The Root Of The Problem: A Lack Of Accountability

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The notion of poor productivity in Canada has consumed me for over 15 years, when our labour productivity hovered between 10 and 15% lower than our American competitors (StatsCan). Working in manufacturing at the time, labour productivity had a big impact on whether work would be done in Canada or elsewhere.

Back then, I thought the problem was related to competency…the workforce’s ability to do their job. I found the education system wasn’t giving graduates the transferable skills they would need to succeed in the workplace. And I found employers were cutting back training programs to reduce costs and focus on compliance requirements (eg: safety training).

Technology was opening up opportunities to revolutionize learning so I went back to do a master’s degree in education, where I focused on empowering learners through peer-to-peer learning, better enabling informal learning (how we learn 90+% of what we know) and the use of technology to connect those with skill and knowledge with those that need it. 

I then worked in education for a few years but saw no sign of revolution. It was more of the same in an electronic format and we had little impact on overall competency levels. Sadly, right around this time, the productivity curve plunged to a new record low of 75% of our American cousins.

In 2005, I was ushered out of education and found myself in the field of Operational Excellence, applying a variety of principles, systems, and tools toward sustainable organizational improvement. When I began working with the teams I made two immediate observations,

  1. There was a high degree of confusion around who was responsible for what, who could approve what and where things could be found.
  2. There was no compelling sense of team or vision of success, departments were highly siloed and clients were seen as the enemy.

Our solution was to first develop clarity through the creation of tools like process maps, responsibility matrices and activities like scope definition workshops and alignment sessions. We would then overlay this work with a team methodology to instill a sense of collaboration, respect and organizational pride.  

We had many successes during this time but found that the clarity tools only worked when a committed manager enforced the rules and respected individual responsibilities. And if people weren’t able to speak up when the rules were being broken, then the team development concepts were lost due to a lack of trust.

It seemed, no matter how much structure, support and vision we provided the team, there was always a small group of micromanagers, bullies and heroes that felt that the rules did not apply to them; that the processes were designed for people who didn’t understand how to get things done; and that decision making authority was something that was given to tenure and position, not to the tasks that people carried out. And those acts of defiance quickly became a mass exodus back to from where they came…the status quo.

If I had clarity of process and individual responsibilities; I had competent and confident workers; and I had a high performance team structure that could support the organization’s teams, why is it that the heroes, bullies and micromanagers could still hold people down and prevent them from being the best that they could be. It proved to me that lack of process, alignment and   collaboration are a problem but not the root of the problem. And either was bullying, heroism or micromanagement. These cultural challenges are simply barriers to the real root cause…a lack of accountability.

 I define accountability as;

“Meeting or exceeding customer and stakeholder needs and expectations.”

It was a combination of all the above challenges that prevented people from being accountable for their work but the root cause of the problem was the lack of accountability. Far too many organizations use the one throat to choke approach to accountability, meaning that one person is responsible for the work of many and as a result, the many take no responsibility or ownership, they are simply doing what they have been told. Micromanagers dictate decisions because they feel they are the ones who will be punished if things go wrong but they often don’t understand the complexity of the situation or the needs of the customer or stakeholders and end up creating solutions that create chaos and add little value for anyone.

The cultural barriers of micromanagement, bullying and heroism create a lack respect for individuals in the workplace and can only be eliminated with a strong commitment form the organization’s leader(s) to expand competency, provide role and process clarity, respect individual responsibilities and decisions and to enforce violations.

Moving to a culture of accountability is the single biggest decision an organization can make to go from good to great. And it’s likely the easiest organizational change you will take on because the vast majority of your people will support the transformation, with the possible exception of some of the heroes, bullies and micro-managers. Aligning decision making authority with task authority and holding each individual accountable for their work allows your people to be the best they can and to contribute to your organization in a more meaningful way. It is the win–win that organizations have been ignoring for too long.

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