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The Iceberg of Ignorance Debunked

The iceberg of ignorance was first published in 1989 by consultant Sydney Yoshida. (I wrote about it here.) It led to the popular notion that front line workers knew 100% of the problems, supervisors were aware of 74%, middle managers were aware of 9% and senior executives were only aware of 4% of the problems.

Ever since the study was published, the “iceberg of ignorance” has been used as a metaphor to describe executives’ severely limited understanding of what is wrong within the company. Executives were only aware of the “tip of the iceberg”.

On the face of it, it makes sense. How could they know the problems besetting line workers? Or accounts payable clerks? Or sales reps working with Supervalu customers in Belzoni, MS?

But there’s one big problem with the iceberg metaphor– it’s wrong.

Or at least it’s wrong as it is usually applied.

My first production assignment was at Oscar Mayer’s Chicago plant where I was responsible for the quality of sliced meats production. Yes, Oscar Mayer bologna, among others. Bologna production started with receiving fresh meat and then proceeded through “Large Batch Blending”, stuffing and cooking through the “Continuous Large Sausage Processing” unit, slicing and packaging, and then on to shipping. It was a high volume, state-of-the-art manufacturing process that produced millions of packages of high quality sliced meats to customers throughout the country.

Every day there were quality-related problems to be handled. With scores of workers and hundreds of control points throughout the process, something was always needing attention. There was no way senior executives were aware of the problems being experienced on a daily basis in the Chicago facility. That was my job. And I wasn’t even aware of every quality problem either.

Fast forward to when I was a senior strategy executive. I no longer knew even 4% of the problems on the factory floor.

But people on the factory floor didn’t have any knowledge of the problems at the executive level either.

So, if I had only a <4% knowledge of factory floor problems and factory floor workers had <4% knowledge of executive problems, do we also have an upside down iceberg?

Yes, we do. We either have upside down icebergs or we have a useless metaphor.

The iceberg of ignorance as it is commonly applied is not an accurate depiction of reality. We are only aware of the problems close to us but are increasingly unaware of the problems further away from us in other jobs or at other levels of the organization.

The iceberg of ignorance is just not a very useful metaphor. Period. Unless of course you want to use it to attack executives and advance your own agenda…





Brilliant, my friend--and I am not using the word "brilliant " loosely. You're absolutely right, the 'Iceberg ' concept works both ways. Like, one of my mentors, Professor Gerald Nadler, taught me, "All models are wrong, some, however, are useful."

Interesting insight Larry and so true. I like the saying that in order to understand someone and the problems that he or she faces you need to walk in his or her shoes. The world be a great place if people understood each other better.

I think you're actually both wrong and right. No, factory floor workers in the boloney factory will not know 100% of the problems of the company, neither low-level problems nor executive level problems. But if you take into account that there has to be front line workers in all parts of the organisation (production, development, marketing, strategy, business development, etc..),  they are most probably aware of close to 100% of problems faced by exectuives. Not as individuals, but as a collective. This is important to keep in mind when taking decisions at a high level. At my company projects are regularly faced with budget cuts imposed by high level management. The usual outcome is that what remains of projects after budget cuts only has the potential to solve the ~4% of problems known to high level management.

Thanks for the post. It has clarified a few of my thoughts on this topic.

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