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Lean in to Accountability

Dear Crucial Skills,

For years I have used Lean to improve the work my healthcare lab does. Before anyone is hired, I explain this and tell them that they will hear about every error, no matter how small, every day, so we can continually improve processes and prevent errors.

As a result, we have come a long way and I am proud of the work we do for employees and patients. But I still have people who respond poorly to feedback and who only want to hear about chronic or dire issues.

I sympathize and try to be as gentle as I can, and I share reasons why catching and correcting even small errors is important. And yet I’m often met with a sullen “I’m only human.”

How can I hold my team members to high standards and validate them so they don’t become disgruntled? Do you have any advice?

Feedback Fatigue

Dear Feedback Fatigue,

Thank you for your question. It’s great that you have seen success as you have applied Lean principles in your healthcare lab work. And even more impressive is the fact that you too are following the fundamental principle of Lean by trying to continuously improve.

To borrow a phrase popularized by Sheryl Sandberg in her bestselling book, I’d like to share a few ideas to help you “lean in” to accountability. These ideas aren’t necessarily new or groundbreaking, but they’re reminders of simple leadership practices that will increase your influence if followed. After all, isn’t influence what leadership is all about?

Inspire Action

For those who know me, it is no secret that I am a huge fan of Simon Sinek. One of my favorite books of his is often referenced by its title: Start with Why. But people rarely reference the subtitle: “How Great Leaders Inspire People to Take Action.” The subtitle gives us the why behind starting with why. One way to influence others is to inspire them. Inspire means to fill someone with the urge to do something or help them “see” an important truth or idea.

So, how can you inspire your team?

Establishing expectations is a key ingredient to leadership. And it’s important that you inform your new hires of your focus on continuous improvement and your commitment to feedback. However, it’s equally important that you share why you are doing so. One of my favorite quotes from Sinek’s book is “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”

Your people won’t “buy” the process of continuous improvement or feedback unless they know why you are doing it. If they’re aware of your why, your feedback becomes proof of what you believe. One way to express your why is to share stories that illustrate the value and importance of the behaviors. As highlighted in our Influencer Assessment, storytelling is a powerful way to emphasize your why and engage people in the desired behavior.

A story is essentially this: a character pursues a goal, encounters obstacles or challenges along the way, and, in facing those challenges, learns an important lesson. This lesson turns out to be far more valuable than the original goal sought.

In other words, a story highlights the moral and human reasons—the whys—for a specified behavior or principle. A story gives us the insight that follows from having learned a hard lesson, vicariously.

So, do you have some stories you can share with your team that would highlight the moral and human values behind the behaviors you want them to adopt?

Seek a Shared Understanding

Over the years I’ve learned that perception and language can dramatically influence how we engage and work with others. I’m reminded of the sayings “Your perception is your reality” and “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” Our intended meaning can often get lost by the way it is perceived or in the words that we use.

The LEAN mentality relies on a belief of “continuous” improvement. That leads to “continuous” feedback. The word continuous connotes multiple meanings. For some it means constant, all the time, without a break. While for others it may mean ongoing or regularly. You may be getting some resistance because your employees perceive that the feedback is constant or never ceasing.

Have a conversation about continuous improvement and continuous feedback. Invite your team members to share how they understand these ideas. Coming to a shared understanding will help you and your team members communicate better and resolve disagreements on this matter should they arise.

You might also batch your feedback so it doesn’t feel so continuous. Rather than correcting mistakes in the moment, try sharing feedback during your one-on-ones or in team meetings. This may help overcome any feelings that you are correcting or being critical “all the time.”

Make It a Cultural Norm

Creating a culture of feedback requires that feedback flow in all directions. Teach people how to hold themselves, others, and you accountable. Encourage team members to support one another by providing feedback as they observe misses. Also, make it clear that you welcome feedback, and others will be more open to receiving yours. Multi-directional feedback is key to a culture of accountability. Our ebook Mind the Gap is a good resource for learning more about this.

Finally, since accountability is about helping others perform to their best, recognize when they do. That is not to say you aren’t, but a reminder to recognize good performance and not only correct poor performance. Recognizing positive performance can go a long way—even with the small stuff.

These are just a few thoughts. I hope they are helpful.


What else could Feedback Fatigue do? Tell us in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Lean in to Accountability”

  1. John Gay

    I appreciate Feedback Fatigue’s frustration and suggest some reframing might relieve it a bit. The comment “I’m only human’ may be an important clue that something in a process isn’t sufficiently human-proof, at least wasn’t for that human at that time. Stress, distraction, lack of sleep, worry and many other things result in high variance within as well as that between us. Where to start? Start with the old aphorism “Any idiot can build a bridge that stands, but it takes an engineer to build a bridge that barely stands” in mind. How do we build processes that are barely but sufficiently idiot proof but resource efficient? Many medical systems go overboard that way, flashing false-positive error signals to competent humans so frequently that the chicken little phenomenon occurs, resulting in the signal being ignored when it is truly an error. But from a cynical perspective, at a high human cost the organization has CYA’d itself by having a system with high sensitivity but poor specificity in place. Ask anyone involved in delivering direct care. So don’t do that. Instead, consider the lessons from W. Edwards Deming’s and from aviation and take a hard look at that particular process. How can it be re-engineered to improve its human-proofness but retain it’s efficiency? I’d start by asking the individual making the comment if they have ideas and then move on to others knowledgeable of the process, asking them to put their heads together to engineer a solution, keeping the bridge aphorism in mind. Was it one of those rare events, such as being unexpectedly served with divorce papers or receiving news of the unexpected death of a family member that put this individual off their game for that day. Or is something in the process in need of tweaking to improve its human proofness? Or does the process need a complete redesign? With the goal of maintaining efficiency, how? With some reframing, the comment could be a starting point for the LEAN process.

  2. JennyG

    While correcting – and avoiding – errors is critical to many processes, it sounds like your feedback process does not include enough acknowledgement of and reward for successful behaviors. In fact, affirming and building on people’s strengths has been proven to go a lot farther than focusing on correcting their weaknesses. If an error can cause serious problems, then the system itself must contain double-checks, perhaps by another person or working group. But showing respect to your employees or reports constantly will increase morale, productivity and their professional growth. Explore with them what their personal and professional goals are and how they might best achieve them, rather than constantly nit-picking over stuff they probably recognize themselves and even care about. Yes, they are human, so make the most of that!

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