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Management Accountability and Authority in Lean

Accountability and authority are the yin and yang of leadership. Authority is the state of having power to give directions and make decisions. It is generally granted by an organization to individuals for the purpose of getting results in the areas they are responsible for.

With authority comes the burden of accountability–having to deliver good results. Accountability comes from an external person or organization. That simply means that someone else defines the standard for you. In most cases, that “someone else” is your boss.

To make a distinction, responsibility is similar, but more self-imposed. People may feel a responsibility to follow up on what they promise friends or family, or simply may believe that they have a responsibility to be honest to their team. In truth, people often hold themselves to a higher standard than their boss does.

Admittedly, the distinction between the words is not commonly used. But when thinking about behavior, it is important to understand the source of the motivation that drives action. There is a powerful difference between doing what it right (internal), and doing what you will be graded on (external).

Accountability and authority go hand in hand. Having power means that you will be held accountable for the use of that power.

Accountability without authority tends to be very frustrating. It is hard to implement any meaningful changes that will improve your likelihood of success if you can’t make a decision that will be followed.

Consultants often fall into this situation. They are accountable for helping a company improve its performance, yet have no direct authority to require a change that they recommend. Consultants understand this reality, though, and sign on despite it.

Leaders, however, do not. They can rapidly become disillusioned and perhaps even bitter if they are not given authority to do the things they will be accountable for. This is especially true if they are being held to high standards.

The opposite situation, authority without accountability, is dangerous and thankfully rare. Simply by being in charge, people assume accountability for the performance of a team.

Being on a project team gives many people their first real taste of accountability and authority for others. People in day-to-day jobs get the authority to operate machines, and are accountable for following a process, but on a project team, suddenly they are asked to make decisions in a way that they are not generally accustomed to. They may decide to move a person’s desk as a part of an office kaizen, upsetting that employee. And they will have to stand up in front of an audience and spell out the gains from the week.

Project leaders should be aware of this challenge that their team is facing, and work to provide specific coaching on the topic.


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