Rick Maurer, author of Beyond the Wall of Resistance and other books on leadership and change, developed the Energy Bar™ as a free tool to help people in organizations get their ideas across in ways that get people committed and engaged. RickRick has advised leaders from many countries on ways to apply this new tool successfully.


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The Ultimatum: Improve or Shut Down


A leader was assigned to a plant that had serious quality problems. Things were so bad that their products could endanger people’s lives.

The customer used a green-yellow-red system to indicate where this company scored on a number of critical quality factors. The customer’s assessment of the plant was that it was red or yellow in all areas.

The new leader declared, “We are going to fix this in six months or shut down.”

He gave this message to everyone including the customer. He said that the plant must achieve all green and yellow scores by the end of six months.

The entire plant got on-board. People found ways to address the quality challenge. Managers and supervisors who lacked the necessary skills to lead quality improvement efforts were offered training or “the door.” He told me that everyone at the plant had a role in improving quality.

At the end of six months, the customer reevaluated the plant and scores were mostly green with only a couple of yellows – and no reds.

The plant stayed open!

Let me put this in context. I’ve seen leaders face similar life and death challenges in very different ways.

  1. The leader made bold pronouncements with ultimatums that were soon forgotten.
  2. The leader set bold goals and then started leading the minute details of the change from the top and inadvertently killed any initiative from others lower in the organization.
  3. The leader makes a provocative announcement and then talks about a few more “top priority” items. None of these approaches had much of a chance of succeeding.

Now, compare those three approaches above with how the plant leader, in this case, handled the life and death challenge. I think he did so many things right.

  • He made sure everyone knew they had a serious problem. Fortunately, he had objective assessment data from the customer to make this point.
  • He gave the plant a powerful goal: either significantly improve quality or shut down. That got people’s attention.
  • He continually made sure that people were in the loop so that everyone could see where they were making progress and where they were falling short.
  • People were encouraged to use their own initiative in trying to improve quality.
  • He offered training to those who lacked skills – and said if you can’t lead these quality improvement initiatives, you’ve got to go. I believe this sent a strong message to everyone that he was serious.

This article is part of a series on ways to avoid avoidable mistakes when we are trying to build support for change. I can imagine other leaders using those five bullet points as touchstones and building blocks when they face similar challenges.

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments.