Accountability & Continuous Improvement

It’s tough becoming the “boss” of the same unit you have worked in for a while. Your team members have known you as a co-worker – an equal.  They kidded with you in a certain way – and you kidded them right back. Now that isn’t so comfortable. All of a sudden, the kidding can take on an edge. You have to be a little more careful what you say. What would have formerly been an obvious joke now has some hidden meaning.  What used to be a request for a hand with a big job now becomes “work orders.”

My boss tried to warn me about this when I was promoted to a management role, in charge of the unit I had been working in. “In the military they never do this,” he said. “They always move a new officer to command a different unit so that there can be no question of challenged authority. Pfaw! This isn’t the military.

And, for the most part, there never was a problem. In general, my teammates thought I was the best person for the job. (Well, maybe no one else  wanted it anyway.) There wasn’t much need to exercise any authority. Everyone knew their job. It was a very highly motivated group and, in fact, everyone owned their own job.

The only challenges came when there was a need for change. Change, to me, really did mean “continuous improvement.”  To many of the others on the team, change was something we talked about but seldom got around to. When we identified, usually as a group, that there was something we could do differently – better – to help our clients or support our stakeholders, it often fell into the category of a future nice to have.

I remember confronting this issue for the first time.  Well, I remember the outcome. I don’t actually remember what the change was.  Just something we agreed to do differently. At least, I thought we had all agreed. When I asked about it later, everyone just kind of looked at one another and shrugged. Nope. Hadn’t been done. So I asked again. Did everyone think it was a good idea? Yes. Did everyone agree to try it? Yes. Okay.

When I asked about it again after a week or so I got the same looks and shrugs. This time I got kind of irritated. We had made a commitment among ourselves – and we’d made a commitment to others as well. We really needed to do this and be able to report on the results. Okay? Mumble. Mumble. Okay.

And once again I followed up and once again nothing had changed. Now I was frustrated and a little angry. I now felt like my authority was being questioned. I felt that I was being disrespected. Now I was taking it personally. (Never a good thing, by the way.)  I used my predecessor’s name in vain.  “Wait a minute,” I sputtered. “I don’t remember this being a problem for Old Boss. He didn’t have this problem getting things done.”

Lots of looks around the table and finally one of the team members spoke up.  “Well, Old Boss never had this kind of problem because he never followed up.”

The thing about continuous improvement is that it means constantly changing. There is a sense that people hate change. I don’t happen to believe that. Look at all the changes we initiate in our lives every day. Moving to a new city, finding a new job, making new friends, buying new stuff. The kind of change that most people don’t like is the change they have no control over. So, theoretically, if a change is your idea, it’s easy to make.  But even that’s not quite true. Any change, even the changes you want to implement, if they involve a change in behavior, will be difficult to make stick. The more complex the change, the more challenging the implementation.

So if you’re the boss, your job is continuous improvement. And if your job is continuous improvement, that means continuous follow through and follow up. Sometimes owning your job means you feel like a nag. I had to learn some lessons about making sure positive changed could and would happen.  It’s how I own the change management job.

  • First, consider change carefully – and strategically. Know why you’re making the change and what it will mean if you do. Maybe what it will mean if you don’t.
  • Second, consider who will be affected – and how. Remember, even if others want the change, implementation may not be easy. Set clear expectations for yourself and for those who will gain (or lose) from the change.
  • Third, consider the costs – and the consequences. Don’t forget that time is a cost. The longer the change takes, the more time it takes to get to the desired outcome, the more follow through and follow up required. If I can see the results quickly, I’m more likely to keep moving forward.
  • Fourth, look at the expected outcomes. Best case. Worst case. Most likely. Also give some thought to what other changes might get you the same desired outcome. Would an alternative approach be better?
  • Last, consider the implementation. What is the next – first – step required to implement? Who must do what by when? And then, what additional actions must follow? If you can’t see your way through the implementation, you should seriously reconsider whether you want to start.

Then, after all that strategic thinking, you’ll still have to apply some tactical follow through. If you walk away or you assume that everything will go as expected, you will not be doing your job.


Accountability & Organizational Excellence

In another forum, I’ve been thinking and writing about organizational excellence as a competitive advantage. Consistency drives organizational excellence. Consistent process supported with continuous improvement. Consistency, along with lean thinking focused on the needs of the customer and an engaged workforce inspired by strong leadership.

Consistency, as a concept, is often misunderstood, and often misapplied.

Oscar Wilde said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”  Sadly, every day we run into examples of customer not-service that seems to echo Wilde’s sentiment. As we outsource and offshore processing tasks and customer support, there is evidence of “consistency” and documentation. “Please hold the line while I review your account,” which is code for “I don’t know much of anything but I have a manual, which I will not use to provide you with consistent excellent customer service.”

I was having trouble figuring out how to do something with my CRM software and the embedded help files didn’t cover my problem. I was directed to the on-line customer portal for access to the knowledge base as well as various user forums. I’d been on the portal before but my user ID and password failed. I got an error message telling me to request my password by entering my email address and user ID. When I did that, I got an error message saying they system didn’t recognize me – I should register as a new user.

By now, you can probably predict what happened next. When I tried to register as a new user, I got an error message saying I was already in the system. AAARRRGGGHHH. Multiple attempts at entering various combinations of user IDs and passwords had me spinning in circles (definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result).

Next step is to call customer service so I can talk to an intelligent human being. After wading through the automated call director, I reach “Bill,” my customer care specialist. I went through the process with him and he had the same problem – User ID not recognized so I couldn’t request a password reset, email recognized so I couldn’t set up a new account. I suggested that perhaps he could reset the password for me. He tried but, no, the system would not allow him to do that. He would check into the matter and send me an email with instructions.

A little later his email arrived. His “solution” was a somewhat kludgy work around.  I should  set up a new account using a different email address. Oh, good. Another user ID and password to remember along with an email address I never use for this kind of application. My very nice suggestion in reply, however, was that perhaps he could escalate the problem to get it solved.

How much imagination does it take to figure out that a problem needs to be escalated so that someone who can solve the problem will solve it?  But wait! This isn’t about imagination. Bill’s imaginative solution was that kludgy work around.  This is about accountability. No one owns this problem but me.

Poor Bill has a set of instructions that do not work and he has no instructions for what to do if the manual doesn’t contain the answer to the problem. He apparently has no authority to escalate the problem and, in fact, didn’t even seem to consider that as an option. He’s not given to tools to do his job.  When that happens, no matter how well-intentioned someone might be, there is not going to be any ownership.

Since it has been three days since I had my exchange with customer service and I haven’t had any additional response, I’m thinking that no one cares.  Not only will my problem not be solved, but there is every reason to believe that other users will get caught in the same Catch 22.

This company has real problems, whether or not it currently shows on the bottom line yet.  They may be “saving” on staffing costs by outsourcing and/or off-shoring their customer service.  But they lack the vision and the leadership and he infrastructure to make it work. There are a lot of people, starting at the top, who do not own their own jobs.

Could this happen in your organization? To your customers?

Accountability & Expectations

How do you expect people to be accountable if you don’t tell them what you want?

How do you expect people to be accountable if they don’t know how they will be measured?

How do you expect people to be accountable if you don’t tell them that they did a good job — or a not good job — or a bad job?

Expectations. Measurement. Consequences.  Without these, no accountability.

In the large company in which I toiled for many years, there were a lot of “working supervisors.”  For a while, I was one. The expectations for my job were to produce a lot of stuff and make sure that the people on my team also produced a lot of stuff. Trouble was, the definition of “a lot” changed frequently. No matter how much stuff we did, it was never enough. There was always more to do and the priorities shifted frequently. Because it was a service operation, the key measures of performance were throughput time and quality.  Throughput was door to door and there were several stops before items ever got to our department, so our ability to control throughput was very limited.  We checked and reported on the quality of our own work. When I tried to make a process change that would facilitate better quality, I was told that changes were “too expensive” or “too difficult” or “too…”

It was a lousy job. Most of the time I felt overworked, under appreciated and out of control.  So what’s the point, and what does it have to do with accountability? I had expectations. I had measures of performance.

The point is, the expectations were unreasonable. They were poorly defined, not tied to any bigger goals, and there were built-in obstacles to meeting them. And, in fact, meeting the expectations, even if we could have, wasn’t really the way we were evaluated. As a practical matter, it all boiled down to how often there were complaints and from whom they came, and how hard everyone appeared to be working.

I wasn’t held accountable for results. While I worked as hard as I knew how, I knew I wasn’t accountable for the results. How could I be when neither I nor my bosses could define what results were expected, how those results would be determined and why those results mattered.

The feedback I received was consistent with the expectations, that is, not consistent. On a day to day basis, all the feedback I received was negative. “This is late. That’s wrong. ” But at performance review time, I received a “superior” rating and the “standard” salary increase. I smiled and said, “Thank you” but I was a little confused. Given that I had not really met the expectations, the superior performance evaluation was a pleasant surprise. Given that I was rated highly, the token raise was a little disappointing. I didn’t know what to do to improve my performance or to get a bigger raise. When I asked, my boss gave me a big smile and said something like, “You’re doing great! Just keep doing it.”

And in less than a year I was given what the company considered the ultimate reward. I was promoted from Supervisor to Manager. It was still a lousy job but now I knew what to expect. I might get a raise and I might get promoted again but I wouldn’t be held accountable for results. The implication, of course, was that even if I managed to achieve the result, there would be no improvement in the outcome for me. I wasn’t expected to achieve results; I was expected to please my boss.

That lousy job taught me some things about accountability and expectations. If you want to achieve a result, you need to make that the real expectation for the job. You need to base the measure of performance on the result. You need to reward achievement of the result.  A really likable person “working hard” but not meeting objectives, doesn’t get the same reward.  Otherwise, as the boss, you still own that job and to get the results you want or need, you’ll have to do the job yourself.

Everyone owns their own behavior, and you’d like to surround yourself with pleasant, hard-working people. If that is your only expectation for any job, then be sure that’s all you’ll get.  If you want people to own their jobs, you also have to expect them to get results that contribute to the bigger goals of the company.  You have to be clear about what results you’re looking for and why they matter. You have to be clear about how you’re going to measure results and how you’ll all know when you get those results.  You also have to create the expectation that rewards go to those who achieve those results. Last but not lease, you have to follow through. If you’re the boss, your first job is to set the expectation.

Accountability & Problem Solving

If you’re busy taking care of business, sometimes it’s just easier to put your head down and focus on your own stuff – ignore all the petty squabbles or the folks who aren’t really doing their jobs. Maybe if you ignore the problems they will go away. You’ve got better things to do than to worry about the small stuff.

Not if you’re the boss. You can’t be an effective leader if you ignore the small stuff. It’s your job to make sure that small stuff doesn’t become big stuff.

Small problems seldom just go away. By ignoring them, you condone them. If you do nothing, then it must mean you think it’s all right that Joe and John are sniping at each other or that Janice puts out shoddy work or Judy refuses to answer the phone until it rings twelve times. None of these things, in and of themselves, are going to bust your business. But nothing kills team morale faster than problems that are ignored. Left to fester, small problems grow and multiply.

Failure to address problems as they come up is a losing proposition.

  • Troublemakers and marginal performers lose because they are encouraged to continue to perform badly. They aren’t given the opportunity to improve.
  • Good performers lose because they aren’t recognized for making a positive contribution. And, in fact, bad performance may become the new norm.
  • The customer loses when your whole team isn’t doing their best work.
  • And when the customer loses, you lose the customer.

Perhaps the biggest loss of all is you lose the respect of your team. Problems become even harder to resolve.

If you’re the boss, then it’s your job to make sure that problems get identified and solved quickly and stay solved. Deal with the small problems efficiently and effectively, and they don’t become big problems.

Accountability & Change

Louie hates changes. Any changes. If you move the furniture, he is in a funk for days, slinking around when he wants to go to the kitchen or the bathroom but mostly hiding under the bed or in the closet.

Cleo embraces change. She obviously  never heard the warning that curiosity kills so she’s quick to explore every move or change.  She’s the first one to welcome visitors and expects to be praised and petted.

Although totally different in their reactions, they share one thing.  They live in the moment. They have no “strategic view” and no “strategic imperative.” Their jobs do not involve either leadership or management. They have no concept of improvement. What is, is. Good or bad. They react to the current situation with no thought to the future.

As a business owner or manager, change is a given. Change is growth. Change is improvement. Change is imperative. Change is hard.  As a business owner or manager, your job is to manage change. It’s your job to make sure that change doesn’t create chaos. It’s your job to . . .

  •  Find a balance between reactive change and proactive change.
  • Ensure that every change is made within the context of your strategic vision and plan–to build strengths and eliminate weaknesses, to take advantage of opportunities and mitigate against threats.
  • Follow up and follow through to make sure that change happens and the changes stick.
  • Measure the results of change so that changes that do work get recognized and changes that don’t work get fixed or dropped.
  • Solve problems so they stay solved.

When it comes to change, your job is to cultivate the habit of rethinking instead of reacting.

Rolf Smith, in his book The 7 Levels of Change: Different Thinking for Different Results, suggests that while not all change is the same, there is one common element – thinking. Further, for each level of thinking there is a corresponding level of action, starting with a series of questions.

“Are we doing the right things?” This kind of thinking encourages you to look at the efficiency of the process.

“Are we doing things right?” This kind of thinking measures effectiveness.

“Are we doing things better?” measures improvement.

“What are we doing that we shouldn’t be doing at all?” This kind of thinking identifies ways to eliminate what doesn’t add value.

“Are we doing things the same way others are doing them?” This encourages you to follow best practices.

“Are we doing things that no one else is doing?” This kind of thinking allows you to identify and articulate your competitive advantage.

Level seven looks at the “impossible” – things that can’t be done – and asks “Why not?”


Unlike Louie and Cleo, as a leader you must keep the future in mind. If you want everyone in your organization to own their own job, then your job is to think strategically as well as creatively and encourage change that results in continuous improvement rather than continuous turmoil.


Accountability & Motivation

Motivating people is simple. All you need is a carrot and a stick.  Just set up a system to reward people for doing what you want them to do. Right?

Wrong. Motivating people is complex. It’s complex because people do things for their own reasons. It might be simple if everyone wanted the same thing. But they don’t. What’s important to me may not be important to you. If you want to move people to your action, you have to first make it their action.

So, if you’re the boss, your job is to understand what motivates your team members and then use this understanding to create and maintain an environment where team members have the opportunity to fulfill their own personal wants and desires, while contributing to a larger enterprise.

Communicate goals.
And what about that larger enterprise. If you’re the boss, you need to help team members see the big picture. You need to be able to frame it for your team: It’s not just about what you want for you. It’s also what you want for us.

If you want people to care about the larger enterprise, your job is to share your vision for the company and the goals that achieve that vision. It’s also your job to make that vision and those goals meaningful for those who will help you achieve them. It needs to be clear to each individual, “What’s in it for me?”

Where you have shared goals, you have synergy. One plus one doesn’t just equal two, it equals more.

Eliminate the obstacles.

Nothing squelches motivation like beating your head against a brick wall. Asking people to do things that can’t be done is counterproductive and is pretty much guaranteed to suck the life out of your team. If you are the boss, it is your job to understand what things get in the way and how to get rid of them. Obstacles generate excuses and excuses close down accountability.

Play to Strengths

Every individual has talents and skills. You probably hired many of your team members just because of their skills or experience. If you’re the boss, your job is to identify the talents of individual team members and support these skills by directing team members toward jobs that fit their skills.

We’re all more motivated when we have the opportunity to play to our strengths.

Don’t confuse satisfaction with motivation.

Even when you encourage team members to play to their strengths, and remove most of the obstacles, it really is the individual who sparks his or her own momentum. If you are the boss, your job is to understand what these sparks are and use them to develop reward systems that match team member values.

Here is a short list of job factors commonly thought of as motivators.

  •  High wages
  •  Job Security
  • Good working conditions
  • Benefits
  • Time off

Even in a tough job market, the things on that list fall into the category of “table stakes.” It’s not that the presence of those things motivates employees to do their best work. It is that the absence of those things cause people to feel dissatisfied. Call them “satisfiers” rather than motivators.

Motivators can be either intrinsic, providing opportunities for individuals to feel good about their work because it either brings them pleasure or they think it is important, or extrinsic, offering opportunities to attain specific outcomes, or probably, a combination of both. Motivators can also be negative, e.g., threats and coercion, thus the references to carrots and sticks.

If you’re the boss, your job is to find the right mix of satisfiers and motivators, recognizing that individuals will respond positively only to those things that meet their individual needs and desires.

People do things for their own reasons.

Some people are team players. They are motivated by working toward common goals. They work harder and better when they are working with others to achieve team goals.

Some people are motivated by doing what they do well. The work itself is their reward.

For others, the reward may be tied to specific outcomes.

To see how sideways managers can get when it comes to motivating employees, take a look at this survey about job satisfaction factors given to managers and employees. Take the survey yourself and see how you do.


Use appropriate recognition

And now we’re back to motivation is all about rewards – intrinsic, extrinsic, positive, negative, tangible or intangible. Whether you’re handing out bonus checks or atta-boys, there are a few very important things to remember.

  1. Recognize immediately. To get the maximum effect of any reward, tie it as close to the event as possible.
  2. Reward only the desired behavior. You’ll get what you ask for if you reward the wrong behavior. And recognition handed out to every one for any thing all the time becomes meaningless.
  3. Address undesirable behavior. If you ignore it, it won’t stop. Perhaps even more troubling, others who know it is undesirable will resent the fact that someone else can get away with it.


If you want everyone in your organization to own their own job, then your job as a leader is to understand what inspires individual team members to make their best contributions, and ensure that there are rewards for doing so. The individual team members prosper and so does the team. It’s not only good leadership. It’s good business.



Accountability and Infrastructure

Building accountability into your business is all about setting expectations and then communicating effectively about them. (Operative word there is effectively.) Effective communication of expectations requires clarity and consistency – not always easy in the course of running a business. To quote George Bernard Shaw, “The greatest problem of communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” To ensure clear, consistent communication about your expectations for your organization, you need a foundation – an infrastructure.

“Infrastructure” is a term I use to refer to such organizational and operational tools as organizational charts, job descriptions, salary administration policies, procedures, processes, etc. You might perceive these to be nice to have, but not essential to your operation. But the right infrastructure is the foundation for an organization that expects people to be accountable for the work they do. How do you expect someone to be accountable for a job they don’t understand? Or one that changes on a whim? Or one for which there is no recognition for excellence? Having the right business infrastructure in place ensures that everyone knows how to be accountable.  For example…

For there to be accountability, every employee should be clear about who they report to. Perhaps even more importantly, people need to understand how decisions are made in the business. An Organization Chart graphically depicts what the organization looks like. It provides everyone with a broad perspective of roles and responsibilities as well as working and reporting relationships.

In addition to knowing how the organization works together, to be accountable, employees need to understand their individual responsibilities. Job Descriptions for management and staff ensure that everyone knows exactly what they are expected to do.

The next requirement for accountability is that people know how to do their jobs. A structured approach to training and development makes good business sense. Poorly trained employees can’t be held accountable. If you think training is expensive, look at the costs of not training – poor morale, inefficiency, errors and rework, dissatisfied customers, potential Errors & Omissions or other compliance failures. In other words, no accountability.

For there to be accountability, people need to know the rules. Written Policies and Procedures set out the employment rules and policies of the business. Documenting the rules ensures you can avoid misunderstandings about how vacation and sick leave accrue and may be taken, start/quit times, dress requirements, etc. Clear expectations, including an expectation of fairness, encourage accountability.

Documented Workflow and Processes ensure standardization. Making sure that things are done the same – right way – every time, helps make sure you comply with whatever regulations govern your business. They establish “best practices” and ensure a dependable customer experience. But the real payoff is that by asking people to follow written procedures, and to identify necessary or productive changes, you transfer ownership for excellence to those who are asked to deliver.

People in your organization have a right to know, “What does good performance look like and how will I know I’ve delivered.” In order to perform well, employees need to know what “good” means. So in addition to defining the job, you’ll also need to define standards of performance. And once expectations have been established, there should be in no doubt as to how employees are performing to those expectations. However, the fact that they are able to track their own performance doesn’t mean they don’t want and need regular feedback. Meeting expectations should be recognized. Exceeding expectations should mean greater rewards. Failure to meet expectations should result in corrective action. A formal process for evaluating and recognizing performance, is another critical component for building a business where everyone in the organization wants to own their own job – to be accountable for results as well as behavior.

There’s more to building accountability into your business than providing written rules and regs. It’s all about setting expectations. All the infrastructure tools listed above, and others, are ways to communicate your expectations consistently. That means stating your expectations the same way to everyone every time. It also means holding yourself and everyone in your organization to the same standards. It’s the way you own your job and it’s the way you ask everyone in your organization to own their own jobs.