Project Management Institute

A case study in strategic planning, total quality management, and project management


Concerns of Project Managers

Issue Focus

William O. Sparks, Syntellect, Inc., Phoenix, Arizona

Syntellect, a high-growth computer system manufacturer, employed Ms. Lois Zells in 1991-1992 to implement Total Quality Management (TQM) in our software engineering department. We were interested in TQM because of numerous customer complaints regarding product quality and because of an inability on the company's part to obtain higher quality through traditional methods, such as post-product-development quality controls.

What we soon discovered is that quality is a company-wide issue, not just an engineering issue, and that by focusing only on the engineering role, Syntellect was addressing the quality initiative too narrowly. Marketing needed to be involved. Customer support needed to be involved, as did accounting, manufacturing, and every other functional piece of the company.

Most importantly, the quality improvement effort, if it was going to succeed, needed the support of the senior management of the company. Yet, lack of this support became a major stumbling block in achieving a company-wide implementation of TQM. Some members of senior management saw the TQM process as alien and something that would destroy the entrepreneurial free-wheeling spirit believed necessary to have a successful company. Nevertheless, as we moved into 1992 (in spite of periodic efforts from the top to stifle or kill it) the quality improvement process made headway through the middle management and the worker levels in the company, in almost all of the departments.

In April of 1992, anew chief executive came to Syntellect. He had a reputation for implementing quality programs in several prior companies. The development and implementation of a strategic business plan became a high-priority 1992 assignment from the board of directors. Furthermore, this assignment was accompanied by a clear sense of urgency. Get the plan done—and soon!


Where do you start such an effort? Syntellect is a company of 200 very bright, talented people, many of whom have definite views regarding corporate direction. We had been a collegial, entrepreneurial company, where roles and responsibilities were not particularly well-defined. As a result, we had no organized way in which to source, evaluate, or develop ideas. We had gone through two years of divisive wrangling at the top of the company over its direction and future. And we had a new leader, who was a strong operational person, with commitments to quality and planning.

Because it is such a process-intensive effort, we decided to start the strategic planning where we had made our greatest investment in process. That was with the work we had done in the quality initiative. The quality effort had given us a process by which to work certain kinds of issues as well as an organized, structured method of addressing new ideas and resolving conflicting issues. Furthermore, there seemed to be an obvious link between a quality plan and a strategic plan. In fact, if you push the concept of a quality plan far enough, the two become one and the same. In addition to relying heavily on the TQM experience we had obtained in working with our consultant [1], we also used the planning ideas she had presented [2], which are summarized in this issue (see page 17).

It took nine elapsed calendar months from the point of initiating the strategic planning effort until finally giving birth to a document that has that title. We are now at a point where we can share our planning experiences with others.


We initiated the planning effort in several meetings with senior-executive committees and multi-departmental committees. The objective of these meetings was to discuss the strategic plan, what its content should be, what the planning process should look like, and what roles people and functional areas should play.

It became apparent in these early committee meetings that many of the participants had a background in planning; they had either done it or read a book on it. In spite of the fact that it is not uncommon to find variations in the application of the terminology among strategic planning experts, we were surprised to discover how many people in Syntellect also had their own (and often conflicting) planning vocabulary and planning processes. As a consequence, we found ourselves in lengthy and often very emotional discussions. For example, we debated about the labels that should be applied to the levels in the planning work breakdown structure. We had disagreements on what should be classified as a Mission, what should be called a Goal, etc.

The result of these efforts was frustration for everyone involved. We soon realized that it would be impossible, at least given the time frame we had established for completing the plan, to work through all of the issues and reach some timely degree of consensus. In our desire to satisfy our sense of urgency, we chose to dive right into the development of the plan, rather than continue to do “catchall” on the planning process itself. We needed to crystallize our terminology and the definitions of roles and responsibilities. (In retrospect, we realize that we did not do these things soon enough.)


We settled the matter of labels simply by taking the terminology from the consultant's article—Vision, Mission, and Critical Success Factors—and using them. By (1) incorporating the terminology in the roll-down of assignments from the chief executive officer to the strategic team leaders, and (2) by developing a visual mapping of the roll-down (as illustrated in Figure 1), we made the terminology “official” and largely ended the debate over terminology.

Visual Map of Roll-Down of Assignments from Chief Executive Officer to Strategic Team Leaders

Figure 1. Visual Map of Roll-Down of Assignments from Chief Executive Officer to Strategic Team Leaders


We restarted our planning effort in a top-down approach, with the roles and responsibilities very tightly defined, according to the nature and type of participation.

The chief executive was asked to develop the company's Vision, Mission, and Critical Success Factors. These were provided to his direct reports, who in turn were each placed in charge of a strategic team.

The strategic teams were assigned to develop the strategies, objectives, and tactics (what the consultant refers to as the corporate Road Map) necessary to support the Critical Success Factors.

The members of the strategic teams were sourced from functional areas of departments relevant to the Critical Success Factors that the team was assigned to work. Every middle manager and some non-managers that we referred to as “key opinion makers” were drafted onto the teams.


Once we properly defined the terminology and the roles and responsibilities, the planning process was very economical. One of the positive by-products was the focusing of our energy. Most of the participants actually wound up concentrating on their assigned roles of developing strategies in support of a Critical Success Factor, or in clarifying issues-rather than (as in the past) on some of the more cosmic aspects of strategic planning.

We managed to move from creating the vision statement to the implementation detail in less than four weeks. Another byproduct of the defined terminology and the roles and responsibilities was that we had very broad corporate participation within a month's time. The team efforts were then presented by the strategic team leaders at a weekend strategy session. From this process, we clarified the Critical Success Factors, prioritized them, and then developed a very detailed implementation plan.

One footnote on the terminology issue: Syntellect is largely an engineering company. Most of its people have technical backgrounds; and, therefore, have a desire for preciseness. So we did spend quite a bit of time clarifying the meaning of words or adding an adjective here or there. However, these discussions were very valuable insofar as they introduced more conciseness and reality into the plan. But more importantly, they served to build team spirit and cohesiveness between the participants. In conclusion, these discussions were far more productive than those in which we debated the difference between a Vision and a Mission, etc.


In her article in this issue, the consultant addresses the concept of Business Purpose. She also describes the necessity for the organization to publish a set of clearly articulated institutional Values. The next lesson we learned is that, while the Business Purpose must be well-understood; and naturally, the Business Purpose must take the lead in strategic business planning, the ethical principles that guide the business must be well-understood also. Furthermore, the Business Purpose must be clearly differentiated from the Values of the business; otherwise, the ethical principles that guide it will be placed in constant contention with the Business Purpose.

So, we developed a Vision of the company, which is stated in very traditional business terms, Mission statements to support that Vision, and the Critical Success Factors that are essential to the achievement of the Missions. The themes that dominated this chain of goals were operating profit, sales growth, and market share.

However, we also developed a set of Values, which had their own Mission statements and Critical Success Factors. They were stated in terms of principles such as belief in quality, the empowerment of employees, and the importance of the customer.

The Critical Success Factors from both the Business Purpose and the Values were all translated into strategies and tactics for implementation, as shown in Figure 2.


As a process point in planning, it was helpful to separate the Vision from the Values so that the company was not placed in the position of answering the question: Which comes first, profit or quality? Both have equal status in the company's planning hierarchy.


Approximately four months have passed since Syntellect held its weekend planning session in which the plan “Road Map,’‘consisting of strategies and tactics, was built. We left the planning session, as you might expect, very tired and very pleased with the work that had been accomplished. In spite of the consulting advice that we had only just begun the planning effort, many of the participants also left with the feeling that the bulk of the planning work was largely behind us. That turned out to be an incorrect sense of what was actually required to complete a strategic business plan.

Fortunately, the new chief executive officer had anticipated this, and on the Monday following the weekend session he called a special meeting. He presented the participants with a prioritized list of the strategies he wanted to pursue first.

Each of the strategic team leaders then selected natural work teams that, in turn, set out to complete these prioritized activities within a mutually agreed upon time frame. However, this phase of the planning process started out to become the least successful piece of our effort. That is because the strategic assignments had to compete with the day-to-day activities of the business. Although the strategic assignments were themselves prioritized, they were not initially prioritized in relationship to the day-to-day activities; and they were not being project managed as well. The strategic team leaders pretty much ran their own shows; and there was no one managing the whole effort to see if the work was being done on time, done completely, and done correctly.

We have since corrected the situation. We appointed a project manager for the strategic plan, whose job it is to collect status from the team leaders-on the basis of the plan schedule. The project manager also ensures that the priority of the strategic plan is maintained and that the work is being done on the critical assignments, in spite of the daily work pressures. Since making this addition, we have moved along well toward our goal of accomplishing about a third of the initial strategies within the first six months following the weekend planning session.


There are several lessons that we have learned from this most recent phase of our work.

The first is that a project manager is needed to focus on the implementation of the details. That person is probably different than the person who manages the front end of the process. The front-end person is probably someone who is conceptual in nature, but who is comfortable with process, and who is reasonably skilled in working through personality issues. The project manager is a person who is comfortable with the detailed scheduling activities that are necessary part of implementing any plan. Both people need to have the ear and support of the chief executive officer.

Integration of Critical Success Factors of a Business Purpose and Values

Figure 2. Integration of Critical Success Factors of a Business Purpose and Values

A second lesson is that you need to provide the time to get the work done. There is often a tendency to believe that you can get both the strategic planning work and your regular work done in the normal work period. And that is simply not true. Both jobs deserve quality time and attention.

The third lesson (particularly true of technical companies) is that there is a difference between strategy and strategic work on the one hand and project management on the other. Strategic work has to do with setting the course that the company ship will sail. Project management controls the building of the ship. Many companies all too easily end up believing that shipbuilding is strategic work; and they lose sight of setting and maintaining a proper course.


There are other lessons Syntellect has learned in the process of doing its first strategic plan; but those will have to wait for another time.

What enabled us to get such a good result in our first effort was the excellent background that we had developed through our TQM initiative, and the contributions that our consultant made in her paper on strategic planning, particularly the parts which emphasized project management of the strategic plan. The success of a strategic plan is far less dependent upon brainstorming and the development of “killer” ideas than it is upon diligent project management of the very essential but often very ordinary ideas that emerge from the planning process.



The world-famous San Diego Zoo is the area's most famous visitor attraction. This 100-acre tropical garden zoo has 3,900 animals of 800 species and is noted for its exhibits of many rare and exotic species—most notably furry koalas from Australia and diminutive pygmy chimps from central Africa-as well as its lush botanical collection. Anew African rain forest habitat, Gorilla Tropics, opened in March 1991. The 2.5-acre complex is home to seven lowland gorillas, and showcases well over 200 rare and dazzling birds in the expansive, revitalized Scripps Aviary and three smaller flight cages.


On page 26 of the February issue of PMNETwork, two of the figures were accidentally switched in Kenneth G. Cooper's article, “The Rework Cycle: How it Really Works …And Reworks … “The correct figures and captions are printed below.


4. Explicit Rework Demonstrates the Cycle


6. The Rework Cycle, Complete with Undiscovered Rework


1. Zells, Lois. 1992. Applying Japanese Total Quality Management to Software Project Management. PMNETwork, vol. VI, No. 4 (May), pp. 32-35.

2. Zells, Lois. 1992. Marrying Japanese and American Strategic Planning Into a New Strategic Planning Approach for Information Systems. PMI ’92 Seminar/Symposium Proceedings, pp. 290-297. Drexel Hill, PA: Project Management Institute.


William 0. Sparks is vice president of strategic planning and business development for Syntellect, Inc. Before joining Syntellect, Mr. Sparks was vice president of marketing and sales for L.M. Ericsson, a Swedish telecommunications company. Prior to that, he was vice president of sales for Boeing Computer Services, a division of the Boeing Airplane Company. Mr. Sparks has specialized in large, strategic OEM and product development alliances, strategic planning, and advanced technology. He is a frequent panel member and speaker on voice processing and interactive multimedia, has written several articles, holds two telecommunications patents, and is listed in Who's Who of American Business Leaders, 1991.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

MARCH 1993



Related Content