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Joseph A Bockerstette, Partner

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980’s, I worked at United Parcel Service while attending engineering school at the University of Cincinnati. I cannot imagine a better learning ground for a young professional starting out in business management. UPS was then, and still is, a very well run company with an excellent business management system and an unfailing commitment to productivity management and continuous improvement. I learned many key lessons from the small group of managers I worked for in my five years there, and I remain grateful to this day for the valuable knowledge I gained.

Among the many things UPS did well was to very carefully manage its culture and consistently reinforce its core principles. One of those core principles was the need for strong accountability. In 1974, James McLaughlin, President at UPS, gave an annual management conference keynote entitled Our Operating Accountability as Managers, where he clearly explained the elements of accountability and emphasized how important accountability is to a well-managed enterprise.   In the talk, he described five conditions that must be present to assign responsibility to an individual (or team) and expect accountability in return. He emphasized that the manager is responsible for ensuring that the five conditions are in place prior holding an individual or team accountable for the delivery of any assignment or the execution of a job responsibility.

“Where we have problems, we find lack of accountability. Problems exist because someone failed to do a job and was allowed to get away with it.” - James P. Mclaughlin

I have often used the accountability talk as the basis for client and employee conversations to troubleshoot the source of a problem when things don’t go as desired. The message is as useful today as it was 40 years ago. Here are the five conditions for successful accountability management.

To be held accountable, the individual or team must,

1. Understand and accept the assignment.

The individual must know the purpose of the work is being assigned, the identity of the supplier and customer of the work, and the desired outcome.

2. Have the tools, knowledge, and capability to do the job.

The individual must have the knowledge, skills, training, work instructions, and necessary tools, equipment, space, etc., to complete the assignment.

3. Agree with the standards of acceptability for the assignment.

The individual must know what is an acceptable product to be received from the supplier, what is an acceptable product to be delivered the customer and the standards of performance that accompany the assignment.

4. Be given full authority to complete the assignment.

Accountability must come with the full authority to execute the decisions and actions necessary to fulfill the purpose of the assignment.

5. Understand how accountability will be demonstrated.

The final condition is to know how performance will be measured and reported such that the successful achievement of the assignment can be demonstrated.

Without the presence of these five conditions, a manager does not have the right to expect accountability from the individual or team given the assignment. Accountability is a two-way street; to require accountability from an individual or team, the manager must first earn the right to that accountability by meeting the five conditions above. How often have you faced a performance shortfall caused by the absence of one of these basic conditions?