Strategy Implementation: Closing the Management Gap

Michael D. Atherton

This article appeared in the magazine Industrial Management.

It seems that lately the word “change” has been used at every opportunity in our popular culture and in business to describe both what is needed and what is inevitable.  Whether or not it is desirable is debatable but its inevitability is undeniable.

The implementation of an organization’s strategic plan is its attempt to take advantage of change.  The strategic plan, however perfectly conceived, is an academic exercise if it is not effectively implemented.     

Amar points out that strategy is formulated by an organization to exploit its work within its environment, both internal and external.  It is the internal environment that, especially in industry, gets ignored.  This is particularly disastrous for strategy implementation.

An examination of the highest-level business processes common to all organizations and how organizations form around these processes, provides insight into how strategy can be more effectively transformed from a plan into reality.

Organization forming/group orientation

The natural formation of organizations leads to people falling into one of three broad groups:

·  Planning

·  Project

·  Operations

Each of these groups has a different orientation and task to accomplish.  People who fall into the planning group are involved in steering an organization towards long-term success.  In many organizations this is a small group of senior executives.  Those in project groups execute finite-term undertakings.  Examples of project groups include system development teams and product development teams.  Those in the operation groups are involved in functions directly related to the sale and production of the organization’s product on a day-to-day basis.  Examples here might include departments such as customer service and traffic.

The orientation of each group has lead to different modes of operation:

Planning – The planning group employs a cyclical process that starts over regularly.  Organizations are quick to audit themselves in order to develop a plan that is realistic given their internal constraints.  This internal self-examination often falls short in specifically defining how the plan can be implanted throughout the entire organization.  The planning process is cyclical in nature and generally has a term of one year or less.

Project – The project process is linear in nature and has a term of several weeks to several years.  It is used by project groups to manage undertakings tasked by the planning group.  These groups often do not have visibility of, or fail to take into account, strategic objectives and their relation to operational considerations.

Operations – Operations groups have a continuous process for selling, producing, and distributing the organization’s product using tools installed by the project groups.  Like project groups, they often do not have visibility of, or fail to take into account, strategic objectives.  Their decision time frame is usually very short and has an immediate impact on the relationship of the organization with its external environment.

The gap

A gap forms when an organization does not, as part of a strategic planning process, anticipate and resolve conflicts that arise between the cyclical, linear, and continuous processes.  The gap is the difference between what was planned, what was developed and how it is used.  It results in lost time, opportunities, money and a strategic plan that misses it mark.

A typical scenario that results from the gap between management processes is that of the three year project launched by the planning group to develop and implement a business system that will enable the organization to achieve specific strategic objectives.  The planning group may have a six month process cycle – certainly a year or less.  The project group starts the project in the right direction relative to the original strategic plan - - it is amazing how often even this is not the case - but by the middle of the second year its progress is in conflict with the planning group's current plan. The project group is midway through the project while the planning group has completed three more planning cycles. Ultimately the operations group gets a tool from the project team that may be late, over budget, and worst of all, does not enable it to meet current and future objectives.

The strategic planning process must define the objectives and framework within the organization by which they will be achieved. This critical step to implementing strategy is most effective when it takes into account the various management processes in the organization and addresses how they can work together more effectively.

Options for closing the gap

Options for closing the gap between management processes will affect the culture of the organization. The cornerstone of the strategic plan might drive the approach or its component business processes might be examined in detail and then changed as necessary.  The end result is an organization that is integrated across process boundaries.  This should not be confused with functional integration.  A team that is formed across functional boundaries, like a product development team that includes personnel from engineering, manufacturing and customer service, will still, by the nature of its orientation, be managed by the project management process.  The challenge is to develop an internal environment where the outcomes each management process are compatible with the outcomes of the others and overall - albeit changing - strategic direction of the organization.

Drive the organization with the plan - Amos and Serlin of Levis Strauss & Company emphasize that the strategic plan must drive all activities.  They point out that once a cycle in the planning process is completed, there is a tendency for some to revert back to their previous task orientation.  Their solution is regular meetings that are focused on strategic planning only.  Discussions of issues and actions in the context of the whole plan bring about a better sense of what is strategic in relation to a specific management process.

Focus the organization - Bausch and Lomb views the strategic planning process as a closed loop system that incorporates their quality process as the cornerstone to its success. Hribernik outlines several key elements related to how this has been implemented throughout their entire organization;

·  Objectives are corporate divisional and individual.

·  Performance against the strategic quality plan is reviewed in the fourth quarter of each year

·  Cross functional teams have been formed at the corporate divisional and operating unit level

·  Teams are trained in a Bausch & Lomb technique called Team-Oriented Problem Solving (TOPS). This training enables teams to get heavily involved in solving quality issues in their day-to-day activities.

Cross-functional teams can be used to break down barriers between management processes within the organization.  Normal training of teams, as in the case of Bausch and Lomb, serves to subtly permeate the strategic plan throughout the organization by focusing it on the objectives related to quality.  At the same time the corporate culture becomes one that is proactive in achieving objectives regardless of each individual’s process orientation.

Reengineer for objectives  - Successful business reengineering focuses the organization on outcomes.  As Goll points out, reengineering is the total transformation of a business.  It is an unconstrained reshaping of all business processes technologies and management systems as well as the organization’s Structure and values.  Reengineering, in part, is a way in which the process and outcomes of strategic management can be integrated into other management processes to achieve desired outcomes.

Benchmark each management process – Process benchmarking seeks to measure the relative effectiveness of two or more businesses in performing a specific process.  Venetucci points out that process benchmarking results in the identification of an organization’s performance weaknesses and enables it to set performance goals for reengineering activities.  The external market view of process benchmarking acts as a catalyst for innovative thinking, stimulating creative solutions to management problems.

Process benchmarking by itself will not result in the integration of business processes.  The exercise enables an organization to better understand how its management processes stack up against its peers.  It also serves to identify those processes that are candidates for reengineering.  Finally, it can stimulate creative approaches for breaking from the status quo and solving problems within and between management processes.

Incorporate the individual -   A recent interview of former San Francisco 49ers head football coach Bill Walsh in Harvard Business Review draws comparisons between his coaching success and successful management practices.  The interview highlights the careful balance that must he achieved between providing explicit direction and avoiding stifling individual creativity and participation.  Organizations must have explicit direction while at the same time encouraging the participation and creativity of each individual. 

The implementation of an organization’s strategic plan should not constrain the effectiveness of its human capital.  The implementation of the plan should involve communicating to each individual their unique role and its importance in achieving the plan's objectives.  At the same time, the individual must be encouraged to offer creative and adaptive ideas for achieving those objectives.


The natural formation of organizations into different management processes necessitates a proactive approach to integrating them.  When they are not actively integrated, the outcome of the strategic management process becomes end in itself.  The outcome of the project management process becomes less effective.  The result is lower quality, productivity and customer responsiveness.  Opportunities and margins are squandered.

Techniques for closing the gap between the different management processes within an organization involve, to some degree, changing the corporate culture. They require more than creating cross-functional teams.  They demand an understanding of the internal management processes at work in the organization and how they relate to each other. Successful strategy implementation necessitates creating a culture that bridges the gap between these different management processes, drawing each toward objectives common to all.

For further reading

Amar, Dev Amar, “Manufacturing-Led Strategic Topology,” Production and Inventory Management Journal, Second Quarter, 1992.

Amos, Robert M., and John Serlin, “Strategic Logistics Planning,” Council of Logistics Management Annual Proceedings, Vol. 1, New Orleans, Sept 29, 1991.

Atherton, Michael D., “Don’t Get Caught in the Management Trap,” APICS – The Performance Advantage, October 1992.

Goll, Edmund O., “Let’s Debunk the Myths and Misconceptions About Reengineering,”  APICS – The Performance Advantage, December, 1992.

Hribernik, Robert M., “Using the Quality Process to Drive Continuos Improvement,” Council of Logistics Management Annual Proceedings, Vol. 2, New Orleans, Sept 29, 1991.

Rapaport, Richard, “To Build a Winning Team: An Interview with Head Coach Bill Walsh,” Harvard Business Review, January-February, 1993.

Venerucci, Robert, “Benchmarking Objectives,” Production and Inventory Control Journal, Fourth Quarter, 1992.

Westbrook, Jerry D., “Organizational Culture and its Relationship to TQM,” Industrial Management, January/February 1993.

Copyright 2003, Latitude Associates