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Playing with Fire

Want to energize your team? Light a fire under them. Literally. 

“We must be Motorola; or get out.” Lee Kun Hee— chairman of Samsung Group— made the above statement in early 1990s. It was his vision for the company’s mobile phone division; made amid prominent rivals such as Nokia, Ericsson and, evidently, Motorola. Samsung had an apathetic global market share of less than 10%. In the prior years, Samsung found its mobile device business struggling with products that couldn’t compete.

While Nokia was known for its product durability, Samsung’s offerings were known for their fragility and poor quality. Customers who had used the earlier Samsung models might recall what I am talking about. Participants in my session often joked that they could drop the Nokia 3310 on the floor – having it split into pieces – and the call would remain connected. But a slip of the hand, even onto a tabletop, and they might as well say goodbye to the Samsung phone.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came when Samsung rewarded brand new phones to their employees as a New Year’s present for their hard work. Ironically, a significant number of those phones failed from the moment they came out of the box. Finally fed up, Mr. Lee decided he had to do something about the situation. “What’s that smell?” Hyun, an employee in the phone assembly line, mentioned without looking up to his boss who was passing by.

“What smell? Ah, the smell of something burning? That’s the fire in front of the factory.” “Who’s burning stuff in front of our factory? Does security know?” asked Hyun, his hands were still busy with phones on the conveyor belt before him. “The chairman.” his supervisor replied equally plainly. “The chairman of what?” Hyun looked up. “Of our company; Mr. Lee himself. He’s burning phones” This time Hyun stopped assembling. “What phones?” The supervisor diverted his eyes.

The shame barely disguised in his voice “The phones you’re assembling, Mr. Hyun.” In 1995, Chairman Lee Kun Hee called for a meeting with supervisor-level employees at a factory in Gumi, South Korea. Laid unceremoniously on the concrete ground out front are almost two thousand mobile phones. With everyone assembled, Lee promptly soaked the phones with kerosene and lit them on fire, turning the brand-new products into ashes in minutes.

“We must be Motorola; or get out.” The message was loud and clear. Either get better, or let’s go home. A headband with the words ‘Quality Pride’ was given to all in attendance. “I meant what I said as our vision. We are capable, and we can make our rivals know the true spirit of Samsung.

I want you all to remember this day; if every ounce of energy in your heart and body is dedicated to creating quality products, this sort of incident will not happen again.” Chairman Lee made his statement and was the first to put on the headband with a look of determination “Change everything but your wife and children,” were Lee’s closing words in that eventful morning.

Leadership insights:

Sometimes reasons are not the answer. Many organizations fell into the pitfall of being too dependent on dry logic of the forebrain. When reasons cannot change a person, why not try the emotion game instead? How Chairman Lee played with fire is one of the many examples of a leader who successfully brought about change. This story became legendary as Samsung institutionalized the fighting spirits in their culture.

In 2005 when I was working with Nokia, we used to laugh at the Koreans for challenging the giant. Samsung took less than five years since to become the number one phone manufacturer in all categories. And Nokia took the same time to become, well… Habits are not easily changed. Those two thousand phones were not the only lot Chairman Lee had to burn to make his point. Products that did not meet his standards of quality continued to be obliterated in the same fashion.

Analysts estimated that Samsung burned approximately 150,000 phones which amounted to 188 million U.S. dollars. This is an important part of the lesson: Do not think that even a strong reminder will solve the problem in one shot. Habits are formed from constant stimulations that turn desired behavior into main pathway in the brain. So, tell them, tell them again, and tell them that you told them.

Utilize all inputs. The brain receives inputs from various channels of our body. When speaking of communication, we normally think of what employees see and hear. But the brain processes many other information sources that can also be exploited. Fire gives birth to smoke that stimulate the nose; the skin can feel the heat; emotions can be stirred by the visual of destruction.

On a more positive side, leaders can also use other methods of communications to stimulate the brain; methods such as music broadcasted through speakers, nice aroma in the meeting room, the temperature of the environment, etc. Even fire can render positive effects. My sister, who is the Chief Marketing Officer of a listed company in Thailand, quip that “Whatever happened to the Galaxy Note 7 (banned on planes in 2016 for catching fire from overheating), Samsung may have escaped with the best of the bargain.

They got every pilot on every plane in the world to mention their brand – for free!”. It was a joke, but thought-provoking nonetheless. In fact, a mere three months later the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that mandatory pre-boarding notifications about the Note 7 were no longer needed ‘due to the high degree of public awareness’. Samsung was not the only company where leaders played with fire. Gordon Bethune, CEO of Continental Airlines, also made his point by burning things.

He wanted to build a culture of customer-centric service, but found the company’s regulation-plagued culture to be a roadblock. Situation after situation was reported where corporate regulations prevented good service. Their employee’s manuals were getting in the way of necessary changes. So, one day Bethune called his employees to bring their operating policies and procedures. And he lit them on fire.

“If our customer missed a flight for some unforeseeable reason, standing before us with a growling stomach and fatigued from rushing between gates; I don’t want to heartlessly tell them ‘Sorry. But we cannot help you. It’s our company policy’.” said the CEO as the bonfire was dying. Sheepish smiles were scattering in the gathered crowd. “Today marks the beginning of a new culture at Continental – a culture of trust…”

The CEO pointed at the pile of ashes scattering by the wind. “I am confident and believe in your ability to best judge the situation. If you think that giving our customer a meal coupon – or even a ticket for a free flight— is the right thing to do, then go ahead and do it. The company will no longer restrict your leadership potential with these rules.” This time applause broke out with cheering and laughter. And Continental Airlines quickly rose “from worst to first” in customer service.

Want to energize your team? How might you play with fire?

Dr Thun Thamrongnawasawat (Tan) is one of the foremost experts on dissecting complex management and business models and cascading them for easy implementation by companies across different industries. His innovative B.A.S.E. model has inspired numerous organizations to transform. He’s the author of the Brain-BASEd Leadership book series (2013-2016), a bestselling The Leadership Journey (2018) and a regular newspaper columnist. In 2015, Dr Thun was the recipient of World HRD Congress’s “Global Coaching Leadership Award” and named “Consultant of the Year” by the Ministry of Industry, Thailand.

He can be contacted at

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