We welcome Dan to our Greenville Business Learning Center on October 2nd, as he conducts a workshop based on his new book, Building the Fit Organization. Only 30 seats are available so we encourage you to sign up soon. Details and registration can be found here.
In my new book, Building the Fit Organization, I argue that the principles necessary for personal physical fitness are the same as the ones needed for organizational “fitness.” One of those principles is standard work. Standard work when you’re on a physical fitness or training program gets you ready for a competition and keeps you from getting hurt. Standard work in a company reduces variation, improves quality, and lays the foundation for improvement. This much is common knowledge.
But there’s a powerful and underappreciated benefit to standard work when your leadership team follows it, too. I call it “reversing the vector of accountability.”
When we talk about accountability in an organization, typically we refer to the way in which lower level staff is accountable to executives (or managers, or supervisors) for certain actions. Workers must be held accountable if we want to execute and perform well. In this view, the vector of accountability always points upwards, from the front lines to leadership.
This is where leader standard work comes in. When a CEO makes a commitment to visit the shop floor (or the marketing department, or the warehouse) each day and learn what her people are doing and what obstacles they face, she’s now accountable to her team for performance. When a VP creates standard work obligating him to participate in 5S activities once per month, he’s making a promise to his team that he must fulfill or risk compromising his leadership credentials. The vector of accountability flips: the leader is now accountable to the team.
The psychological implications of this reversal are profound. All organizations comprise intricate webs of human relationships. For those relationships to be healthy and successful, there needs to be some degree of symmetry. Demanding that lower level staff be accountable to leaders without a corresponding accountability of leaders to lower level staff is a recipe for unhealthy, weak relationships, low morale, and disengaged employees. According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace report, 87% of employees worldwide are “disengaged” or “actively disengaged” at work, a stunning (and depressing) figure. Reversing the vector of accountability brings balance to the interpersonal relationships in an organization—and while I’m not an industrial psychologist, it’s hard to imagine that regular visits to the front lines, coupled with sincere communication, wouldn’t improve this situation.
Varsity Facility Services, a national provider of janitorial services to corporations, goes one step further to make this reversal of accountability explicit. The managers’ schedules are posted in the open, visible to the entire company. When a manager completes her front line visit, her team checks the box or flips a card from red to green to show that she did, in fact, fulfill her commitment to the team. At Varsity, the workers validate the managers’ completion of their standard work.
In the physical fitness context, think how much more motivated you are when you know your trainer is showing up for your workout to provide one-to-one coaching and support. Irrespective of the actual training advice you receive, his mere presence increases your dedication to the workout program. When he commits to you to show up on time, he creates a powerful sense of mutual accountability: you’ll get up 15 minutes earlier and be sure that you’re out of your underwear and wearing your workout clothes when he arrives.
To implement this idea, post your standard work in the open, visible to the entire company. Create a simple check sheet for the activities that shows what you’ll do and when, and bring it with you when you do that standard work. Then—and this is key—your team checks the boxes to show that you did, in fact, fulfill your commitment. They validate your standard work. Lastly, post the filled in check sheet where everyone can see it.
Try it. It’s one more way to show respect for people. You’ll be amazed at the transformation in your relationships with your team.
About Dan Markovitz
He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. He also lectures at the Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business.
His first book, A Factory of One, was honored with a Shingo Research Award in 2013. His new book, Building the Fit Organization, outlines a powerful plan to help business leaders improve the competitive “fitness” of their companies.