The role of strategic plans is to inform our daily actions and decisions over the course of a year or longer. Leadership teams refer to and adjust plans regularly to keep the work people do day-to-day relevant to the mission and longer-term objectives of the organization. Some plans achieve this kind of active use, but many organizations I begin working with have suffered from at least three damaging practices.
One: Too Many Priorities
Executive-level strategic plans often try to do too much. The usual eight to ten major changes, additions, or improvements launch out like snowballs from the top of the organization. They roll down the ranks, accumulating heft, until they land on the frontline person as an avalanche of requests for action. The eight to ten are often called strategic “initiatives.” Strictly speaking, initiatives are things that will be initiated this year.
Instead, I work with a leadership team to decide what are the highest-leverage strategies that can be completed in the next year or two, the real breakthroughs. “Complete” might be defined here as being done to a degree of quality and sustainability that improvements can be transitioned into day-to-day operations and that will bring the organization to its next level of performance. Organizations typically don’t have the resources to accomplish, to a high degree of quality and completeness, the eight to ten initiatives often put in place. So the strategic plan document can become a kind of onerous reminder of all that we must, but realistically cannot, get done.
Two: Insufficient Detail
Strategic initiatives at an executive level have a way of looking very reasonable and doable. They show up on presentation slides as neat bullet items. Executive teams may feel some satisfaction: “Look at all we will do this year.” Boards may feel they have done their duty by overseeing such a fine list of important activities. The lack of implementation specificity in the bulleted items, however, though appropriate at the executive level, does not provide sufficient leadership to the organization. Executives often leave out an important transitional step when delivering priorities to their managers.
Only by overseeing the breaking down of high-level goals into smaller pieces can leaders assess the real scope of each effort and its impact on organizational resources. After facilitating the executive leadership team’s work to define the strategy, I provide real-time training and coaching to the teams that are implementing the components of the strategic plan, helping build standard practices and tools into the organization’s planning system. With some attention to detail, we earn not only an understanding of what will get done, but a thorough idea of how.
Three: Lack of Active Review
Strategic plans often lose momentum along the way of their implementation. In an unfortunate twist of organizational physics, many plans develop a kind of inertia. Even motivated leaders who hold parts of the plans can get stuck, if they aren’t part of a periodic and rigorous check-in. More innovative, less familiar, or slower-to-start parts of the plan sometimes never really get off the ground.
When leaders do get around to reviewing strategic plans, it can be sloppy, allowing quick status reports to stand in for real assessment of measurable progress. We work to define meaningful measures that are tracked regularly so that activities that are off-track get redirected, successes are acknowledged, and strategic plan components that are completed get retired to allow contributors to move on to other things.
Maybe Try Something Different
Hoshin Kanri is a disciplined method for identifying and implementing strategic-level objectives in an organization. It’s a strategy deployment pathway for executives that offers remedies for the three damaging practices discussed above. Organizational leaders increase their success in realizing business objectives by practicing radical prioritization, involving people from various levels and areas of the organization, and applying a rigorous review process.
Translation of Hoshin Kanri
The initial steps of Hoshin Planning look a lot like any other strategic planning process. Executive teams consider data on business and operational performance and identify current and future customers and their needs. The organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are identified. The mission and values are reviewed and refined, or formed for the first time, and attention is given to making sure the organization’s measures of success are relevant and sufficient to assess progress on important organizational goals.
Hoshin-style strategic planning then departs from this usual path in four important ways: the degree of focus and prioritization, the level of detail and frontline involvement in the implementation planning, the use of specialized group processing tools, and the rigor of review process. Rigorous enterprise planning forces organizations out of their comfort zones and into breakthrough areas that will launch a step change in performance. The workspace created by this level of work presents an opportunity to educate and invest in new leaders who will pick up and carry the changes over the next several years.
“When you’re creating something new, something nobody in the company has experience with, and you have people you want to test, they can’t just go get someone else’s game plan. Seeing people independently demonstrate leadership by creating something new tells you everything you need to know about somebody.”– Kevin Geraghty, Former VP for Power Generation at NV Energy, commenting on Hoshin’s contribution to succession planning. Page 16 in Reflections on Hoshin Planning: Guidance for Leaders and Practitioners
Check out Reflections on Hoshin Planning: Guidance for Leaders and Practitioners to learn more.