How do you get positive change in public transport? The role of ‘burning platforms’

The idea of a burning platform comes from a story of a man on a platform in the sea. It catches fire and he must choose to stay on, and likely be burnt, or jump and try and swim to safety. The best choice is to jump – even though it’s not the most attractive option it will lead to a better outcome than staying on the platform.

The ‘burning platform’ is also a metaphor utilised in systems thinking – particularly in the area of aligning stakeholders to seek a common goal. In a Sydney transport context, there are many players at work – Transport for NSW, the City of Sydney, commuters, retail, and industry. The challenge is to determine what the aligning principle is for all these parties – the burning platform they can all share and work together to address issues from.

At a basic level, there’s always a win-win for stakeholders. By bringing more customers into the system, Transport for NSW gets more revenue to improve services and the system becomes more attractive for retailers and industry to invest in. But as the number of stakeholders grows, it’s harder to find exactly what that win-win is. By understanding each different player it’s easier to find the crossover where everyone’s able to pursue the same thing.

An example of this comes from the manufacturing industry. In 1987, new CEO of US manufacturing company Alcoa started to use safety as a buzzword – ‘I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America.’ Within a year or so, bureaucratic red tape within the organisation had been removed, the unions had better relations with the company, they were hitting record profits, and other companies were following suit. All the things that slowed down change were gone.

This was all done under the burning platform of worker safety – which no stakeholder could question as the right thing to do. But what about transport? What’s the burning platform there?

It could be that the customer is key and has shown great ability to bring together stakeholders for a common purpose. All parties can focus on a single goal which will hopefully effect other positive changes throughout the system – much like safety for Alcoa.