Updated: Apr 3, 2020
by Daniel Markovitz
Hard-charging leaders boast that in their companies, “We hold people accountable.” Success, they argue, comes from this culture of “accountability.”
This phrase is surely one of the most overused—and frankly, insulting—additions to business jargon in recent years. The implication that front-line employees won’t do their jobs properly unless management checks their work for quality—and punishes them if they fail to deliver—demeans both workers’ professionalism and integrity. Too, the negativity baked into this paradigm is astonishing. No one talks about holding people accountable or rewarding them when they do their jobs well.
Obviously, employees at all levels— supervisors, managers, and executives included—need to perform well for a company to thrive. But the best leaders don’t focus solely on the accountability of lower level employees upwards. They view accountability as a mutual relationship, a two-way street.
Who’s being held accountable?
In the traditional view, what I call the “vector of accountability” always points upwards, from the front lines to leadership.
This is a one-way relationship, from the bottom of the org chart to the top, with each level being judged by the people above them. As such, it has the potential to (and often does) create friction and resentment between organizational layers.
When core processes fail to deliver, typical executives demand explanations and often look to assign blame, all in the name of “accountability.” Worse, when there’s a major downturn, front line workers are laid off while executives keep their jobs—and sometimes even receive bonuses for successfully reducing costs. (Contrast this practice with Japan, where in most public companies, the executives are the first group to take pay cuts and even resign when results are poor.) This dynamic—where subordinates are accountable to their leaders—permeates organizations at all levels, from VPs to directors, managers, and supervisors.
Reversing the vector of accountability
But what if we reversed the vector of accountability? What if we asked leaders to be accountable to their subordinates? That’s what the best leaders do, and it’s evident in organizations that adhere to lean production principles.
Reversing the vector of accountability means holding leaders accountable for the performance of their subordinates. It’s their job to coach, mentor, and develop their teams—and to deliver results. Gary Convis, former Executive Vice President and Managing Officer at Toyota (the first non-Japanese to hold that position), and author of The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership, explains that Toyota believes individual success can only happen within the team:
This deep belief is built into the promotion process (which focuses heavily on team behavior) and into incentives for performance (where individual incentives are one small component, while team-based incentives based on the performance of the unit or company predominate).
The psychological implications of this reversal are profound. All organizations comprise intricate webs of human relationships. For those relationships to be healthy and successful, there needs to be some degree of symmetry. Demanding that lower level staff be accountable to leaders without a corresponding accountability of leaders to lower level staff is a recipe for unhealthy, weak relationships, low morale, and disengaged employees. Indeed, according to Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace report, 87% of employees worldwide are “disengaged” or “actively disengaged” at work, a stunning (and depressing!) figure. Reversing the vector of accountability brings balance to the interpersonal relationships in an organization. And while I’m not an industrial psychologist, it’s hard to imagine that this kind of shift in mindset and incentives wouldn’t improve those scores.
Going to the gemba
Lean leaders constantly talk about the necessity of “going to the gemba.” Gemba, a Japanese word meaning “real place,” refers to the place where work actually gets done. In a bank, that could be the teller’s window or the mortgage approval department. In a hospital, it could be the operating room, the emergency department, or the nurse’s station. In a manufacturing facility, it’s the shop floor. In short, the gemba is wherever the work that we’re studying gets done. The gemba is not the CEO’s office or the executive conference room.
The best leaders spend considerable time going to the gemba as a way of reversing the vector of accountability. They know that they need to see for themselves what’s happening, so that they can truly understand the problem. It’s only with this knowledge that they can provide the necessary coaching and teaching to the team. It’s also the best place to conduct that coaching, since it’s the home of both the process and the worker.
Perhaps most importantly, going to the gemba helps leaders see how results are the outcome of the entire system, not simply a function of the individual. W.Edwards Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge stresses that most problems are a result of poorly designed systems, not special causes such as a lack of individual effort or attention. As he wrote in Out of the Crisis,
I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this:
· 94% belongs to the system (responsibility of management)
· 6% special
Of course, plenty of leaders will visit the shop floor or the teller’s window on occasion. However, following the precept of what Tom Peters called “MBWA” (management by walking around), these visits tend to be haphazard and opportunistic, rather than planned. Average leaders will go to the gemba when there’s a major problem or when they have a bit of free time. But it’s not baked into their daily schedules as a firm promise to their teams.
By contrast, the best leaders insist on visiting the gemba everyday. It’s not something that’s simply nice to do. It’s the way they manage themselves and their teams—with rigor, discipline, and commitment.
When a leader makes a commitment to go to the gemba each day to learn what her people are doing and what obstacles they face, she’s now accountable to her team for performance. The vector of accountability flips: the leader is now accountable to the team.
Varsity Facility Services, a US-based provider of janitorial services to corporations, goes one step further to make this reversal of accountability explicit. The managers’ schedules are posted in the open, visible to the entire company. When a manager completes his front line visit, his team checks the box or flips a card from red to green to show that he did, in fact, fulfill his commitment. If there’s too many red marks, the next level of leadership gets involved to correct the problem. At Varsity, it’s the workers who validate the managers’ completion of their standard work—they hold the leaders accountable.
Putting the teeth in servant leadership
In the 1970s, management thinker Robert Greenleaf coined the expression “servant leadership” to describe a model of leadership in which the titular head of an organization dedicates himself to the growth and development of others who are below him on an organizational chart. The managerial practice of visiting the place where work is done embodies the concept of servant leadership: the executive isn’t pulling front-line employees to her walnut-paneled, carpeted office for conversations. Rather, the executive is going to the workers’ territory, to learn with her own eyes and ears what’s happening, and to coach them in their own environment.
Servant leadership is now a fairly widely accepted mindset. You’d be hard-pressed to find any leader who would publicly state that they hold their position due to a modern version of the divine right of kings—that the hundreds or thousands of workers who toil at their companies do so simply to enrich the CEO. The language of this millennium is that of the leader whose responsibility is to serve shareholders and employees.
But their daily actions don’t necessarily support this claim. The best leaders put teeth in their adherence to servant leadership by allowing workers to hold them accountable—to flip the vector of accountability—by going to the gemba, by making their commitment to the team visible, and by letting workers grade them on how well they fulfill those commitments.
While there is clearly room for variation and improvisation on this approach—and there must be, given the variability in an executive’s job—there are just as clearly best practices governing how she should spend her time, with ample theory and practice to support those habits.
The best leaders start by reversing the vector of accountability. Let your team hold you accountable for a change.