Seeking Standardization? Focus on Accountability, Not Process

Focus on Accountability, Not ProcessFor months now, colleagues have been encouraging me to pick up the latest gem by Seth Godin, Linchpin.  Having grown tired of their nagging, I ordered a copy to my new Kindle (a brilliant device, I might add).  Wow…I now realize what I was missing!  Although I’m not quite finished, Godin hit a grand slam with the nuggets he provides in his down-to-earth, refusal to stoop to political correctness fashion.

Early in the book, Seth posits the value of allowing people to use their judgment in accomplishing whatever task is before them.  This got me thinking about the oft turned to rush toward standardization as a reaction to challenges in organizations.

“We’ve just got too many people trying to run their own shows out there!  We need to standardize and centralize control over all these mavericks!”

How many have heard this panic-stricken managerial solution to falling stock prices or quarterly P&G figures?  Months and hundreds of hours of productivity later, standardized processes are rolled out to the workforce.  Flowcharts, decision trees, communications plans, and detailed “best practices” direct the imposed direction on everyone imaginable.  A year later, the continuation of the downward financial spiral prompts yet another iteration of standardization, and so on and so forth. Year after year with manager after replaced manager leading the charge.

Godin shudders at such approaches, to management in general, but even more so just with regard to the attempted installation of a mindless, judgment-restricted horde of worker bees.

The problem isn’t with standardization.  In fact, standards, guidelines, and consistent expectations are exactly what we should be seeking from organizational leaders.  We’re halfway there!

The failure of standardization, instead, results from a focus on processes and decision-making, instead of the real implement of innovation and growth – Accountability.

Just think about it…

Leaders resort to “standardization” when organizational results fail to meet acceptable levels.  They turn, quite naturally, toward ways in which they can exert more control over results.  Put another way, they feel responsible for the lack of results, and out of a sense of personal accountability desire to better influence the next quarter’s figures.

The desire to control, however, moves along two possible paths:

  • Discretionary Control – Sure, we can dictate to our people exactly how they will get their work done.  For decades, transactional leaders have done just that.  Workers were expected to follow the rules and produce exactly as told.  And it made sense in a factory setting, where the main product was widgets and screws!  In most of our knowledge society (and increasingly, in an era where a majority of production-line “widgetting” has been shipped overseas), competitive advantage is lost when individuals are prevented from invoking personal initiative and problem-solving.
  • Accountability – The alternative is to focus on standardizing accountability.  What this entails is focusing leadership attention on results, not process.  If employees are held accountable for both the quality and quantity of results, there are still allowed (in fact, encouraged) to look for better solutions, faster processes, and more collaborative partnerships.

Clearly, standardizing processes of accountability is tough.  It requires that leadership be willing and able to undertake difficult conversations at times.  When accountability is the goal, uncomfortable realizations of one’s workforce are more likely, but so are the potential benefits to the organization in terms of productivity, engagement, and empowerment.

Leaders who focus on standardizing processes succeed most typically in only shackling the potential of their workers.  In fact, one could argue they have actually abdicated their roles as leaders, opting instead for the adoption of the lesser title of manager.  For, in fact, that is what they have done.  No longer do they lead people.  They merely manage processes, and that is never the route to long-term sustained and dynamic growth in any organization.

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