Street Smarts for Change Management

Visioning and Burning Platforms: Know Your Audience

Jeff Cole
Contributor: Jeff Cole
Posted: 01/25/2010

Meet Bob and Charlie. The past few years have been rough on us all, but especially so for old Bob. His company closed, he defaulted on his subprime mortgage, his 401k was lost in the crash, he caught swine flu, his wife left him and on his way out of town his dog bit him. These days he spends his time drifting from one small town to the next in drafty boxcars with all his worldly possessions in a bindle on a stick. The hobo lifestyle is not quite the career path this one-time operations director envisioned.

Charlie, on the other hand, has a different story. His company was basically unaffected by the poor economy. He never was one for risky investments like stocks—cash in the mattress was his strategy. Although his company has its share of inefficient processes, Charlie has been doing things the same way, in the same job, in the same cubicle for 15 years. It works well enough for him and as he sees it, all is fine in his world.

In an earlier article, we discussed the notion of using Visioning and Burning Platforms as change management tools for communicating Six Sigma project changes to your target audience. While a powerful concept, it’s greatly enhanced when you know your audience and can tailor your messages to them.

Boxcar Bob for example, feels the pain. There is little need to get in his face with a pain messaging strategy like a burning platform. He already gets it. Bob will very likely follow the first person who comes along with a realistic, well-crafted vision. Any solid plan or process change that reduces his current level of pain is likely to get Bob’s support.

Cubicle Charlie is a different bird. He suffers from what I call corporate numbness. He is steadfastly barricaded inside that clichê we call a "comfort zone" tightly clutching his "red stapler." Process change is absolutely the last thing in which he intends to engage. Why? It may throw off the ever-so delicate balance of that (inefficient) corporate process eco-system he has lovingly hand-crafted over the years. Good luck engaging Charlie with a vision. His imagined pain of moving from his comfortable status quo to that new desired process state far outweighs any benefits you describe. (In fact he probably stopped listening the moment you were introduced). Sometimes to drive change we have to upset the apple-cart, and that means using both a vision and a burning platform to break through that numbness and help the Charlies of the world through the process. Once he understands that the pain of his status quo is greater than the pain of moving to the desired state, he’ll engage. Once the dust settles, he’ll be better off and more resilient next time.

Know When to Ramp Up These Tool Messages for Effective Six Sigma Change Management

The same can be extrapolated to entire organizations. While the texts are full of various change curves, the one we’ll focus on for the moment is the life-cycle S-Curve based on the work of David Nadler. You can see that when an organization (or product/service) initially begins, performance drops a bit as you get your act together. It then hopefully goes through a rapid growth stage eventually reaching maturity followed by decline. The extent to which you turn the dials up or down on your Burning Platform and Vision messages for a Six Sigma process change depends on where the organization is on that curve. (Click on image to enlarge.)


The rapid growth phase is an intoxicatingly wonderful place to live. When you’re in there part of you wants to believe it’ll last forever and that drowns out the little voice saying that now is the perfect time to be planning our next change. We can’t do that now you say—we’re too busy shoveling all this money into our vault. The dial on the Burning Platform needs to be turned up to reach people in this phase as they’re feeling no pain and see no reasons to change. However, planning the next change at this phase leaves you with a wide open palette of options. Plus, the next product will be hitting its growth mode about the time the current one is maturing—extending the amount of time an organization can stay in growth mode.

Both the Burning Platform and Vision will be helpful as you reach the Maturity stage of the curve. Waiting to change until this point gives you fewer options, but people will be more aware that growth doesn’t last forever.

If you wait to change until you are in the decline stage be aware—that roller coaster ride heads straight into the bowels of hell. The organization will be in crisis mode with only one—maybe several viable change options at best. You will, however, have everyone’s attention. They’ll already feel the pain and it’ll be time to turn the dial up on Visioning.

Make Six Sigma Change Management Succeed By Knowing Your Audience Well

Whether you’re communicating with individuals or entire organizations, it’s always good to keep in mind your pals Bob and Charlie and know the mindset of your target audience. It gives an excellent context allowing you to blend together the right amounts of the right change management tools to make your Six Sigma change successful.

Jeff Cole
Contributor: Jeff Cole
Posted: 01/25/2010

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