I was struck by an article this week from the BBC announcing that China is predicted ‘to overtake the U.S. in scientific output in two years.’ We have been hearing that our school system is broken for years, but we as a nation have been unable to mount an effective campaign to address this problem to-date. Hopefully this revelation serves as a wakeup call.
One of the key concepts in change management is the importance of having a “burning platform” that can drive the change process. I can’t help but hope that the silver lining from this depressing article is that it will serve as the burning platform that education reform so desperately needs.
As a teacher, parent, observer from afar, etc., I have seen schools undertake constant efforts to “reinvent” themselves and become more successful. To-date, none of those efforts has achieved more than a marginal impact on the way the typical student experiences the schooling process. Over the years, I believe that there are three key factors that impel schools to those results.
First, the “Burning Platform” concept implies that the crisis has to be real and immediate. There should be no question that something has to be done; disaster must be imminent and everyone “on board” must recognize that fact. The story of the “Titanic” would not have resulted in such significant loss of life if, in the first 20 minutes after striking an iceberg, the entire ship’s crew and all the passengers realized that the ship was going down.
In the schools, one of the major barriers to effective change is that, even if the platform is burning, the impact is not immediate. When will we be “burned”? Arguably, low literacy rates, poor math skills, lack of science knowledge, etc. only affect the individuals, not the larger society. At the very least, the impact in lost competitiveness, reduced productivity, declining GDP, etc. will show up long after the current crop of teachers and school administrators have retired to Florida, Arizona, or some other equally attractive destination. For them, there is no ‘burning platform” regardless what the test scores and journalists might say.
Compare that to your supply chain. While there are daily crises (just as there are daily failures in the schools) the system moves on without major disruptions. Indeed, overcoming many of those daily crises in the supply chain are what allow supply chain professionals to go home feeling they’ve done a good job. “If I hadn’t sat on that supplier, we’d have run out of parts”, can be much more satisfying than, “I struck a good deal 18 months ago and there are no problems to deal with”. And, the problems that do exist are unlikely to have a major impact on the company as a whole anytime in the near future. No wonder some supply chain professionals look forward to joining the teachers in Del Webb communities where both can lament the demise of their former employers while playing bridge.
Second, research into school reform has shown that the vast majority of school reform efforts survive only as long as their champion is in the local school. In other words, change is largely dependent on there being a passionate voice for the change, someone who has a deeply held emotional belief in its importance and is willing to do “whatever it takes” to make the change happen. When that person leaves, the change is overwhelmed by the system and quickly fades into the background.
As one case in point, I once consulted in a school district that, for a short time, embraced the “Open Classroom” concept. The district even went so far as to build a school with virtually no interior walls so that students could experience a truly open learning environment. That occurred several years before I came on the scene. By then, the advocate for open learning had left and, significantly, the teachers in the school without walls had purchased movable dividers and had divided the open space into “classrooms” to “enhance” the learning environment.
Think about this the next time your organization reassigns a key stakeholder in the Supply Chain after an 18 month tenure in a position. Two things happen. Any credibility your supply organization gained with the departing incumbent will go with him or her. And, the new individual is most likely to be looking for a way to “make a name” in the 12 to 18 months that have been allotted before the next round of musical chairs. The net result is that the passion for changing from a transactional to a strategic focus in the supply chain gets sucked out of the organization. If the schools are any indicator, once the passion leaves, the changemobile quickly comes to a screeching halt.
Third, continued poor performance can quickly become an acceptable norm. At the very least, this year is not that much different from last year or from five years ago. If things didn’t fall apart then, and we are doing the same now, what’s the worry? I remember my cousin, who at the time was a relatively new teacher, describing his experiences as the head of a committee to select a new History text book for his district’s Junior High Schools. The text book committee was formed in secret at the end of the school year. Before it had even begun its work, the district “raided” all the Junior High Schools and removed the old books because experience had shown them that the vast majority of the teachers would not feel any “heat” to change their lesson plans to the new book unless they had no choice.
For a corollary in supply chains, look to the plant managers who refuse to honor a global contract because “their” plant is “doing okay”. Then there are the engineers who resist any efforts to modify specifications because “we’ve always had these specs”. Or, you might consider the sourcing professionals who say, “We’ve always sourced this way and we’re still in business. Why change?” The point is that even if the platform is ablaze for all to see, people who are not immediately threatened can narrow their focus and delude themselves that they are not affected. When that happens, the case for change is lost.
What’s the point? Just because there’s a problem, doesn’t mean that you have a burning platform. When pulling together your “burning platform” issues for a change effort, be sure that you remember three things:
- The impact of the fire has to be immediate and real
- The cause of the fire should be a new spark, not an old ember
- The firefighting equipment has to transcend individuals
I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. What are some of the best examples of a sustainable burning platform that you have seen?