-01 • I agree fully with Joseph; a burning platform isn’t how to get things started.  On the subject of burning platforms, it is an extremely over-used term and many companies think it’s a good idea to create several “burning platforms”, which to employees simply demonstrates that the company leadership can’t prioritize so instead, everything is a high priority.

DISCUSSION POSTER • You will not get a true culture change unless people are compelled to act and change their behaviors – whether it is through a “burning platform” or other mechanism.  In fact you need many approaches to appeal to many people in a large organization!

RESPONDER-02 • “You will not get a true culture change unless people are “compelled to act and change their behaviors” – interesting statement DISCUSSION POSTER.

But that sounds like ‘coercion’ – not really ‘change management’. Such tactics have been seen to backfire or being accepted unwillingly only to be thrown out at first possible opportunity.

To explain them the ‘need for change’, to show them the ‘vision of change’ or to ‘facilitate change’ is quite different from ‘compelling them to change’ using ‘burning platform’. ‘Burning platform’ indicates a situation of emergency – a do or die kind – which calls for specific response. In fact, the usual approach of change management should not be applied and would not be effective in such situation.

It would be a mistake to combine the thoughts.

DISCUSSION POSTER • Compel and coerce are two different words with different meanings!

Joseph Paris • Personally, I believe effective leadership – one who has a simple and clear vision of a better future and is able to communicate that vision so that all resources can become aligned – will yield far greater results than people reacting to fear (regardless of whether that fear is generated from within, or thrust upon).

“Compel”

1: to drive or urge forcefully or irresistibly

2: to cause to do or occur by overwhelming pressure

“Coerce”

1: Persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats.

2: Obtain (something) by such means.

I don’t see too much difference (if any)…

To have the need for change being initiated and motivated by fear is not sustainable and will never yield a “team”.  In the end, when the fire is hot enough, people will revert to “every man for himself”.

Besides, a real “burning platform” can have fatalities – real fatalities – death.

In the corporate world, this is just not true.  And therefore you cannot expect people to actually behave as if death is a possibility.  The analogy itself is false.

DISCUSSION POSTER • Well, I certainly don’t condone or practice the approach of “Operational Excellence through fear of death”.

I think we actually feel the same way, but are tied up in the terminology.

Although my post talked about using a burning platform (very briefly) as part of telling a “compelling” story.  In this case, since you are sticklers on the vocab, let’s use compelling this way:

com·pel·ling; /kəmˈpeliNG/, Adjective

1: Evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.

The real point was about telling a story through effective communication and leadership to build a shared understanding for parties to move forward with a common guiding vision.

I think we’re both telling the same story with different words.

RESPONDER-03 • I agree Joseph, I’ve always subscribed to the maxim “mend your roof in good weather”.  The best environment in which to introduce change that may challenge people with tough choices (Is this still the organization I want to be in? Do I really have to change/learn new skills, etc?) Is not a dark economic recession, but a buoyant economy.

In my experience, talk of “burning platforms” is seen by non-managerial workers as the mess caused by the managers asking them to change now.  They shrug and say, “I didn’t cause this, so why do I need to clear it up? Why don’t you change?”

Joseph Paris • The word that was the subject of debate is “compel”, not “compelling”

As you have written, DISCUSSION POSTER:  “…telling a story through effective communication and leadership to build a shared understanding for parties to move forward with a common guiding vision.”

Irony: Noun
1: The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

Agreed… But I reckon we all have to work on this, eh? 😉

RESPONDER-04 • For your consideration: operational excellence in my opinion is an expectation that is a condition of employment. While it can be a trigger for change, I am not convinced that a burning platform is as necessary as aligned leadership, clear expectations, great communication, and a performance management system that awards and rewards accomplishment. People in general want to improve and do a good job.

RESPONDER-05 • Hi Folks, I tend to agree with DISCUSSION POSTER, where if you keep doing the same things and expecting different results ……we all know what that means.

When I lead changes in an organization one of the kick off points is why do we want (or need) to change….Everyone must feel compelled to move from the current position.

Les Brown points out “You cannot expect to achieve new goals or move beyond your present circumstance unless you change”

Given that people will not change without a good reason in my opinion therefore we all need a reason to change.

Call it what you like, a burning platform, a competitor biting your heels or cost reduction pressures from customers we all have a reason to change -if not we will be left behind I am afraid.

DISCUSSION POSTER • RESPONDER-04 – I wish that “all people in general want to improve and do a good job”- that would make consulting, operational excellence, and change management incredibly easy!!

RESPONDER-06 • “WANTING” to improve comes from within. Much like losing weight, quit smoking or any other behavior. Just like motivation, you can’t motivate unmotivated people/companies. Good coaches know this and work with their talent to get the best result possible. Great coaches stimulate the inner urges of the person/company to exceed the status quo and strive for uncharted excellent performances/KPI’s that shatter conventional theories!

RESPONDER-04 • @ Nicole– for your consideration: I do have a belief that people in general at work have the propensities and desire to serve their company, stakeholders and customers. As a consultant you should regularly find these people who say, “been there, done that, nothing happens” on ANOTHER initiative that creates a why bother attitude…., here we go again. Before pointing to the employees, I suggest that if there is to be burning platform, it should be with the C-suite, the management system and concentrate on LEADERSHIP, EXECUTION, and PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT. Been there, done and something happens. The rest falls in place though it takes time for the employees to believe something is really going to happen, e.g. one data point doesn’t determine a trend.

RESPONDER-07 • Isn’t it just about making people see that where you want them to go is a much better place and managing the change process, creating the mechanisms, rewarding success and creating a positive environment for change which involves everyone. If you need to light a fire under people for this to happen then maybe you have other problems you need to correct first. You need to initially avoid the lemmings, work with the dogs and the horses, lead the sheep and the goats and shoot the jackals. Not sure where this was stolen from so apologies.

RESPONDER-08 • I don´t know if we need to convince people to operational excellence initiative. Maintain a healthy environment in operations is a continuous accountability of managers and leadership – all levels. The question could be, “How to nurturing a productive environment where excellence is a culture?

RESPONDER-09 • I really like Joseph’s original comment. A Burning Platform is so much a constant in business today (we’re all standing on one) that we need to save that for the really dramatic stuff.

That said, regardless of semantics, a Leader has to provide a COMPELLING Vision, something that pushes the team to get their butts in gear. I’ve found that some “manipulation” and pop-psychology tactics are needed many times to break the initial inertia. An “external enemy” (not a competitor, an evil enemy bent on our destruction) is used a lot. I won’t bore with metaphors about migration or “300” references and quotes.

However, once the team is in motion, it becomes a tough balancing act to keep people fired up and passionate (without getting tired) while ensuring the culture change takes hold. Celebrations and other “Rituals” (organizational and those that derive from cadence and system) become important then.

Joseph Paris • Excellent addition Miguel – thank you. The only thing I might suggest is that the Leader will get far more traction by creating “pull” instead of having to “push”.

Long distance runners save energy for their final “kick”, and not try to maintain a sprint speed over long distance (which is impossible).

… The same can be said for OpEx Initiatives. You need to have a “long-distance” strategy, but have enough energy in reserve for a “kick” when you need it.

RESPONDER-08 • A culture of Embracing Change is the key to logical growth for operational excellence. I understand the passion for the burning platform but finger-pointing blame more often ensues in these scenarios and rarely concludes in excellence. We have all heard too much Chicken Little science and seen reactionary legislation to appease an ignorant journalistic culture of “Do It Now!” For example: California lawmakers required the production and sale of oxygenated gasoline without proper analysis which has resulted in toxic pollutants contaminating the water supply, sadly this mess resulted in 50 cent increase per gallon and no one in the legislature with the ethics to resend the edict . Let us consider a Systematic Approach to improve each production segment as a profit center with a focus on optimizing safe and sane operations that ultimately lead to excellence.

RESPONDER-10 • I have been reading and following the conversations and thought I would add my two sense worth. I have approached change in a different manner depending on the circumstances. What I mean is how deep of a change is required.

Is it improving on something we are doing well but just need to do better or is it a complete paradigm shift in our business. Both require full commitment of our employees but require a completely different “compelling story” and participation level.

RESPONDER-11 • For me, the compelling story must be:

* Authentic – a genuine message delivered sincerely and honestly by the organizational leader;

* Explanatory – the rationale behind the intended initiative and anticipated consequences of alternatives or no action;

* Adult – not criticizing current or past performance or people, but describing the changing environment in which the organization operates to evidence the need to change and improve, which be understood and assimilated by all staff members.

There’s a lot more detail within and more that needs to follow this, but they are three of the key points from my perspective.

RESPONDER-12 • Nicole; I don’t believe you need a burning platform. It can help if you need to improve: it will certainly make the implementation easier but it is not essential.

I remember an early book on lean recommending if you don’t have a platform, get someone to make one up.

I suspect a company that needs to do this has more problems than a burning platform will solve.

I would recommend good facilitation and consultancy.

RESPONDER-13 • I’d always start by asking questions to find what their issues and problems are. There’s no better driver than the problems you identify yourself.

RESPONDER-08 • Some consultants recommend the crisis creation to motivate people. I don´t believe that we need more terrorism besides of the news by TV and internet….A competitive environment driven by Market already defined the roles we must play every day.

RESPONDER-03 • Agreed José, and in any case, to operate excellently, you need engaged people, not motivated people. A “burning platform” or a “don’t waste a good crisis” clarion call may motivate some, usually, as is the way with motivation, temporarily, but I believe that only engagement provide for sustainable growth.

Carlos Ghosn used “we’re-in-real-trouble” motivation when he took over Nissan, but in addition to this, he build Nissan recovery on (i) showing the way for sustainable growth that encouraged real engagement from the general staff, and (ii) clearing out the main offenders that had landed Nissan on a platform that was tinder dry in the first place (31 of 37 board members (yes 37, how???) were gone within 6 months)

RESPONDER-11 • I agree that it is preferable to involve staff, which should lead to (more) engaged staff, if the messages are being delivered in an authentic way. Making-up burning platform stories is just plain stupid. Occasionally, all employees (management and staff) can be too comfortable with the current state of affairs, even though the organization is going down the pan – I have seen this in my research. It is in this circumstance that I believe the organization needs an electric shock to galvanize it. That’s when a genuine burning platform can come in to its own, assuming there’s someone who can deliver the authentic message to the organization before it’s too late.

RESPONDER-14 • End justifies means…sometimes you need to create a story to get someone’s attentions, because we human beings have a taste for stories…  “ya but” story need to be realistic, based on real data/info and must ignite one’s thought process in the right direction…and if that direction is towards the operational excellence than I think it a noble one…

RESPONDER-08 • End justifies means….I´m so afraid!!!!!

RESPONDER-15 • If I can jump in here to support my business partner Nicole :)… The concept of the “burning platform” can indeed be misinterpreted to mean “everything is urgent” and in a panic and everything is top priority. That is not the intent here at all…

In this case, the concept of the burning platform is applied when you are a C-level exec trying to institute a change. If this exec tries to convince/coerce/compel employees to make the change by citing a long list of benefits, he is likely to be met with polite smiles at best and by eye rolls at worst – in both cases, thinking “ah… flavor of the month”.

The burning platform in this situation is used to advise what will happen if we DON’T make the change. It is proven that people will make a change most easily and readily to avoid pain – physical, emotional, or economical. To make a change for a benefit is not impossible of course, but it is much harder for a larger group, especially when you consider “groupthink”. If you can apply the burning platform and help this group understand what will happen if the change is not made (in one case for one of our clients it was the difference between selling the business and moving ahead), then people are more likely to accept or at least explore the idea of the change.

As for flavour of the month… well, in some cases it is! And that’s ok. We believe that companies should admit as much – business cycles require changes in thinking over time. And if a change is presented properly, people can accept that and commit to it. Not just comply.

RESPONDER-12 • Why not just go in, involve the folk in identifying the issues, ask their advice, find the problems and empower the folk to solve them by teaching them new skills and explaining how to evaluate the cost of each issue and the benefits of fixing them?

You can underpin this with a proactive, improvement culture.

It is absolutely true that the burning platform can be used. Fear and fear of pain does work, but so does deciding we are going to change and today is the day we make a start.

Perhaps the problem with “groupthink” is the desire to change everything and everyone at once… Maybe if we remove or minimize the issues we know create tension, we can avoid their consequences.

Perhaps “resistance” can be compared to illness and we know it takes time cure an illness.

When we paint our house, we start in the room that needs it most and, even then, we paint the room in sections, starting with the roof. When it is complete, we decide which room to do next and so on.

So maybe with “change”, we should start small and expand at a rate that suits the culture: each success building confidence and creating new advocates for the process.

A burning platform creates a frenzied drive to meet an urgent deadline. Lean or TPM are lifetime commitments, so what benefit is cutting a couple of months off the progress – especially when the benefits could far outweigh the time saving?

It is called continuous improvement for a reason.

Joseph Paris • I just don’t buy the whole “burning platform” thing…

I don’t believe that people will work better to “avoid” something than to work “towards” something. A good leader will know how to get their team aligned to working toward the achievement of a strategy.

… If you feel a need to compel – compel people to this.

Certainly, people will respond to a crisis – increasingly so if it threatens them personally. But I can assure you that self-preservation supersedes teamwork in a crisis situation. People, who might have never thought of abandoning ship before, will start looking for their own exit-strategy.

… Such a state only serves to dilute the alignment necessary to succeed. And if there is a never-ending series of “burning platforms”, then people become dismissive.

Think of; the “war” on drugs, the “war” on terror, the “war” poverty. The meaning of “war” loses all of the ugliness that is real war.

… Or the over-use of the “Nazi” or “Holocaust”. They are used so often, in such inappropriate context, as to dull the horror of the atrocities that were.

… Or the “Euro-Crisis” – which has been going on for over four years.  When does the “crisis” stop being a crisis and just become the “new-norm”?

No… I just don’t buy the whole “burning platform” thing…

… Save crisis-speak for a real crisis – I mean a REAL crisis…

Ultimately, If a leader feels that they need to instill the fear, drama, or anxiety of a “burning platform” (whether real, artificial or somewhere in between) to get their people motivated to work towards a goal by getting them to run from a situation; then you probably have the wrong people on the team and changes should be made – starting with the leader.

RESPONDER-16 • It would seem many of the commentators here seem to disagree with John Cotter’s “organizational change management”.  Is this based on organizational changes the individuals have executed themselves or what other data do they have?

Seeking to understand…..

RESPONDER-08 • We are talking about people and we have to be included…I won´t like to be treated and managed as a goat or horse or others animals…I would like to be part of a team with clear objectives and know exactly what the team expected from me.  The best way to understand a complex problem like motivation is to practice empathy. In actual days, where to keep competencies in the company is a challenge, it is relevant.

RESPONDER-17 • It is believed that necessity is the mother of invention similarly operational excellence need needs to be ignited in an organization. The simplest approach is to locate the protagonist of the organization whom the dream of operational excellence and the scope for converting into reality can be thrown up. The expected denouement leading to “the benefits” the initiating organization can be listed out in advance.

The payoff should be candidly demonstrated on a small portion of the organization mutually agreed upon.

It is said that success is the strongest motivator of all motivators known; hence the demonstrated (achieved) operational Excellence Initiative becomes a compelling story.

The benefits accrued convey the “burning platform” around the area of Operational Excellence.

RESPONDER-17 • Operational Excellence happens when the entire organization is committed to ongoing improvement. Fundamental to that is getting everyone’s commitment and alignment to work towards an improved condition. The issue is to then align all the communications, efforts, and management systems to operate in a way to move the organization toward the improvement. Burning platforms, even when real are simply vehicles to communicate the rationale. The hard part of OE work is getting and maintaining focus on improvement. That effort requires that everyone thinks for the company and includes consideration of the new goals in the way they do their most mundane routine work. In my experience this is the most difficult change to execute. You have to shake the organization down to its roots and wake it up. This need is what leads most of us to say that we need a burning platform, because in that situation we think more people would question the norm and readily identify opportunities for improvement. Maybe. But many will also take shelter in their norms because that is where they are comfortable.

My personal experience is that OE change doesn’t take root because management doesn’t have the gusto to drive it. It takes more than communicating a vision of the new future. Executives need to change what they focus on, how they manage meetings, frequency of meetings, teaching rather than managing, etc. all of that is a lot of hard work for people who are already working hard and have gotten to where they are by doing things the way they already know and have always done it. If you are and have been successful in your career, it is scary to change the proven formula for success. In my experience in working with C-suite and being one myself, change fails when one or more of the members of the C-suite can’t or won’t see how to change their own leadership and management systems in order to drive the change.

RESPONDER-09 • This is a good subject that tends to get our passions out. Apologies in advance for the cheesy clichés and bad metaphors I’m about to use, but this happens to be true in my experience:

Perhaps it’s kind of telling that those arguing against the “compelling jump-starter” situation more vocally are mostly Consultants or “Lean Experts”. A former boss would say that a consultant always argues for the patient, long term implementation because of 2 reasons: He has the luxury of time and he gets paid by the hour. I also don’t think we can argue against the “drama” of burning platforms using melodramatic statements.

Yes, it is absolutely important to have the best engagement in order to have a sustainable journey. No way around it. A compelling initial story is just that, initial. You have to sustain it, as Ashok says, with local success stories. And “let’s do a little better”, “let’s hold hands and sing Kumbaya” are not compelling.

However, to break inertia, you need extra effort. Your car needs an alternator. Your AC system draws more energy when starting. And while we would all like to think positively, the fact is that most of the people are far from enlightened and would prefer to avoid change at all if possible. Our forebears didn’t set up for a great migration (to Europe, Americas, the Sea) looking for “incremental change” or while they were doing A-OK. No significant enterprise has ever been attempted by common people that were doing “just fine”.

Fear of loss or Potential of Significant Gain are far more effective motivators, especially when they are perfectly REAL and accurate, at least to us competing. And most of us don’t have “2-3 months” to see if everybody is in agreement and convinced.

Motivation is a pre-requisite for engagement. Your team doesn’t work with you because you are such a swell guy. They work with you, first, because they need to make a living and, second, because making a living with you is better than making it elsewhere, not just because of the money, but because they can contribute to something bigger than themselves. Outside Motivation breeds Self-Motivation, which in turn breeds Engagement.

I would also disagree with Mr. Paris’ comment in that we are in what very recently was defined as crisis and “burning platforms”.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration.  It’s just that this is the new normal.  So yes, we need to change our definitions so that the message is accurate and effective.

Our grandparents could pick an occupation or line of business and, with some preparation, a lot of hard work and a dose of luck, make it. There wouldn’t be a foreign competitor undercutting them, including those that use near-slavery as a competitive advantage or a Big Box retailer pushing them out, or a big-name franchise next door.

RESPONDER-18 • I consider Operation Excellence to be a strategic choice that a company makes once they decide who they want to be. This choice should be made after it is well understood that the business will perform much better for its customers, financial stakeholders and employees once the continual improvement cycle has begun and starts to bear fruit.

I have led many efforts in complex organizations and have concluded that without the full understanding and commitment from the C-Suite, results are more difficult to achieve and can easily revert to the old state. It is therefore an absolute must that the Executive Leadership of a company be convinced and fully committed. They must understand the need through their own lenses and terms. What are some key questions to ask the executive team?

Customers:  How well is the business serving its customers?  No business survives without customers, so what do they say about the business. Are delivery and quality commitments met?  Do they purchase more or less over time?

Financials: Is the business as profitable as it needs to be? What are the shareholder or owner expectations? What are the capital requirements and how are they trending?

Employees: Do people feel engaged in the business? Do they feel that their ideas are being heard? How much of the organization’s brain power is really being tapped? Is the operation safe for everyone?

Understanding these issues is imperative to any journey that will require investment, sacrifice, trade-offs, patience and occasional course correction. If this is to be a new way of life for the organization, the leadership of the company needs to be clear on its criticality to the business.

With the correct burning platform, a company can then begin the journey down Operational Excellence. The improvements and victories can always be brought back to the fundamental interests of all the stakeholders; customers, shareholders and employees.

RESPONDER-19 • The main point being argued seems to be around the semantics of “burning platforms”.  Instead of seeing burning platforms as a crisis situation with the use of some sort of coercion to force change, think about it as individuals recognizing the need to change.  That need may be survival (crisis) on one end and simple improvement on the other. Whether it is from the C-suite or the rank and file, people will not invest in changing something unless they recognize the need to do so and make it a priority. Generally humans follow habits – ones they feel have been successful. If they are to change they need to feel that change will be good.  The original post stated OE needs a compelling story.  That story in any situation is selling the need to change. In my estimation that is the burning platform.  Maybe this puts many of the comments into context.

DISCUSSION POSTER • Bob – I think you hit the nail on the head!

Joseph Paris • Bob; the question then begs…

If the argument is about the “semantics” surrounding the “burning platform”…

… And “instead of seeing the burning platform as a crisis situation”, individuals need to somehow see through the rhetoric and just “recognize the need to change”…

… Then why not just call it that? A “need to change”? And then rally around that?

The original post did indeed start by saying that “an Operational Excellence Initiative needs a compelling story.”  Here, I don’t disagree.  And I agree with you that “people need to recognize the need to change and make it a priority.”

… But then the original post goes on… and poses the challenge… “How do you convey the burning platform?”  Unless I am missing something, the response to this question is what the poster (Ms. Nicole Dunn) seeks – using the statements in the rest of the original Discussion as context and background.

As such, I can’t reconcile in my head how “the need for change” is equal to a “burning platform” – or even requires that one exists as a prerequisite for change; as if change cannot occur without the threat of dire, life threatening, consequence.

… I just don’t buy this as a requirement for a successful OpEx Initiative…

In my world, I say what I think and I do as I say. People ask the straight question and I give them the straight answer – and I expect the same when the roles are reversed; good, honest, open, direct, concise, dialog…

… I don’t seem to have issues with motivating people (compelling?) to pursue the mission objectives, as they are crystal clear. The same with the roles and expectations of everyone on the team or otherwise involved in the mission (each member of the team accepting and acknowledging ownership before the commit).

… When it’s time to go… we press on in a professional, confident, and businesslike manner.  No artificially induced drama is necessary.  Why can’t this be the “norm”?

… Are we that bored with our lives that we need to fabricate the drama to get the blood flowing? Or do we think the “bosses won’t take us seriously unless we sweat?”

That’s just not how I, nor anyone on the teams where I am involved, ride…

… But I am happy if that works for others.

RESPONDER-19 • Your comments are exactly why it is semantics.  To you the term burning platform is the threat of dire, life threatening, consequence.  To me it is not. Burning platform is just a term to describe a need to change. Interpretation is one of degree.  A silly analogy may be that a fire can be a campfire or it can be a roaring & raging out of control forest fire.  In either case it is still fire. So to me a burning platform can be anything that is compelling enough to want to change… small like a camp fire or large enough to be a forest fire.

My main point which I believe you agree is that change can take place as long as people see the benefit to changing.  It does not have to be life threatening…. just something people will rally around because they believe change will be better than what the current state is.

RESPONDER-03 • Sorry Bob, your acceptance of the term “burning platform” to mean any and all representations of the need to change doesn’t sound real.  In most people’s language, I think, the term means something urgent and dangerous to future survival, a “you’ve got no choice if you want to survive” scenario, not something nice, attractive and warming like a camp fire.

When managers use this to compel staff to change, they are showing, to me, that they can’t manage, they are just “JFDI” merchants who try to couch it in, “I’m doing this for your own good”.  How patronizing!  Staff always sees through this.

RESPONDER-08 • Burning platform is the easy way to manage people.  Of course it is not sustainable. The term is very clear, and we think we could put some sugar to make this process digestible… Even in politics it has been made.  At medium term the response would be a lack of confidence.  The “carrot in front of horse” works with horses.  Who would like to have horses as employees?

RESPONDER-16 • 2nd request for data.  It would seem that everyone is talking about perception.

There have been studies done by John Cotter and his 8 steps on sustainable organizational change.

“Trust in God”, all else bring data.

The data might help resolve this “he said/ she said” arguments.

Again seeking to understand……..

RESPONDER-20 • One of my bosses always told me; “You can lead a horse to the water but you can’t make him/her drink. The objective is to make him/her thirsty.” I often use the two-minute challenge approach. 1) State the observation (gaps) 2) wait for a response 3) restate/remind them of the goal 4) get a solution and 5) agree on the next steps. IMO, unless there is a thirst for change, improvement or excellence your horse may never drink. How do you make your horse thirsty?

RESPONDER-21 • Hi Nicole;  Perhaps the definition of a ‘burning platform’ has changed since it was first coined but I don’t think it has evolved to describe every type of need for change.  Whether you truly have a ‘burning platform’ or a compelling need those in of themselves are not enough.  There are many aspects of organizational change where identifying and communicating a need for said change will only get you so far.

How are your people incentivized? How centralized is your decision making?  Which rules are formalized and which ones are not?  What type and how much coordination and control do you have, between functions, along the value stream, within a department?  Does the organizational configuration or complexity need to transform?

I believe the ‘burning platform’ is one of many tools available to you to spark a change initiative.  Kotter, Collins, Porter, etc… have some similarities in their change models.  So once you decide what the message is then the real work begins.

RESPONDER-22 • Hi Nicole;  I can only speak from a manufacturing view point and from my experience OE program’s have a number of hurdles to overcome.

It is the use of lingo. People at shop floor level like clear and simple statements, e.g like profitability is decreasing due to competition in the market place, words like “burning platforms” are Ok at management levels but is seen as corporate/ consultant type buzz words, with no clear meaning to lower levels colleagues.

The questioning and enquiring mind of new hires is lost after approximately 6 months because they give up asking why is this task done this way and receiving answers like, it was always this way or our boss designed this system so don’t change it etc…

Management are rewarded for current practices and as in all companies head count has been reduced and so this level is more focused on delivering current requirements and so have no “time” in their mind to action some of the ideas coming from the production floor operators. How many books have we all read where the management spoke to the operators and ideas for improvements were given, the damning part of these books is that nearly in all cases these ideas were given to management previously and for various reasons were ignored and so the flow of ideas stopped.

The other challenge is that companies still work to gut feeling or experience, at this point all modern manufacturing equipment has the ability to log data, some companies gather this data, but very few have the capabilities in house to correctly analyze it correctly and so point the organization in the correct direction,

In summary for me OE, requires a strong leader committed to listening at all levels, insisting on the use of data to make decisions and working with senior and middle management to change their management style through coaching/ training and appropriate award systems.  Not all of these managers will have the ability to change so may have to be exited.

Engaging the lower levels in the organization from my experience will be easier as they are only too willing to share their ideas once they feel they will be acted upon and so give them a sense of belonging and achievement. By default all improvements will make their job more interesting and this sense of achievement will drive them further to generate more ideas.

I would use an hour glass as a good way of describing the challenge. The operators/ lower level management are at the top with all the ideas and the middle and senior management are at the narrow part of the glass restricting the flow of ideas to the leader at the base.

RESPONDER-20 • Perfect assessment RESPONDER-22! As long as the senior management is being rewarded for the status quo results the resistance to change will always exist.  Interesting, though, that companies whose work forces shrunk significantly will eventually develop a thirst for change and hopefully pursue the data, ideas and change management tools in pursuit of survival.

RESPONDER-23 • What if we have been wrong all this time and there was no such thing as resistance to change?

There are many fundamental characteristics of being human. For example, we have mass. While excess mass can be unhealthy, we could not be human without mass. Unless we no longer want to be human, it is impossible for us to be resistant to mass.

Change is also a fundamental characteristic of being human. We cannot exist without change. Every second of every day, we undergo massive change. It happens on both the microscopic and macroscopic levels. It is therefore impossible to simultaneously be a living human being and be resistant to change.

I worked for a while in the distribution center of a manufacturer of consumer products. The team of workers was renowned within the company for being resistant to change. While the rest of the company had adopted the continuous improvement system, the warehouse had not. And yet, during the first week that I was in the group, the team completely rearranged the warehouse to accommodate a new product launch. The warehouse was totally transformed over the course of a few days. This activity was not directed by management. The team decided where everything needed to go to meet product launch shipments and to meet the normal order fulfillment which followed. Each new product launch which happened 2 to 4 times per year required similar layout and system modifications. Clearly, this team was not at all resistant to change. They were in fact, active and willing participants in regular massive change.

Their motivation for making these changes was that it made their jobs much easier. If they didn’t modify the warehouse layout for each launch, the operation of the warehouse would have been much more difficult.

Over the course of the next two years, the team adopted continuous improvement and achieved amazing results.  Clear bottom line performance improvements. And each time that we took on a new project, we started with one goal in mind: “How can we make our jobs easier?”

They were not motivated by fear of losing their jobs (they could get a job in any warehouse) nor by any desire to help the company. All they wanted to do was to come to work, earn a living and go home to their families with as much energy as possible.

Resistance shows up not to change but rather to goals that don’t apply us.

RESPONDER-24 • Survival and sustainability is the name of the game.  Improving every day to achieve excellence in everything a company does, is a continuous journey to make that happen.  You want to call it the need or burning platform, or strategic mission, or continuous improvement initiative, etc…. at the end of the day is to excel to stay ahead of the competition, make money, keep everyone happy, grow and renew!

RESPONDER-25 • A very interesting post.  I, too, like Joe’s original post.  I would just add that a burning platform is not necessarily something one creates to drive change, but, rather, a real situation that exists that warrants change.  Thanks to all who made this an interesting read.  Cheers!

RESPONDER-26 • After reading the comments and the issue of burning platform and Operational Excellence, if the company is close as a family they are aware of the need to correct the issue and improve, and that in itself is the platform to motivate improvement.

RESPONDER-27 • Great discussion . . . .  The meltdown and slow recovery has certainly reduced the interest level in “formal, structured, and disciplined” operational excellence.  The economy, fear and uncertainty of the future, healthcare costs, and unforgiving global competitive challenges drive organizations into an immediate reason, reactionary mode.  Excuse the expression but I observe so many executives and their organizations running around with their hair on fire, making the monthly and quarterly numbers, and perceiving all of this as operational excellence.  This operating mode creates an enormous amount of hidden waste that is invisible on the financial statements.  But it is what it is . . .

Executives and their organizations are always in a constant change mode these days.  Much of it is off point or sub-optimized.  Intuitively, everyone wants to grow, get better, simpler, faster, and increase profits.  The challenge is to redirect and refine the present mode of change so it creates rapid results, superior operating performance, improves competitiveness, and transforms culture (operations excellence, right?).  Selling organizations an Operations Excellence program is the wrong game; helping them to improve their critical operating issues swiftly and continuously reinvent themselves is more appealing.

One of the largest problems with improvement is the “process” of how organizations introduce and deploy improvement. It has not changed in decades.  How many processes in your organization have not changed in decades?

We have coined the phrase “improving how we improve.”  All organizations including consulting firms need to figure this out. Executives and organizations are not in the mood for another top down, executive mandated, train the masses, get the belts improvement program … and this model has been unsuccessful for decades with other “continuous” improvement programs.  However, there is a lot of interest and commitment to a more simplified, focused, rapid deployment and rapid results model of improvement that integrates and overlays well with their fast forward operating mode.

RESPONDER-20 • So what is the cause of the “burning platform?”  Is that not what should be addressed?  Seeking a solution before understanding the cause is the old cart before the horse approach. Find out what’s causing the platform to burn and work to eliminate it.  The solution may be something much more simple than selling or launching an OpEx initiative.

RESPONDER-28 • I have to agree with Nicole, Ruth and Andrew; while it may not be necessary (or even beneficial) to create a “burning platform”… effective OPEX requires organizational alignment to a specific need (speed to market, pricing pressures, quality improvements etc.) for improvement; regarding the effectiveness of a real burning platform… you only need to look to Autoliv (Ogden UT; slated for closure and relocation of operations to Mexico), John Deere in the 1980’s and Pella Windows… all world class organizations that were faced with actual burning platforms.

Joseph Paris • If everything is a “burning platform”, nothing is…

And without having;

– the right people on the bus (sitting the in right seats),

– the preparedness that consistent and intense training brings,

– the commitment of the company in support of the team,

– and the alignment of the resources towards achievement of the company strategies

… when the “burning platform” does actually happen, the reaction and results are almost always more worthy of the “Keystone Cops”.  http://youtu.be/iRlZaSWocQk

I do have to take a moment to thank everyone on this discussion – it makes for great content for my next article (beginning of July).

RESPONDER-29 • @Joseph, the video is so wonderful. thanks

 

Photo of XONITEK's Joseph ParisParis is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence. 

He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 25,000 members.

For more information on Paris, please check his Linked-In Profile athttp://de.linkedin.com/in/josephparis

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