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July 6, 1988. North Sea. 21:56 B.S.T. At 110 miles northeast of Aberdeen, Scotland, the oil rig Piper Alpha stands with a crew of over 200 aboard. For this crew, it’s been another normal day. Some are winding down by watching Caddyshack. Others are quietly settling in for the evening. No one is aware that a disaster is about to unfold that ultimately would take the lives of over 160 men. In a few moments, a series of errors that were made earlier in the day would trigger the worst oil rig fire in history.
When the rig ignited, those who survived the tremendous initial explosions were faced with a critical choice. According to survivor Roy Carey, the men had to decide whether to burn to death or potentially drown. If a man decided to stay on the rig, he would die a certain death. If he jumped, the fall (over 75 ft.) would likely kill him. Surviving that, he had to contend with flaming debris on the surface of the ocean and the risk of hypothermia. But there was, however, hope of survival if the men jumped. In the end, a number of men were able to jump, and over 50 people were picked up by rescue boats.
By the early 1990s, because of the Piper Alpha disaster, the phrase "burning platform" had entered business vocabulary. But I’ve found that many people use the phrase with no real understanding of its meaning. Common definitions of a burning platform include "the compelling business reason for making a change," and more generically, "the bad things that will happen to us if we don’t change now." Taking a leap into a frigid ocean was uncertain and terrifying for the survivors of Piper Alpha. But it beat the alternative of certain death, and it drove them to take action.
What does this mean to us in the world of Six Sigma process improvement? If you are integrating change management into your Six Sigma process improvements, you’ll definitely want to be aware of the burning platform concept because it’s helpful to process excellence in numerous ways.
Does Your Six Sigma Project Charter Include a Burning Platform?
Six Sigma project charters take on different forms, but most have a portion labeled "business case" or "project importance" wherein you explain why this Six Sigma project should be done. This section should include more than WIIFM (What’s in it for me)—i.e. the vision of good things that will happen if you do the project. Include a burning platform statement: If you don’t make this process improvement now, what would be the consequences for your business? If you have a SWOT matrix, the intersection of "Threats" and "Weaknesses" is an appropriate place to find a burning platform.
What is Your Six Sigma Project Pitch?
While you’re at it, integrate the burning platform into your Six Sigma project’s elevator speech (a brief description of your project and why you are doing it). When you have an elevator speech for your Six Sigma project make certain everyone on your team understands it and can consistently relay it. (Remember—variation is the enemy!)
Crying Wolf: Is Your Six Sigma Project Really a Burning Platform?
It can be tempting to exaggerate a burning platform for a Six Sigma project. Don’t. Stakeholders are smart and will see right through an insincere burning platform. In one company where I worked, several people’s credibility on future projects were diminished by "crying wolf." Lay out a legitimate burning platform for your Six Sigma project or don’t use a burning platform statement at all. You want to consider the burning platform as a Six Sigma project selection criterion as well.
Six Sigma and Burning Platform: A Street Smart Tip
Pay special attention to the "communications" people. Throughout any large Six Sigma project, you’ll be drafting messages for the sponsor or champion to communicate to the workforce. The burning platform is a vital part of the message because it drives change as much or more than the WIIFM vision. The higher up in an organization a sponsor is the more likely they’ll have communications people on staff and you’ll be asked to run any messages through them. They are often involved in the newsletters, speech writing, Web content, etc. Caution! You may see these people as roadblocks that want all sponsor messages to be "unicorns and rainbows." You may feel they have more of an interest in the "journalistic pyramid" than in helping to drive change. Yes, an untrained communications person may have an allergic reaction to a burning platform. But, they are your ally, not an enemy. Like you, they’re just trying to do the right thing.
Several clients have engaged in real head-banging "discussions" over communicating burning platforms. Great practices to leverage the synergy include first making certain the sponsor understands the importance of and is on board with his or her role in driving process change—including public and private communications of the vision and burning platform. Secondly, ensure the communications people are educated in Six Sigma change management and brought into the process rather than just having an obscure burning platform message dumped on them at the eleventh hour.
A legitimate burning platform, communicated properly by the right people, can go a long way toward helping lock in the success of your next Six Sigma process improvement project.