Iceberg ahoy! Why ignorance is still relevant and how to fix it

iceberg of ignorance
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According to a really well-known study in the 1980s, only four per cent of problems within a company is known by senior management. Unfortunately, the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’ is as big a problem today – so how can we better tackle it?

The ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’ is a term coined by Sidney Yoshida in 1989. It was a really popular concept in its day and led to the popularisation of suggestion boxes and quality circles, among other things.

It goes like this:

100% of an organisation’s front-line problems are known by front-line employees

OK, it’s not implausible. Yoshida wasn’t suggesting that all front-line employees know about all of the problems.

74% of problems are known to supervisors

Yoshida reported that the percentage of known problems decreased within those in a supervisory role. Moreover, that percentage continues to decrease…

9% of problems are known to middle management

That’s low!

4% of problems are known to top managers


I take the percentages with a pinch of salt. For one thing, the data is 25 years old. Also, Yoshida focused his study on a number of mid-sized organisations and I think the percentages would vary significantly based on size. Regardless… the message is clear and still relevant today: there’s a cost of not being close enough to the ‘front-line’.

Time to go back to the floor

Anyone remember ‘Back to the Floor?’ It was a reality TV show in the 90s where CEOs or MDs took on junior positions within their own organisations in an undercover capacity. The show was later repurposed as ‘Undercover Boss’. There are a few episodes still showing on YouTube if you’re interested 🙂

In nearly every episode, the iceberg of ignorance melted before our very eyes as the peep-holes of each leader were well and truly opened to some of the challenges that their employees faced every day. Often, there were easy fixes.

The words used by Butlins MD, Tony Marshall summed his experience up neatly… “The whole experience has been just mind-blowing, it really has. This insight that I’ve had – it is an opportunity I’m not going to waste – because I’ve just seen too much and learnt too much.”.

So what can senior management and leaders be doing to melt the berg?

  1. Get back to the floor

I don’t think that there’s a better way of understanding the pain points and challenges without experiencing them first hand. Having now watched hours and hours of footage – I’ve not once seen an episode of either program where the leader didn’t value the experience. Although impracticable, I’d argue that there’s room for at least a small amount of this in every organisation.

  1. Use technology more effectively

“If only there was some way of collecting feedback from the workforce regularly so that everyone had an opportunity to share challenges and pains points.”

As suggested above, getting ‘back to the floor’ might be practical to a point but it’s not at all scalable. Use technology to take the BTTF concept to a scalable level.

  1. Communicate & involve

Making decisions in ivory towers without genuine involvement and communication is easier… in the short term. Longer term, consider using the insight and learnings you’ve collected and then validate them with the wider audience. For example, you could use the feedback to build an agenda for your works council or use it to inform any ongoing survey or feedback activity within the workforce.





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