Who is Really Accountable?

August 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

As a young salesman I was assigned one of the largest accounts in our company: Gillette. This was a Fortune 500 company with high visibility and great influence on our business. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time with this account; the people at Gillette had been working on a new product for two years; one month after my assignment to the account I was awarded a very large contract.  Instantly I was seen as a sales genius because I had exceeded my goals.

I was asked to handle the large order; I had not been trained properly, however, and two months after winning the business, I came to find out that we were going to miss three important ship dates. There was nothing we could do but agree to custom-make new packaging on the dates Gillette was suggesting – an incredibly expensive and time-consuming option.

During the meeting where this issue was discussed, my boss kept glaring at me and giving me dirty looks. From his point of view, I had dropped the ball; I had ignored a problem and let matters drift to a point where the company would have to incur a great deal of overtime to accommodate the orders.

I was a hero one week, and then two months later I was a bum. Why? because there were factors outside of my control. I had made an important sales goal but I had failed to schedule the order properly because of a lack of training. No one had ever shown me how to schedule the order.

Yes, I was naive and inexperienced, but that’s not the most important lesson of the story.

The fact that anyone could go from being a hero to a bum in just two months tells me I should not have been held accountable for this mistake.  Why should I have been “held accountable” for something I didn’t understand and had never been taught how to do? For that matter, why should I have received accolades for an order that fell into my lap?

Why should I have been blamed for a mistake (poor planning) when I was completely unaware of what I should do? Sure, I could have asked the right questions. Perhaps I should have thought about it harder. Would lecturing me about those points really help the organization avoid this type of situation in the future? Would “holding me accountable” for my mistake really help the organization in the future? Would the fear of punishment help future young sales people more than improvements in the training process?

Leaders won’t want to hear this but most of the time the root cause of employee errors can be traced back to a policy, process, or decision controlled by the leaders.

Look at the latest oil spill debacle in the Gulf of Mexico caused by BP.  The oil industry is one of the most regulated industries in the world.  Our Government approved all of the decisions BP made to manage the oil rig including insisting that drilling occur in very deep water well off shore, providing incorrect estimates of damage a deep water spill might cause, and the inspections of work during the drilling etc.   The Government was about to award BP a safety award within days of the accident.  How could BP be a hero one day and a bum the next?

Systems are complex.  To put all the blame on either me or on BP is at best sophomoric and at worst creates an environment that prevents the resolution of the real root causes.  Those caused by the leader(s).

Most organizations have complex and dysfunctional systems that cause errors.  The errors most often show up in employee work.  Most organizations use their performance management system to punish the employee with poor ratings or worse.  This does nothing to solve the real issues.  This does nothing to demonstrate real leadership.  This does nothing to fix the complex system.  We need a new theory of management to look at errors from a system perspective.

Leaders need a new way of thinking to avoid unsophisticated responses that create heroes one day and bums the next.

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