Transformation: Are you confusing the scaffolding with the building?

The scaffolding is not the building

Situations evolve. Company cultures differ. You can’t take an approach to change that worked well in one company and think it’ll work exactly the same in another company. Yet, that doesn’t seem to stop people trying.



The failure of the A.P.P.L.E. approach at J.C. Penney

Remember when walking into an Apple Store was a fantastic customer experience? The iPhones, iPads and Apple gadgets looked great. The staff were attentive and helpful, enhancing the in-store experience. At the time, Apple Stores were unique in mass-market technology retailing.


The success is often attributed to Ron Johnson. As Apple’s Senior VP of Retail Operations, it was Ron Johnson who made the customer experience in Apple Stores so special. A key element which defined his approach was Apple’s own customer service acronym:

  • Approach customers with a personalized and warm welcome
  • Probe politely to understand all the customer’s needs
  • Present a solution for the customer to take home today
  • Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns
  • End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return

A.P.P.L.E. – a simple, powerful acronym. It was amazingly effective in bringing about a positive transformation.



Confusing the scaffolding with the building

The American retailer, J.C. Penney, hoped Johnson’s magic would rub off on their operations. In 2011, Johnson left Apple to become J.C. Penney’s new CEO.


For some reason best known to himself, Johnson tried to use the exact same A.P.P.L.E. approach on J.C. Penney.


His aggressive approach cost J.C. Penney $170m. He brought outside managers in who failed to integrate with J.C. Penney’s managers and employees, effectively creating two cultures in one company.


Johnson allegedly thought customers would come to J.C. Penney because the stores were “a fun place to hang out”. Apple Stores had that kudos; J.C. Penny’s didn’t. The customers wanted discounted prices. Johnson continually ignored this need. His approach confused everyone, weakened J.C. Penney’s strengths and led to lower employee motivation.


Successful changes in one company can’t be put on another company in exactly the same way. That’s confusing the scaffolding with the building. A transformation approach that works in one company is at best a scaffold, a framework. Another company is like another building. Its customers are distinct. It’s strategy, structure and processes are different. You can put the scaffold up again, but it’s shape changes to fit the new building.



Adapt your transformation framework for successful change

The J.C. Penney transformation could have been hugely successful if the former Apple team had adapted their own acronym:

  • Approach managers, employees, stakeholders and customers on a personal level.
  • Probe politely to understand each stakeholder groups’ needs. This means understanding, not agreement. It’s about winning hearts AND minds.
  • Present a solution – the next steps for employees to implement “today”, in line with a clear over-arching strategic direction.
  • Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns that the stakeholders have. Spend time with people.
  • End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return and re-engage in the next phase of the transformation.


This approach to transformation can be used time and time again, with great success. The reason these simple, powerful steps eluded Johnson and his team will remain an mystery for a long time. What stays the same is: your transformation is the building. What matters most is what’s inside the building, and what happens when you take the scaffolding away.



Share on linkedin
Share on xing
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on email
Share on whatsapp
Related articles