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Accountability: Not What You Think it is...

by Mike Orzen
February 17, 2016 | 16 Comments | Post a Comment | Permalink

Accountability. It’s a word often feared in society for being associated with the blame game – being singled out when things go wrong, even if the reasons are beyond your scope of control. It seems we are always hearing about the importance of creating a culture of accountability.

Unfortunately, when managers and associates hear the term, they often flinch! Expressions such as “We’re holding you accountable” are often seen as code for “You are liable and will be blamed if things do not go as planned!” This is a major problem for any organization that is serious about creating and sustaining a lean transformation.

If we consider the lessons of LEI’s Lean Transformation Model (see below), we see that the entire foundation rests on the basic thinking and fundamental assumptions (both overt and unseen) that drive current culture. For leaders who wish to transform from a command-and-control culture to a more participative one, a key assumption is that, when treated respectfully, people will align to a common purpose, deeply engage in both doing the work and improving the process, and assume higher levels of accountability. 

The image includes employees taking on tasks without being told to do so, showing initiative to improve quality first and efficiency second, and genuinely caring about their customers, team members, organization, and community. This basic assumption that is so central to a lean transformation becomes null and void when accountability is seen as a liability that management assigns, rather than a self-assumed role that people undertake of their own volition.

When there is evidence of intentional avoidance of accountability, it suggests that people don’t trust the intentions of the organization, leadership, or even fellow teammates. They may be avoiding the risk of potential conflict that comes from taking on a task which the outcome is uncertain. This is true problem solving and it can be scary enough without the fear of being blamed if things don’t work out well. It is interesting to note the role that trust plays in all this.

Creating a lean environment is essentially creating a learning environment. In a learning environment, we move away from experts who tell others what to do and towards learners who run experiments (rapid PDCA cycles) to better understand root cause(s) and validate effective countermeasures. Accountability must be self-imposed in order for people to truly grasp the concept, take ownership, and take on appropriate levels of commitment.

But this can only be done when the fear and apprehension most people associate with words such as accountability are openly addressed. When reflecting on your own organization, here are a few questions to consider:

  1. Do we blame people when things don't go as planned?
  2. Do people self-assume accountability or do we assign/delegate accountability?
  3. In our current culture is there fear, anxiety or hesitation around accountability?
  4. Do we ask people to be accountable before asking if they are capable?
  5. Do accountability and authority always go together? When should they?

To learn more about creating a culture of accountability and respect through effective leadership, sign up for Mike Orzen’s pre-summit workshop, Lead with Respect: Practicing Respect for People to Enable Engagement, Teamwork & Accountability, at the 2016 Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit this June. Learn more about Lead with Respect and other Summit workshops on the summit webpage.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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16 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban February 17, 2016
2 People AGREE with this comment

In healthcare, "we need to hold people accountable" usually means "we'll blame them" for not performing beyond the results that a system was designed to achieve.

I always have to ask, "what do you mean, specifically, by 'hold people accountable'?" It's such an empty phrase that sounds good, but has little positive meaning.

The word accountable has a root in "to give an account for" or to explain performance. I think the word "responsible" has the meaning that most are looking for in the word accountable. People can "be responsible" or "take responsibility" but you can't force them to be responsible.

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Jack Billi February 17, 2016
2 People AGREE with this reply

I agree with Mark Graban. I also prefer the concept of "responsibility". Responsibility includes accountability - if I am responsible for a problem or task, you can hold me accountable.

But responsibility has other advantages. Compare "I'm holding you accountable for that" with "I'll take responsibility for that". The acountability phrase is often second person (imposed on me) and often retrospective (after the fact).  The responsibility phrase is first person (I take this on) and prospective (before the fact). Which would you prefer?

The courageous lean leader takes responsibility even when he/she does not have the authority to solve the problem, so there can be a clear owner to help build consensus on the problem - on background, current situation, goals, root causes, and proposed countermeasures, leading to pulling the authority needed to solve the problem.  

Credit for this thinking also goes to John Shook, Dave LaHote and Mark Graban. 

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Andrew Bishop February 17, 2016
2 People AGREE with this reply

I also agree with Mark – the common usage of “accountability” is really about responsibility or, on the flipside, blame.

On the other hand, the literal definition Mark provides is significant to us as lean thinkers: accountability as “the ability to explain or account for”. Account for what? Account for the answers to the basic questions of management, that arise in the daily (weekly, monthly, etc.) accountability process: What is the standard (target condition, plan, etc.)? Where are we deviating from it?

Then, to make it REAL lean, so ANYONE can give this accounting we ask: How can we make these (the standard and the gap) more visible? And finally, of course: How shall we respond?

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Andrew Campbell February 19, 2016

There is something not quite right about this article on accountability.   I understand the importance of people choosing to be accountable rather than having accountability thrust on them.  But I am not comfortable with the idea that a person will not feel bad about failing to achieve.  Think of sports.   The players are accountable and feel bad when they lose.  

The key to accountability is that the person should feel good when things succeed and bad when they do not.  The person should want to reexamine what he or she is doing when things do not work out, so that he or she can be more successful next time.   The motivation often comes from wanting to avoid feeling bad ... and wanting to feel good.  In other words accountability is about emotional attachment to the outcome. 

Of course this can be described as the person taking responsibility for his or her own behaviour and its impact on the outcome.   But taking this responsibility is usually associated with mechanisms that cause the person to feel good or bad depending on the outcome  .... like the score in sport. 

Allocating accountability so that people can be blamed is probably not a good mechanism; so here we agree.  But trying to avoid the bad feelings associated with failure is not good either.

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Ken Hunt February 19, 2016
2 People AGREE with this reply

Feeling bad when you don't succeed is not what Lean is about. Not succeeding should be used as a learning experience. Not every Lean effort succeeds the first time, and if we expect people to feel bad about it, it serves as a disincentive to come back and try again.

Lean is about teaching and learning, and trial and error is part of the learning process. It is part of reflection.

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Andrew campbell February 21, 2016

Ken,  Interesting point about lean often being experimental and discovery oriented.   This is then similar to new product development.  Of course you do not feel bad if your prototype does not work.   But you do feel accountable for developing one that does ... and you will keep working until you have one that does what you want it to do .... or you will feel bad about the experience.   This is feeling accoutable .... I think.   I am enjoying this discussion.

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Mike Orzen February 21, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Ken, I agree with you 100%! Blame, fear, negative feelings have no place in innovation, lean, enagement, trust and high performance!

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Mike Orzen February 21, 2016

Hi Andrew,

 I am glad the article caused you to examine the nature of accountability – that was the intent! It is interesting that your understanding of accountability revolves and “feeling bad” when things go wrong and “feeling good” when things go right. That may work in sports, but today’s working professionals require something with a bit more depth. Feeling bad about an outcome for which people have little or no control is simply a form of fear.

The point of the article is that true accountability (a person taking ownership of their actions and decisions) relies heavily on the underlying assumptions and culture of the organization. If it is a culture of blame with little emphasis on continuous process improvement (learning when outcomes are not what was expected), you can hope that feeling bad will create greater levels of accountability, yet people will be not take initiative nor ownership to make real change happen. I have seen this tie and time again.

In highly effective, high-trust environments, people feel good regardless of the outcomes because they honor and trust the systems in place – which include PDCA, reflection, and learning from setbacks. This doesn’t mean they are not disappointed when targets are not met, rather they use the experience as springboard to reflect, adjust, and learn. Feeling bad in the workplace to motivate people is an artifact of the past and needs to be buried and forgotten. Feeling bad is not the kind of motivator used in high-performance high-engagement organizations; high-trust systems-based improvement and self-assumed accountability is!



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Andrew campbell February 22, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Mike and Ken,  I understand your desire to remove all bad feelings from the workplace.  But I am a bit confused about the idea that employees can feel happy about following a methodology regardless of the outcome.   If the methodology does not deliver the outcome the employees care about, they are going to feel "disappointed", "confused", "annoyed", .....  -  none of which I would describe as being "good feelings".   I am happy if you do not want to call them "bad feelings".  But I would like you to recognise that it is because the employee "cares" about the outcome that these feelings arise. 

Accountability is caring about the outcome enough to get out of bed earlier to do something about it.  It is the feeling of dissatisfaction with the status quo (negative feeling) and ambtion to improve things (positive feeling) that gets you out of bed.

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Ken Hunt February 22, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

It's not about removing bad feelings from the workplace, it's about learning, trystorming, and trial and error. When something doesn't go exactly as expected, then as I said it's time for reflection:

What went well?

What could have gone better?

What did we learn?

Then we go try again, using the failure as a learning experience. Some of my most successful Kaizen events came after (sometimes multiple) failure. Every one doesn't get a trophy, but everyone will learn something and be better for it.

Lorra Browne April 07, 2016

Discontent is a negative feeling but is imperative to move a team out of mediocrity and pursue continuous improvement. 

Struggle has its place in learning. We earn our knowledge. The joy of learning is the reward. 

There is a healthy tension to manage here. I always want my people just a little discontent...but with the status quo, not their value as a team member. 


Karen Martin February 20, 2016

I've found that there as many reasons for people not being accountable as there are for them being accountable. One of the key reasons for lack of accountability is lack of clarity, the subject of my next book. As for "responsibility" vs "accountability," to me responsibility is knowing what you should do (and committing to do it) and accountability is doing it. 

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Andrew campbell February 21, 2016

Karen,  Be careful with your distinction between responsibility and accountability.     The main work on this is associated with the tool RACI.   In this tool, responsible is about the person who does the work and accountable is about who gets held to account (potentially fired!) if it does not work out.

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Karen Martin February 22, 2016

And this is why I've never been a fan or nor promoter of RACI. Creates murkiness vs. clarity.

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Dan Markovitz February 22, 2016

I struggle with the common distinction between "responsible" and "accountable" (from, for example, the RACI model). I agree with Karen that it creates murkiness. I struggle to understand how you can be accountable but not responsible, and vice versa. 

I think that the more relevant issue is ensuring that responsibility and authority align: if I'm responsible for something, then I should have the authority to do what's necessary to achieve that goal. Conversely, if I don't have auhtority, how can you hold me responsible?


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Lorra Browne April 07, 2016

Accountability has a role. That some people use accountable and culpable interchangeably does not change the true meaning of the word. 

Experimentation void of accountability will not lead anywhere good, nor will it provide any lasting results. 

The first year I was director I encouraged and resourced my team to experiment. No accountability and rules. Experienced managers can tell you what happened. Nada. Nothing. Not one experiment. 

The second year I required everyone to do an experiment but no guidelines for what constituted an experiment or how to package the learning for sharing. Everyone tried something but 90% of them floundered and had a miserable time. 

Third year, same one experiment requirement but with clear guidelines for accountability (how to answer for their experiment). Everyone to a person did fantastic creative experiments and have systematically shared with the team. Same people. Different result. The difference...accountability. 

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