Ever notice how we are all prone to fads? Whether its clothes or music or beards (for those that can pull that off) we see fads come and go. The same is true for business and in particular leadership. There have been all kinds of fads and they come and go but what about the things that work? How do we know if there wasn't something there that when stripped down to its core was really something that is a "best practice" behavior?
Let’s take the issue of metrics for example. In my work with Continuous Improvement and Operational Excellence metrics are core to those processes. Yet more often than not we use our metrics as lagging indicators and never really explore how to use them as leading indicators that can drive performance improvement. Admittedly metrics by their nature are lagging indicators in that you measure something that has happened - the number of widgets made, the time line for an order to be filled and so on. In these cases, the effectiveness of the metric will depend on how much of a "lag" you allow for. For example, safety metrics that are reported quarterly or yearly will have a diminished effect on changing safety behaviors whereas safety metrics discussed at daily shift meetings will have an immediate effect on safety behavior. Simply collecting metrics will not drive performance and will not promote operational excellence. How fast you use them and communicate them will and that is where accountability comes in.
Before I go into this concept in detail let me be clear about what I mean when I refer to accountability. In the traditional sense (real world) accountability was about who would be left "holding the bag" when something went sideways. Usually it was some poor person in middle management or if they were deft enough it was foisted upon someone in operations. As the joke went when something like that happened, you found the accountable person and you "hung em high to teach them a lesson." That is the old application of accountability.
TRANSFORMATIVE VS PUNITIVE
When I refer to accountability it is framed within the context of a work environment that allows for mistakes and uses them as stepping stones to improvement. It is centered around the idea that there is transparency in the process and the goal is to identify issues and deal with them as quickly as possible. In this scenario accountability is not punitive but transformative. We move from looking for someone to blame to looking for solutions to the issue that confronts us.
WHO OWNS THE METRIC?
Let's use a quick example from the airline industry. Baggage handlers are a key element of the industry and there are many metrics that can be employed in assessing performance. Total time to load, turn around time for transfers, dropped luggage, customer complaints, lost luggage and so on. These are all useful metrics and they are all lagging indicators and all the best dashboard reports in the world will not change that. Accountability will. When a manager or leader reports on a metric guess who "owns" that metric? You are right, they do. When a baggage handler reports on a metric like number of drops for example, who owns it? Again you are right, the baggage handler.
SHIFTING FROM REPORTING TO DRIVING PERFORMANCE
Here is where accountability can be used to take a lagging indicator like a metric around dropped bags and transform it into a leading indicator and a performance driver. If I require my baggage handlers to report to me every day on the number of bags they dropped during a load or unload what behavior am I going to drive? You are right again - they are going to focus on making sure they don't drop bags. Now I am using a metric to drive performance. How do you think that works if they only have to report this to me once a month? Once a week? Once per shift? Which do you think is going to be most effective? Right again, the closer to the activity you require the communication the more impact it will have on behavior.
STEP ON THE GAS
Metrics are extremely useful but they will never drive improvement or performance until they are hitched to personal accountability. Get your team to identify their own metrics as they relate to the larger goal of the department and get them to track and report them. Then stand back and watch the transformation. Only then will you have the gas to drive performance. Performance Leadership - Think About It!