The fundamentals of accountability

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by Robert J. Latino, executive vice president, Reliability Center, Inc.

Accountability issues can arise with individuals, groups, and departments. Accountability can also be a very sensitive and emotional issue, whether we are at the corporate level or on the front lines. Issues with accountability usually arise when something has gone wrong and the culture seeks a person to blame. However, a truly progressive organization will realize that an investigation starts with human error but does not end with it.

The benefits of a well-designed accountability system

A well-designed accountability system does the following:

  • Reduces human error by half
  • Builds ownership
  • Improves staff members’ performance
  • Leads to effective work practices
  • Is long-term in its scope
  • Is motivation-oriented
  • Promotes self-actualization
  • Maintains good behavior

Most accountability systems fail because of poor design and negative effects.

Characteristics of a poor accountability system

A poor accountability system usually has the following characteristics:

  • A basis on fear. Poor accountability systems use fear tactics to motivate people. This may include repercussions or denial of incentives for failing to meet a goal. Both tactics use fear for pleasure-seeking as well as pain avoidance.
  • Similar reward levels for all. When the reward levels are generally the same for everyone, there is less incentive for the nonproducer to produce. No one is really held accountable for poor performance; rather, he or she is rewarded for it. We have all been to restaurants where the waiters and waitresses must put their respective tips into a shared pot. At the end of the night, the pot is divided equally among the wait staff. This would not be fair if 20% of the staff brought in 80% of the tips.
  • Rewards for nonperformers. In the above scenario, a member of the wait staff who was slow or did not provide good service would be rewarded equally with other members of the wait staff. It would not take long for this system to become a demotivator for the real producers, and eventually they would leave to seek a more equitable accountability sys-tem or begin to not produce at the same level. Also, this system gives no incentive for poor performers to improve.
  • Same punishment no matter the error. Whether it is compensation or punishment, accountability systems that strive to make every circumstance equal usually do not work. Circumstances may affect the magnitude and severity of the consequences of the decision, the rationale for the decision, the accuracy of the information provided to make the decision, and the tenure and experience of the person making the decision. If there is no regard to previous service or circumstances, then punishment is doled out the same for everyone regardless of the conditions.

The bottom line: A poor accountability system will not inspire workers to perform. Efforts to maintain equity instead of reward performance will prove to be detrimental.

Characteristics of a good accountability system

A functional accountability system usually has the following characteristics:

  • Implementation of clear management expectations. Issues will arise when language in an accountability policy or procedure is vague and subject to interpretation (or misinterpretation). When writing an accountability policy, make sure it is clear, concise, and understandable, clearly reflecting management’s expectations.
  • Well-known details to all staff members. Just because an organization has an accountability policy in place does not mean it is working. Often, such policies are put in place for legal purposes to appease regulatory and insurance requirements. Such policies need to be properly communicated to those they will affect.
  • Emphasis on long-term (not single-event) performance. Most behavior change programs seek short-term changes, but such changes are often tem-porary. A good accountability system will seek long-term behavior changes.
  • Foundation of adequate knowledge and skills. A good accountability system will take into consideration the knowledge and skill level of those expected to comply with it.
  • Ensurance that accountability is commensu-rate with authority. Ensure that if an employee is made accountable for a process, he or she is given the tools necessary for oversight.
  • Relativity to company mission. A good accountability system will be woven into key performance indicators (KPI). For example, if one KPI is to reduce maintenance expenses by 30% in a five-year period, then the accountability system will have to be designed to allow those in charge to have the tools, support, and motivation to be successful. If leadership sets the KPI and holds one person or department accountable while taking away resources, it is unlikely that person or department will be successful.
  • Consistency in application throughout the organization. A good accountability system will be consistent across the organization. However, consistency in application deals with being fair, not necessarily equal.
  • Fairness according to common expectations of the work force. Once staff members see an effort by management to outline and clarify expectations, they are more likely to abide by these expectations. The work force will also recognize whether something is being put in place only for the benefit of the company or if it is a win-win for them as well. Creating a system of accountability that cares about end-user feedback will help staff members care about the overall success of the hospital.
  • Emphasis on instant feedback and constant reinforcement. Creators of a good accountability system will recognize the importance of providing feedback to its users. If staff members are not being told how accountable they have been, they cannot be expected to improve.
  • Less emphasis on individual reward and punishment. A good accountability system will focus on the goals of the organization as opposed to individual punishments and rewards. Such a system recognizes the synergistic effect that must take place, in which the efforts of many will be greater than the strides of few.
  • A focus on fact, not perception. A competent accountability system will not be based on perception, but will be grounded in facts.
  • Orientation around teamwork. The power and efforts of teams are necessary to achieve overall long-term goals. Again, the concept of synergy comes into play. Accountability in a team environment requires everyone to assist and support their fellow team mem-bers to attain common goals.

Designing and implementing a good accountability system requires some deep and empathetic thought. However, it will pay off in the end.