Blame vs. Accountability

Steve left a question on The Whiteboard that everyone thinks, but almost no one asks.

Is there a point at which the “blame game” is appropriate? You once mentioned the “5 who’s” I’m thinking that at some point this has to be processed. Like getting the right people on the bus (or off it). Or in cases of accountability.

This subject, of course, opens up an entire line of complex discussion. We are dealing with psychology and sociology here, not mechanical or industrial engineering.

The question is very general. And like most "big problems" I don’t think it is solvable at this level. Rather, the general problem is a symptom of small problems that are chronically not addressed. In simple terms, the answer is "it depends" and "it is a case-by-case issue."

My first frame of reference is the post just before this one – "No blame means no excuses." There are a couple of other related gems in Managing to Learn that I will be calling out in subsequent posts here.

But right now, I want to go back to 1944 and dig out the cheat pocket card that is part of the TWI Job Relations course.

At the top the card says


(In this context, it means a people problem.)

Right underneath that are the words everybody skips over:


So let’s think about that a minute. Here is a person whose performance or behavior is something you find incompatible with the goals of the organization. But have you thought past your emotional response and really looked at, first, what the goals of the organization are in this context? If this problem is solved what outcome do you want?

Sometimes I hear "I want the person out of the organization."

OK. But that is a countermeasure, not an objective. What is the objective of the organization?

In the 1944 TWI context, it was generally to "help production." Certainly that was the main priority. But whatever your objective is, it is critical to understand it and I would suggest you write it down.

Then the card says:


In modern terms, this would translate to "Thoroughly understand the current situation." The odds are you have only second-hand information and complaints at this point. At best, you have only results of some underlying issue. The card says to "review the record" – what is the history here? Is this an ongoing issue that has a long history? Or is it a recent thing?

It says "Find out what rules and customs apply." Now – please remember that these words were written in a different era. One generation (half a generation) earlier, the USA had been a primarily agrarian economy with a growing manufacturing sector. Many manufacturing operations had more informal customs than actual rules. Many of those customs dictated the way people were expected to behave. Understanding, not just the rules, but the actual expectations of supervisors, peers, and the culture itself gives you the context that this person was working in.

In a world class organization, I would ask "What is the standard?" What is the expectation in this circumstance? What should be happening? If you are not crystal clear about that, then you have a case of vague expectations. Want to know the source of the problem? Look in the mirror.

The card goes on to advise:

"Talk with individuals concerned" and "Get opinions and feelings"

Go and see for yourself. Genchi genbutsu.

Do not rely on reports of others. That information is inherently biased.

If you start off with a couple of assumptions, your understanding can be much deeper.

  • This person is well meaning, and acting in his best understanding of what you expect.
  • This person is acting in a reasonable manner within the context he has around him.

These assumptions drive you to understand how expectations are interpreted, how priorities are understood, and the daily, working context of "normal" and "reasonable" within the work environment.

It is critical to understand this simple truth about all organizations: The written rules are over ridden by the daily working culture.

At the end, the card issues a caution:

"Be sure you have the whole story."

Once you understand the current situation, the next step on the card is:


"Fit the facts together"

"Consider their bearing on each other."

This is final reflection on the big picture and the context this person is operating in. What conflicts does he experience? How is he resolving them? Asking those questions in that way, again, frames the problem in terms of a person acting in a reasonable way to resolve conflicting priorities (work and personal) in the best way he can. If that priority conflict turns out to be a real or perceived difference between policies and expectations, that is your problem, not his.

Consider what message is sent by those two statements:"We never compromise safety for production." and "We need to do whatever it takes to get this done today."

Consider the actual consequences if all unsafe work in your operation halted. Now, in that light, consider the pressures this person might have been under when he got "written up" for a near-miss on a forktruck – as he was driving down a cluttered transportation aisle with a load that blocked his view that someone was impatiently calling him about.

The JR card goes on into executing your action plan, and then CHECK RESULTS.

The last question on it is:


Did your countermeasure address the problem?

This was all pretty radical stuff in 1944. Unfortunately it is still pretty radical in a lot of places.

But – at the end of the game, it comes down to objectively considering what you are trying to accomplish; understanding the entire story; developing and applying countermeasures; and seeing if they work. Then lather, rinse, repeat.

As an adjunct to this, Jim left a comment after the book review of Managing to Learn where he reflected that a lot of his (lean manager) job seems to be psychology. He is right – but that is the job of any manager whose ultimate success is dependent on how well his people perform. Understanding what really motivates people vs. what you want to motivate them is a critical first step to deal with the world as it really is.

So, back to the original question.

Steve used an expression "getting the right people on the bus (or off it)." I first encountered this in Jim Collins‘ book Good to Great. He refers to a corporate transformation where it is important to have the right team, and have the players in the right positions. (The right people on the bus, and those people in the right seats). Before you decide to kick someone off the bus, it is critical to first understand if s/he is in the right seat; to understand if the past is the result of circumstances or true failure to perform. So unless (until) you are truly certain of what you expect, you are in no position to judge whether someone is, or is not, meeting expectations.

Here is how I look at it. If someone has to be let go, it is because I:

Failed to hire the right person.

Failed to make my expectations clear enough.

Failed to adequately assess or correct the reasons for not meeting those expectations.

And in the end, I had to concede that I had failed, not only this person, but my own objectives.

Are we going to get it right every time? Of course not. But "finally getting him out of here" should be reflected upon, not as a success, but as a desperate last resort when everything else has failed.


No one has the resources to save people who are bent on destroying themselves or those around them.  Fortunately those people are actually few and far between. It is totally unfair (and not in your interest) to structure your operation as though anyone could be one of these people.

And finally, each of us is responsible for cutting our own path in the world. If I don’t like the results I am getting, I must acknowledge that those are results are the cumulative effect of every choice I have made up to this point. I may not get the results I want, but I get the results I have chosen.

2 Replies to “Blame vs. Accountability”

  1. Hi Mark,

    I share your sentiment on the radical nature of TWI thinking in 2008. It is amazing to me how basic problem solving steps have been either distorted into complexity or completely ignored. Either way, TWI thinking is a good place for supervisors to start honing their CI skills. I really enjoyed reading through the adaptation of JR to a typical problem. Thanks, Bryan

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for working through this problem out-loud. I will always remember this lesson. There are so many factors that need to be consider and your summary makes an excellent guide.

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