On January 13th, 2012, at about 8:45 in the evening a large cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, you might remember her from the news, -an Italian luxury liner just seven years old struck a rock just off the Eastern shore of a place called Isola del Giglio, Tuscany.
After striking the rock on her port side and tearing a 160-foot hole in her bottom, she started to flood. That flooding immediately cut off power to the engines and to all the services and the ship then drifted to the shallows where she continued to sink and then slowly rolled over on her side. There were some 3200 passengers on board and another thousand crew members. The captain, Francesco Schettino was accountable for a number of things that happened that evening and thereafter. Not a good story. At one point the Italian Coast Guard was in radio contact with the ship and crew asking about the situation and captain Schettino radioed that he was orchestrating the evacuation from shore! Yeah…from shore. Upon learning this, (there are YouTube recordings of the dialogs) the Italian Coast Guard scolds captain Schettino ordering him to “get back on your ship and do your job!”
Accountability can range from things that are incredibly perilous like a sinking ship to things that are minor like choosing a restaurant. And in these moments, especially when situations deteriorate, we often ask who did this? who was accountable? For leaders, the definition of accountability is about our work and of our systems and the practice of being accountable. This means that we're subject to the obligation to report, to explain, to justify something, to be responsible and to be answerable. Now, that is a heavy mantle when we say we're accountable for how a business performs. There's a lot of things that we are accountable to and for especially if we're in leadership positions at the top of the organization. We're in the wheelhouse, where captain Schettino was not during the night of the accident. We have a lot of things that we must manage over and lead through. The captain (and crew) had 3- 4000 passenger’s safety to deal with. We have a variety of employees and equipment and product lines and services and customers to serve. We typically have a complex number of activities that are going on -not that we're directly tied to all things, but accountability is something that certainly stretches across leadership teams and should be an unshakeable mindset through senior leadership figures who have the obligation of accountability for the business and the safety of everyone in it. That includes seeing what's ahead, what is going on and what might happen and for things that have happened directly. In addition, to inform other players, the other officers of the ship -of what things are going on and what sort of near-term actions are required. Collectively leaders have the obligation to report to others. Reporting to board members and ownership and senior staff and to other tiers of management, the necessity to report to and through systems of accountability. Sometimes those channels are clear and sometimes not.
Now, a bit about the systems and some of the techniques that we can use to employ more effective accountability to people and departments and tasks. Where do systems of operations accountability originate? It can start with walking the talk and there's a lot of talking that occurs at the senior level we must take responsibility and accountability to make sure that strategies and projects are progressing along to a plan. Being accountable to “the plan” is just one vital reason why we need to meet weekly to have that progression review. What is the status of our WIGs (Wildly Important Goals) and have we (specifically assigned actions by name) moved the needles in the past week? Then there’s the daily or sometimes twice daily production peek and brief about how daily operations are interwoven with process improvement needs, by way of active project work. That obligation to show up to daily “productivity” meetings is another essential accountability of senior managers regardless of area! That’s inclusive of Sales, Finance, HR, IT, Service, Engineering, and all other areas, not just plant Production. It’s sacred time and space to be accountable for what's gone on in the last 24 hours or 20 hours or maybe it's even six or seven hours depending on how often you meet. It’s the fountain head of accountability for the business and business leadership that we need to report on our respective metrics to know with confidence that we are moving along in a safe, effective manner to the plan. And what if we hit “things”? When we hit the intended performance metrics great, we can offer praise, but if we did not hit the target, our immediate accountable leadership response should ask for explanation- questions probing deep in the why of people and processes. Why and how did things go on that way? Or if we've as a management team have made decisions, which in part is a vastly understated piece of management, we add “accountable leadership,” to determine whether we make the right one given everything that we know and learn from every situation.
We also need to justify and own decisions about the pivot points that we've made throughout the day in the different areas of the business. We want to make sure that we have solid, professional business awareness (visibility) and we allow (and expect) for people to answer to those change accountabilities for why things got done. Another piece of us being accountable as leaders is that it allows us to prioritize our own actions to achieve defined goals. What did we do? Was that what we were supposed to do? What was the outcome? What was the response time? so in with accountability oftentimes comes a lot of questions, especially if we did not achieve our defined goals or targets for SQDC. Any of the sorts of metrics that allow us to see how well we (all respective teams) flowing work through our facilities involve full, clear accountability to people and processes. Another level of accountability for us as leaders is to stand by our own personal decisions, taking responsibility for them. We truly must pick up that mantle and speak to our decisions at this level, at the strategic level, why were these things picked out? and we need to have that obligation to report to the rest of the organization and ensure that our explanations of them are clear, that they're relevant and they make sense for the the audience. What was the justification? What was the case? What were we thinking behind deciding to start up that machine, line, location or phase out a particular product? What were our justifications? As leaders we should be accountable to those decisions and to others in the organization as a matter of respect. Again, we're at the top. We have an obligation to the entire crew and all the passengers to let them know what's going on, being actively responsible and being solidly accountable. We can offer essential leadership behaviors when we accept responsibility when things do not go according to plan and be in support, not going about bashing people, when things do not. Accountability offers leaders important moments to separate people from process and policies from procedures to find a workable, learning pathways through issues. Every organization has the need for champions of accountable learning when performance issues appear. We have the accountability as leaders to ensure that respect is rock solid and observable through our words, behaviors, and actions. And we don't hold people to blame for things that have gone wrong. Now, are people associated with them?... certainly! That can be the case, but we want to ensure that we put respect in front of us being and holding people accountable for when things do not go according to plan. One thing we must ground on in accountability is our own accountability. We expect and are looking to be successful. We want people to be successful everywhere, in every corner of the organization including our respective corners. But when things go wrong, - and they do and they will, we need confidence that our strength of mind with balanced leadership accountability and how we communicate is fair, objective and ultimately productive. Serving as a leader we take responsibility for the business by living with a respect for decisions, follow-up on actions and the results and we're not shy about it. Some simple tools for leaders to help augment systems of accountability are Leader Standard Work for whole management teams and team Accountability boards which are reviewed as part of daily operations. Both are visual mechanisms to prioritize and standardize the practice of accountability of service to others both inward and outward.
All organizations have the need for confident leaders-captains and senior officers- to cope with the obligations of running the business with cool headed guidance through challenging events. And all businesses need strong, competent crews enabled with easy-to-use accountability systems to quickly respond and recover from setbacks as part of a safe, sound and successful journey.