This phrase is surely one of the most overused—and frankly, insulting—additions to business jargon in recent years.
Organizational leaders at all levels continually stress the importance of holding subordinates accountable. You can’t go a week without hearing some executive declaim that workers must be held accountable if their companies are to execute and perform well. In this view, the “vector of accountability” always points upwards, from the front lines to leadership.
Seldom do we hear about the need for leaders to be held accountable to their staff. Indeed, when there’s a major downturn, front line workers are often 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 when results are poor.) This dynamic—subordinates are accountable to their leaders—permeates organizations at all levels, from VPs to directors, managers, and supervisors.
What if we asked leaders to be accountable to their subordinates? That’s what the most advanced lean organizations do, and it starts with leader standard work and gemba walks.
When a leader makes a commitment to visit the shop floor (or the marketing department, or the finance team, or the warehouse) each day and learn what her people are doing and what obstacles they face, she’s now accountable to her team for performance. When a VP creates standard work obligating him to participate in improvement activities with his team once per month, he’s making a promise that he must fulfill or risk compromising his leadership credentials. The vector of accountability flips: the leader is now accountable to the team.
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 regular visits to the front lines, coupled with sincere communication, wouldn’t improve this situation.
Varsity Facility Services, a national 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 her front line visit, her team checks the box or flips a card from red to green to show that she did, in fact, fulfill her commitment to the team. At Varsity, it’s the workers who validate the managers’ completion of their standard work.
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.
Managerial and leadership standard work is not as mysterious as you might think. While there is clearly room for variation and improvisation—and there must be, given the variability in an executive’s job—there are just as clearly best practices governing how he should spend his time, with ample theory and practice to support those habits.
You can start by reversing the vector of accountability. Let your team hold you accountable for a change.
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