Chalmers St – Consulting

The Culture of Accountability

In February I laid out an outline of topics that provide my perspectives on sustaining improvement inside an organization. So far, I have shared my thoughts on organizational structure topics such as management responsibilities and skills that the organization needs. In the next two articles I want to provide my thoughts on culture. By this, I mean the role that culture plays in either sustaining improvement or tearing it down. Specifically, in this article, I will share my thoughts on the culture of accountability. 


First let us define accountability. Here is the Merriam-Webster definition:


:the quality or state of being accountable

especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.


I really like the phrase “willingness to accept responsibility.” If I think further about the word “account,” which in my definition would be taking a measurement of performance, then I imagine that accountability occurs when someone is willing to accept the responsibility of an outcome from their performance. In short, being accountable is being open, honest, and transparent to the results of one’s performance. Now, if we think about this in relation to sustaining improvement then two things should be obvious to you. First, if the culture hides or shies away from performance discussion then we can never know if we are improving or getting worse. Second, poor performance in particular causes us to avoid being accountable. None of us like when something is going wrong or a plan does not work as we had hoped or our job responsibilities are above our own capability. These are realities that happen all the time and many organizations struggle to come to terms with it. 


“Matt, the problem this company has is that no one is accountable.” If only I had a nickel for every time I have heard this statement. Often, it is stated to me as if their company is alone in facing this problem. In fact, not only is it a constant across companies, if the person saying this really looked inward they would realize that they struggle with their own accountability. It is universal. I hope it is self apparent from my definition above why this is true. I may have mentioned this behavior before; we all like to feel “okay.” When we move to a state of “not okay,” we do everything and anything (lots of different rationalizations) to move back to a state of “okay.” Our wiring does not make it easy to intentionally move into a state of “not okay.” This is why those performance reviews with your boss are always so uncomfortable. You are about to move into a space of discussing poor performance. You are about to be held accountable. 


To sustain an improved culture, accountability is important. But a culture of accountability makes everyone uncomfortable and the organization avoids this. What is the continuous improvement hero to do? Find a cape or just give up? Well, I assume quitters have already unsubscribed from my newsletter. I will give you my experience. 


The mechanics in the organization have to be right. Our first path in avoiding accountability is to blame someone or something that is out of our own control. To prevent this we must create clarity in roles and responsibilities and the standards of the organization. In fact, this is the base of the systems we build for continuous improvement. If you need a refresher you can read my article here from a couple years ago on establishing clarity in roles and responsibilities. It is true that in the complex business environment much is out of our direct control. Nonetheless, if a job is defined well and we have accepted that role then there can be no surprise when our efforts, good or bad, are measured against living up to those defined responsibilities. If a role is poorly defined then people are not held to account and the unaccountable culture leaks in and takes over. I highly suggest that you start your effort here with clear roles and responsibilities. 


The definition of a role is only as good as people understand it and it is reinforced. Most of our clients have job descriptions, formal procedures, training, etc. They vary in how they use these documents to reinforce accountability. These documents establish a standard for the organization. A standard must be checked. This is the measurement part of accountability. For the plant manager it might be checking that they met their contribution margin for the month. For the line manager it might be checking that they met their output goal for the day. For the front line worker it is checking that they are following the process standard. Each level of checks and the defined frequency of checks tightens or loosens the degree of accountability in the organization and the culture. This is Team Governance, WorkFlow Management, and Performance Management which are topics that I have written about in the past. 


Now checking is one thing, but what do we do with what is learned? We all like to be accountable to good performance. That one is easy. I will add that we must make sure that credit is given when due and also appropriately shared. How about handling poor performance? This is the challenge, right? This is what puts us into that “not okay” state. The way we deal with this is to use the tools that we have learned again. Just as the credit for good performance needs to be shared, so too should the punitive actions for poor performance. This is where focusing on the process and those involved rather than any single individual is so powerful to help people out of that endless and fruitless spiral of okay and not okay. Do not get me wrong, I want people to feel responsible such that they are accountable. But if their responsibility is directed to a shared process they are much more likely to work as a team and work analytically to identify the failure points than if we point at a single individual’s skill or behavioral shortcomings. For 99% of the accountability problems that I see this method allows people the space to be accountable and thoughtful toward resolving the issue. 

Of course, all of this is still not enough. As I mentioned in the March article, we need our top leaders to demonstrate all that I have defined here. They need to be accountable as well. They need to define the organizational standards and goals. They need to check performance against those standards and they need to hold the teams inside of the organization accountable to these standards. This must be stated clearly, demonstrated through action, and reinforced consistently over time. Only then does a company have the ability to build a culture of accountability. Frankly, anything less fails and this is why it is such a consistent problem in the workplace.