Are You Stealing Accountability?

August 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I love my 10 year old Acura.  Although it has 250,000 it runs beautifully.  Of course, with a 10 year old car one must expect to replace parts occasionally.  One morning the front left ball joint failed and I was stranded at a park with my dogs.

Luckily I have “TRIPLE A” membership. I called and requested a tow.  The nature of the breakdown caused the front end to be nearly touching the pavement. I cautioned the “TRIPLE A” agent to send the right kind of tow truck to handle such a situation. She assured me “all our service stations are knowledgeable professional shops”.   Of course, you guessed it, when the truck arrived the driver proclaimed, “I brought the wrong kind of truck.  I will need to get a different one.”   He suggested I call “TRIPLE A” and report the error and gain approval for him to implement the new action.

I took his advice and called “TRIPLE A”.  When a woman answered, a different person from the original customer service representative, I realized the explanation was going to be challenging and the accountability for the error was non-existent.

It took a while but the driver returned with the correct truck and I was off to have my car repaired.  On the way to the shop I was wondering how, and if, “TRIPLE A” could learn from this situation.  I tried to warn the first customer service person to avoid a mistake.  The mistake still happened and it caused wasted time for “TRIPLE A”, the tow truck driver, the towing company and the customer (me).  What was the root cause(s) of the error and how could “TRIPLE A” learn to avoid it in the future?  Unless accountability is set up into the system the answers to these questions will be elusive and the mistakes will likely reoccur.

Accountability means to be responsible and it requires four elements.  First people need to be aware of the situation or problem.  Second, they must understand a specific process to follow.  Third, they must agree to follow the process.  Finally, there must be feedback (data or consequences) if the process fails.  It is a leader’s responsibility to set up the system so that all four elements are present.  Without these elements a leader just ends up blaming people for mistakes and learning is compromised.

In my story all four elements were missing.   The initial customer service person was clearly un-aware of the need or the meaning of the information I provided her regarding the condition of the car and the type of truck needed.   In addition, she had no clear process (I am guessing because of my impression) to handle this information or request.  Third, she obviously made no agreement to follow such a process.   Finally, it seems there was no feedback to either her or any other customer service person regarding the mistake (again I am guessing).

Are you setting up accountability or just blaming people for mistakes when they occur?  If you don’t set up accountability then you are stealing the opportunity from people to optimize their learning.  Perhaps if there was a process to escalate the call to a supervisory level when a puzzling or challenging question was asked that might have begun to set up the accountability system in “TRIPLE A”.   Perhaps if the telephone system was set up to quickly escalate the call, as needed, to a knowledgeable technician. Perhaps if the customer service person was trained to recognize the opportunity and to transfer the call, the second element of accountability would be met.  Perhaps if there was a feedback loop to report wasted time for tow truck drivers it would create the forth element of accountability.  Perhaps if there was a team of knowledgeable process experts who could study the root causes and therefore modify the process or change the training processes (consequences and feedback) the mistake would not be repeated.

It is a leader’s job to set up the accountability system.  In the 15 years of consulting rarely have I seen an organization with a robust accountability system.  Instead, leaders tend to look for mistakes, guess at root causes on their own, and use a performance appraisal process to punish the employee who unfortunately found him or herself in the middle of a dysfunctional system.

Are you stealing accountability from your organization and from your people?  Stop now and set up the four key elements.  Stealing accountability is wasteful and it creates victims not leaders.


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