Turning the accountability upside down

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I just finished working on a short presentation that I will give this week about agile and lean development. In the presentation I display a few quotes by Deming regarding management and the system perspective managers should have in their work. One of the quotes is the famous one stating that 94% of all improvement possibilities are in the system and only 6% by special cause (in other words, only 6% are caused by the individuals).

“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”

This got me thinking about the 1-on-1 and performance review meetings that I have used at previous job positions, and of which I have written about before in this blog.

A lot of organisations employ an employee system where the managers spend quite a lot of their time in personal meetings with the employees. They do so in order to try to understand what the employees are doing, and to assess their performance. Often, the companies describe this system as a way to improve the employees’ working conditions and to increase the company’s productivity by increasing the employees performance and productivity. Also, the management are using the meetings as a way to enforce accountability around the organization’s and the employee’s annual goals. The employee establish goals that they strive for during the year, goals that they are accountable for achieving and assessed against at the end of the year. One way to view this is that the accountability is transferred down through the hierachy; the management tries to change the system by pushing goals down through the hiearchy and to make the employees at the lower levels accountable for achieving them.


But, as Deming says, this is not very fruitful. If only 6% of the system’s performance is linked to the individuals own choices, the focus on the individual is a sub-optimization. And, managers often abdicates from taking system responsibility and pushes the responsibility down to the employees. The problem is that the needed organisational changes are often above the employees responsibility level. This creates an impossible situation for the employees where they are held accountable for achieving results that they have no possibility to fullfill.

Mangement should focus on the system to try to remove obstacles that stop the individuals from performing as well as possible. The system is everything that the company does in order to produce products and earn value. This is things like training, department structure, equipment used during development and both explicit and implicit processes, and the managers are responsible for all this and should be accountable for it. The managers responsibility is therefore to work on the system, to break up department silos if needed, to buy equipment needed for doing a good job, and so on. Managment should serve the needs of the employees to help them perform the work as best they can. They should act as servant leaders.

So maybe we should turn performance reviews and 1-on-1’s the other way around, and let the employees own these meetings instead. The employees can use the annual performance review to talk to the managers to explain what the managers should focus on during the year. And the 1-on-1 meetings to let the managers explain and describe their focus during the next few weeks. The employees can explain how the managers should act and perform in order to serve and help the employees the most. This includes organizational changes the managers can make in order to remove obstacles, and behavioural changes they should try to accomplish in order to better coach their employees. This perspective would, in a way, turn the accountability relation up-side down where the employees could hold the management accountable for improving the system.

I think this would remove some of the problems with the current system, which inherits from the mass production and the command and control cultures. We would get away from focusing on the individual performance and results, and instead get a focus on the system and help the managers continuously improve things that really matters.

Managers should work on the system to increase the time they spend on improving it. In order to improve the system, they need to understand what is going on in the organization, they need to understand the work and the different processes used by the employees. In other words, the managers needs to spend most of the time listening to and observing the employees doing the work. The 1-on-1 and performance review meetings can be used by the managers to make sure they really are improving the conditions for the employees, and improving things that really make a change in their working conditions. Deming has nicely, as he often has done, described the managers role and responsibilities as in the following quote:

“the aim of leadership should be to improve the performance of man and machine, to improve quality, to increase output, and simultaneously to bring pride of workmanship to people. Put in a negative way, the aim of leadership is not merely to find and record failures of men, but to remove the causes of failure: to help people to do a better job with less effort.”

One comment

  • 1
    Michael Smith
    2012-05-24 - 15:48 | Permalink

    I am looking for a Deming quote. As I recall, it is something like “no organisation is capable of improving itself by those who created it”

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