Strategic Planning & the Quality Iceberg

Written by Charles Nelson - December 11, 2019

The most important process in Quality Management System (QMS) development is NOT Strategic Planning, but Continual Improvement. Here’s why.

In almost all business strategic planning, the focus begins with a desire to change the future of the organisation; to get to “where we want to be”. Often, key staff, who think about the future, will have varying ideas about where the firm should be. These are usually resolved fairly easily in group discussion. Most people follow good leaders, and will endorse the future that leaders envision.

This agreement sets the stage for a Strategic Planning exercise, which requires participants first to agree on “Where we are” with respect to that vision, and then, typically using Gap Analysis and other methods, to formulate a set of actions required to get from “Where we are” to “Where we want to be”.

Once that’s in place and agreed, the final steps in the Strategic Plan are to decide who is going to do which actions, when they will be done, and how much investment is required. The Strategic Plan is then set; to be revisited in 1, 3 or 5 years.

This time-honoured methodology works because the focus is specific, allowing the planning process to go deeply into the situation, to produce specific results; that if followed, are highly likely to produce the change sought.

Organisations familiar with this process often try to apply the same logic when attempting to create a quality management system for the organisation. In the vast majority of these exercises, the process either:

  • gets out of control and keeps expanding until somebody further up the authority chain pulls the plug on it, or
  • a “solution” is pushed through and implemented.

Either way usually fails. In the first, the proponents of improving quality get frustrated and give up. In the second, the implementation appears to stamp out a few of the most obvious problems, but others erupt to derail the success of the effort.


The reason is that issues of Quality are different, in a small but critical way, from most other issues a business faces. Dig into them, and you will find that most quality issues are connected together at every level and every corner of the organisation.

They are like the roots of moss growing in a forest, connecting together the roots of the trees. Like the roots of moss, they are mostly hidden; out of sight.

Perhaps the metaphor that works best is the iceberg: What is visible are not quality problems, only symptoms of problems. The causes of the problems are hidden. It follows that if you identify “quality problems” and try to use traditional planning techniques to create solutions, the best you’ll accomplish is to “put a Band-aid” over them.

Most quality issues are the result of being a too-slowly changing organisation in a swiftly changing world, where client demands are no longer satisfied by “the way we’ve always done it”.

It’s when you use the strategic planning methodology to try to effect organisational change – to actually get to causes of the quality problems – that the strategy gets stuck. Mark Twain got it right when he said: “The only person who likes change is a wet baby”.

Change forces people – from the bottom of an organisation all the way to the top – out of their comfort zones. So they resist it, sometimes giving lip-service to the idea while quietly sabotaging the initiative.


Here’s where the idea of Continual Improvement begins to be so important. “Continual” means just that – it never stops.

The best efforts to reach down into an organisation to ferret out the causes of quality issues simply can’t be done up front, or in a few weeks or months. It will take at least a year or two of constant testing, re-examination, more testing, etc., to cut out the pockets of cancer that are causing illnesses elsewhere in the corporate body.

Even then, the outcomes won’t be “perfect”. They never will. But things will slowly get better, and better, until the changes required of people become accepted and institutionalised, and quality issues no longer are a major concern.

The role of Strategic Planning in developing a QMS, then, is to “get started” on the long journey of Continual Improvement, by identifying the most pressing symptoms, agreeing on strategies to attack them, and setting up a robust, comprehensive Continual Improvement structure. The early successes will form a convincing argument to dig deeper, to find the real causes, and methodically go about fixing them.

Charles Nelson AIA, LFRAIA, AECPM

15 August 2018