Accountability – separating milk out of a cup of tea

This article examines the concept of ‘accountability’ and explores its impact on organisational culture and business responses. But first, let’s baseline our understanding of organisational culture. Easiest described as a set of values, beliefs, norms, customs, rules, codes of conduct that are shared by its members and demarcates a business from others, organisational culture can at times appear woolly and hard to pinpoint.

Even the smallest well-intentioned action contributes to organisational culture. For instance, faced with stiff competition, examples of businesses that have tightened decision making by signing off investments at head office are increasingly common. Rigorous scrutiny of supporting information and multi layered approvals inevitably create bottlenecks and slow decision making. Front line sales forces are left powerless to negotiate and achieve closure; often losing out to competition that arrive better empowered to agree terms and sign off commercials.  Sales force morale inevitably gets dented and with it an overall absence of initiative and drive. Such examples abound in every functional area and shapes organisational culture at most businesses.

The scope of culture is significant and enormous; numerous aspects of an organisation contribute to its culture and these moving parts ensure that organisational culture is forever evolving. Effective and efficient organisational cultures encourage new ideas and practices which rapidly become essential differentiators to retain and attract a discerning 21st century workforce. The concept of ‘Accountability’ is one such example. It is an important aspect of organisational cultures but remains one of the lesser understood aspects of organisational culture.


Many of us love our tea with milk. Anyone who’s ever tried to separate milk out of a cup of tea would know the futility of this task. Once the brew is prepared and milk added, the only way to separate the two is to throw it away and start afresh. For many businesses this is an apt metaphor to describe their organisation structures. Clear separation at the top of the organisation dissolves into an indistinguishable blend from which a precise separation of who does what becomes impossible. As long as everything goes well, its fine, but the moment a customer account is dropped or errors in service delivery emerge, questions about who to hold accountable and responsible become difficult to answer.

Too many Japanese and European businesses have grown organically and in the polite atmosphere at work, employees focus on getting work completed and through the door. Practicalities of day to day work execution and good camaraderie lead team members to fill in for each other. But who is ultimately accountable or responsible?

Our recent recessionary business environment has brought this into sharp focus. Losing key accounts puts entire supply chains at risk of employment as customer fulfilment traditionally required numerous touchpoints from order processing, billing, payment collection and so on. The disruption, insecurity and uncertainty this creates affect all customers including those who are the mainstay of the business during these difficult times. Stopping an entire product category or withdrawing from a market magnifies the disruption and trauma considerably.

Conversely, who does a business reward if something goes exceedingly well – an entire team including those who are passengers or just deserving individual contributors? Such confusion enables poor performers to conceal themselves, secure in the knowledge that there is little they can be held responsible for and even less that they can be held accountable for.    Every business and organisation has its share of non performing employees and the activation effort to deal with them is often so high that many businesses prefer to leave them unidentified and endure their poor performance in silence.

Creating accountability and ownership requires some effort and method. At a minimum clear job descriptions expressing unambiguous accountabilities and responsibilities create a visible and transparent culture of who does what. Obvious as this may seem, it is common to come across Japanese organisations where job descriptions do not exist or are unclear. The sharp contrast of the idea of accountability of a Japanese employee with no clear job description and an European employee bound by his/her job description in the same company working for the same goal is frequently pointed out as a challenge in cross cultural workshops. Many Japanese companies, especially manufacturing companies love talking about ‘mieru‐ka’ (bringing visibility about their business) especially in the area of production processes, planning, logistics, marketing, IT and accounts. These companies often boast how well this is managed to bring effectiveness to the business. However when it comes to people management, my impression is that ‘mieru‐ka’ is somewhat lacking.

Designing organisations that ensure accountability across all levels is neither impossible nor difficult; it does however need careful thought and design.  Accurate workload and capacity forecasting, clear responsibilities and accountabilities in job descriptions, key performance indicators, RACI[1] matrices aligning to business strategy are just some of the essentials that ought to be in place. The magic though is to ensure that every role is clearly accountable for something, however large or tiny, with a clear purpose that helps realise the business strategy, much like the fabled conversation between US President John F Kennedy and a NASA janitor in 1962, who, when asked by the President what he was doing, said that he was helping put a man on the moon.

1 RACI: Responsible, those who do the work to achieve the task; Accountable, final approval authority responsible for the correctness of the work and delegates to those Responsible; Consulted, subject matter experts or other stakeholders who are consulted with; Informed, those who are kept informed of the progress of the task through one way communication only.


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