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Fundamentals of Operational Excellence #7

Establish Clear Lines of
Ownership & Accountability

Executive Summary:

  • Ownership and accountability are critical to operational excellence, primarily to your ability to continuously improve
  • A lack of accountability can set you into a spiral of continuous change, create redundant controls, add cost to your improvement efforts and hold back innovation
  • To improve ownership and accountability, a simple 4 step evaluation will reveal systemic factors and allow improvement across the organization

Operational Excellence doesn’t happen overnight, but rather through diligence and perseverance. Thus, every OE program is built on some basis for continuous improvement, with most programs using some variation of the traditional PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust) cyclical process. The specific mechanics for how this is done vary from company to company, but the primary intent remains the same.  

We won’t spend time re-iterating the importance of a formal Continuous Improvement (CI) program. It’s more interesting to examine why CI continues to allude many companies despite, and sometimes due to, their CI programs.  

Continuous Improvement, or more specifically the C and the A in the PDCA process, can be made ineffective by one single factor – ambiguous lines of ownership and accountability. We’ll illustrate this through four examples. 

4 Ways Inadequate Ownership and Accountability
Is Holding Back Continuous Improvement
1. Never-ending process change 

Every company at one point or another experiences an incident caused by one of its employees not performing as expected. In a healthy company, at least part of the solution includes addressing employee under-performance, but in an organization without accountability, this lever is unavailable. What ends up happening is the blame is transferred to something else. For instance, if an incident is caused because an employee fails to follow a procedure, instead of addressing the employee, the procedure is blamed. This not only reinforces the negative behavior, which will almost guarantee it will happen again, but it also wastes the organization’s resources changing procedures and retraining against the changes. It becomes a never-ending cycle of continuous change, but not necessarily improvement.

2. Redundant improvement efforts 

The thing about improvement efforts is that they rarely target an issue that is unique to any small group of people. Even if the symptoms are concentrated, the causes might be complex and involve widespread factors. Combine this with well-intentioned employees, and leaders championing change, and you get redundant solutions to shared problems. In one company we evaluated, this resulted in 4 separate initiatives to fix the same process. In another company, we found that any given task for operating a piece of equipment could have between 2 and 7 procedures, often with serious contradictions. The important thing to note isn’t the magnitude of the issue, but rather that it came about through employees with good intentions trying to address an issue. Without clear lines of responsibility and accountability, this is bound to happen. 

3. Costly improvement 

Unclear lines of accountability and responsibility can also cause the continuous improvement process to become overly laborious. Whether it’s over-collaborating, wasting time identifying who needs to be involved, or redoing work, the process will go on far longer than it needs to. This is not time that is spent adding any value.   

 4. Holding back innovation 

This last impact is probably one of the most overlooked consequences. Real innovation requires adapting to changes, some of which might be inconvenient or difficult at first. You could have the smartest team in the world trying to improve something, but if they are unsure of their ownership, they will hold back. The symptom of this is when continuous improvement starts becoming more about making everyone happy than about making the necessary changes.  


How to Fix Ownership and Accountability

Ownership and accountability are not easy to correct, but the process is not complex. Some perceive the idea of improving accountability as an exercise in punishing employees, and over time even the word accountability has taken on some negative connotations. Our approach to this is the opposite; we believe most employees want to do the right thing and, more often than not, something else is influencing their behavior. In the simplest terms, the objective of clear ownership and accountability is to have everyone do their part to do the right thing.  .

Viewing ownership and accountability in this sense allows us to break it down into 4 steps you can evaluate in any scenario.  


Step 1: Do employees want to do the right thing? 

This one is pretty simple – do they want to do what they are accountable for? Do personal or group interests get in the way of their responsibilities? If they are misaligned, it could be an issue where the employee’s values do not align to the company’s values, or it could be more complicated where the employee is forced to sacrifice competing priorities such as their personal life for company priorities.  

Much progress has been made in this area to remove that competition and allow employees to improve their work/life balance. The biggest improvement comes when employees are given actual ownership and trusted to deliver without micro-managing how they need to work to accomplish this.

Step 2: Do they know what the right thing is? 

This is where most employees get tripped up most often – they want to do the right thing, but they aren’t sure what that right thing is. Maybe it changes depending on who the shift leader is that day. Maybe their accountability was never clearly communicated so there is a difference between what they think their job is and what their boss thinks it is. What about how instructions are communicated through governing documents? Is it clear what instructions apply to them, and which are mandatory vs. suggestions? For instance, if you have recommended practice documents that contain many “shall” statements, it can be confusing to know if they must follow that recommendation or treat it as a recommendation for consideration.  

If this is where the process breaks down, there are some simple steps you can take. A quick diagnostic is to identify ownership of the different parts of the value chain, ownership for each management system process, and the accountability for existing governance structures. Starting here will lead you down the right road to identifying misalignment and ambiguity that are holding you back.

Step 3: Are they able to do the right thing? 

If your employees know what they need to do, do they have the capability and capacity to do it? This can take the form of hard and soft skills, having access to the right tools and information, or simply having the capacity to complete all their responsibilities.  

The capacity aspect is why this step comes after knowing who owns and is accountable for what. Outside of front-line operations, about 3/4th your employees’ time is spent in meetings and answering email. Clarifying ownership and accountability allows people to be more selective about who they invite to meetings and who gets added to an email chain.   

Step 4: Are they recognized for doing the right thing? 

Of course, over time, it doesn’t matter what you tell employees to do but rather what they are rewarded for. If they are told they own a certain decision but are chastised when it doesn’t match what someone else wanted, it undermines the entire process. This is why this process is cyclical – the reward mechanisms will influence what they want to do and what they think the right thing is.  

Improving the reward mechanisms requires looking at all the ways employee behavior is rewarded or corrected, including formal methods like performance reviews and compensation along with informal methods. Are they rewarded for what they do or also how they accomplished it? How timely is the feedback? Finally, pay close attention to how the culture either reinforces or undermines how you are telling your employees to behave.

Contact us today to find out how you can improve your organizations ability to execute through clear ownership and accountability. 


This post is an excerpt from the white paper “The Fundamentals for Transforming Your Organization Through Operational Excellence.”


Francisco Soto MBA

Director – Business Analytics and Operational Excellence

Francisco Soto is a thought leader in the operational excellence space. He specializes in simplifying how his clients maximize the value of their strategy through a combination of their integrated management system and culture.

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