Accountability Gaps from Process Exceptions

Accountability is not just a goal, but a mindset that every company strives to achieve. Leaders at all levels tend to struggle with gaps in accountability. But it is possible to seal those gaps, if you can identify the cause. One of the most common causes is process exceptions: an understanding between managers and employees that allows a temporary reprieve of the process, based on unforeseen circumstances. Most leaders understand that all processes have exceptions. Yet, this is not about rare exceptions to processes. This is about the seemingly small, common exceptions that managers make on the fly.

Andy is the Chief of Operations for a small-to-midsized construction company, Birdie Construction. Birdie has about 350 employees and subcontractors serving them to complete projects worth about $35 million annually. Andy’s friends and colleagues describe him as a fun guy who loves to help everyone. One must be careful not to end up on his bad side. Overall, Andy is respected in the organization because he enjoys solving problems. As a matter of fact, that is how he rose to his position as Chief of Operations: as a great problem solver.

Birdie Construction has specific processes on how to start a new construction project. At the commencement of each contract the project managers are required to create a schedule of completion to ensure the project gets done according to the previously agreed terms. At one point, Andy and the operations team get some great news: they have been requested to complete a $10 million project! At first, morale and expectations are high. Andy and his team have been unstoppable in the past and they were ready to embark on the project with gusto and confidence.

Kim, Andy’s top project manager, was selected to help with the contract and the schedule of completion. Kim and Andy have worked together for 6 years, since Kim was hired. Andy trusted Kim and she had proven herself to be one of the best project managers in the industry.

Unfortunately, the $10 million project was starting four months behind schedule, due to unexpected contract negotiations. Once the negotiations were resolved, Andy and Kim are given the green light and the team started on the project. They were so confident in their abilities, that they stuck to their schedule of completion and planned to finish the project per the original due date.

A few days later Kim came to Andy one evening around 8:00 PM. They had both worked about 14 hours straight and they were exhausted. She asked him, “Do you realize it will probably take four weeks to setup the schedule with all the subs and teams on the project?” Andy immediately shifted into problem-solving mode, even though Kim never asked Andy to solve the problem. She just wanted to make sure Andy was aware of the problem. Fully aware that the project cannot start until they have a finished schedule of completion, Andy decided to make an executive decision. He instructs Kim to start excavation. He said, “We need to start the project if we’re going to meet the original completion date. The schedule is not important.”

Six months later, ten more projects had started; and all of them including the $10 million project had issues. Andy was frustrated with his four project managers because all the new jobs were behind schedule and nobody seemed to have any answers. To add to the complications, company replaced two project managers, after others had quit. Andy needed to figure out the cause of all this confusion, so he called a meeting and asked to see the project schedules. Kenny, one of new project managers, informed Andy that he could not find any schedules for the projects they were managing. Kenny was under the impression that Birdie Construction does not consider project schedules to be a priority. He thought they might be optional, since his predecessors and colleagues did not complete them. Andy informed Kenny that the company policy states the schedule needs to be completed and approved prior to starting a project.

Rather frustrated with Kenny, Andy then turned to Kim and asked, “Can you share your schedules with the team so everyone can see what a well-done schedule looks like?” Kim turned bright red, she did not appreciate being spotlighted, especially when she knew that she could not deliver what was asked. She told Andy that none of the schedules had been completed her projects. At this point, Andy visibly lost all patience and changed his tone from inquisitive to accusatory. He asked the Project Management Team a rhetorical question, “Is anyone accountable around here?” After he walked around the room for nearly five minutes, vociferously sounding off about his staff and how they lacked accountability, Kim finally spoke up. She reminded Andy of their conversation six months ago. Kim finished with, “You’re the one who said the schedule was not important.” The silence in the conference room was deafening. The embarrassment was overwhelming.

Unbeknown to Andy, he had created an exception to the process. However, the way in which he explained the exception, or the lack thereof, he inadvertently created a whole new process. The Operations team ended up with two processes, the written one; but the unwritten, informal process was the path of least resistance. Naturally, people will choose the seemingly easier, faster way of finishing a job. Understandably, Andy felt frustrated. He never meant to create an alternate policy. The brief statement he had made at the end of a long day, six months ago, created a major exception to a critical process.

Later, after the meeting, Andy sat in his office and reflected upon how events had transpired. He realized that a simple conversation that took place when he was extremely tired had created a new process. He wondered how many new processes he had created over the last six months, not to mention how many informal processes the company had developed, overall. Yet, the stark reality was that the company had developed so many informal processes that it became difficult to remember what actual policy was and what was not. The confusion created a considerable accountability gap throughout the company.

Leaders often wonder why their teams lack accountability. Sometimes it may be a result of their own words or actions. Effective Leaders must be conscious of the context in which they are speaking. Are they providing a temporary solution to an immediate problem or could someone interpret it as a general solution to a common problem? Words have a lot of power, especially in a leadership role. As we learned from Andy, a short, seemingly innocuous conversation at the end of a long day, turned into a major change in company policy. The process of the completion schedule prior to breaking ground was a key activity for Birdie. The process helped them develop a great reputation and kept them profitable, too. Yet, it all changed in a 10-minute conversation at the end of a 14-hour day.

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4 Responses to Accountability Gaps from Process Exceptions

  1. A Tobin October 26, 2018 at 4:16 pm #

    Reminds me of a talk I heard about the “normalization of deviance” in which the exception becomes the rule. To keep with the accountability theme, the process deviation is normalized through a feedback loop that is too long (e.g., six months) or altogether absent.
    I’m reading this post coming off of the annual audit of our Quality Management System, and it reminds me of the value of having an outside entity examine whether you really do what you say with respect to your company’s core processes. The QMS and regular audits give direct reports/supports the ability to hold their leaders accountable because their leaders, who are likely process owners, have written and/or approved of the documented processes.
    Though it wasn’t the main point of the post, Andy highlights that there’s a kind of “problem-solving” that receives praise but isn’t ultimately effective (i.e, for the long-term) because it fails to deal with root cause.
    Thanks for posting!

    • David Chavez October 31, 2018 at 2:33 pm #

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Ryan Peterson October 28, 2018 at 6:12 pm #

    Great article David! As a firm that has experienced rapid growth, we have suffered from this very thing from time to time. Thank you!

  3. David Chavez October 31, 2018 at 2:36 pm #

    Thank you for your comment Ryan. I have dealt with this over and over again. Every so often we need to see if we’re not following our processes.