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Accountability in the Workplace

Jason Van Wyhe Jan 21, 2020
worker being disciplined by his supervisor

As a former of boss of mine used to say, you need 3 things to be successful in business: Focus, Urgency, and Accountability.  Accountability is one of the foundations of any successful organization.  Yet in today's society, it has become a dirty word.  Many organizations look to tools such as lean for a way around accountability, yet this is the wrong approach.  This is equivalent to building your house on quicksand; no matter how strong the house, eventually it will collapse without strong footings.  Thus if you want to be successful, you must first be sure you are holding your employees and staff accountable.

Accountability is a topic that is almost never addressed in lean manufacturing discussions, yet it is an issue I find in many job shop workplaces.  If you apply the theory of constraints to your business, people are often one of your biggest constraints.  While being under-staffed and under-skilled are also major problems due to today's tight labor market, one of the biggest constraints is under-performance of the people you already have.

So one of the first things I do on a new assignment is go into HR and ask the manager, "How often are people held accountable for not being productive?"  Safety?  Quality?  Often the answer is never.  If you never hold your people accountable, productivity will fall along with quality, safety incidents rise, and moral sag among your productive workers.

What is Accountability?

Accountability is simply the act of taking responsibility for your area of influence.  If you are a machine operator, your area of influence is your machine and the immediate area around it, product produced, and the manner it is produced.  If you are a Quality manager, your area of influence is the quality of all products and processes in your plant.  If you are a plant manager, you are responsible for everything that happens in your operation.

But what if external suppliers are late?  Or engineering doesn't deliver drawings on time?  Or if the customer changes delivery dates?  It doesn't matter, EVERYTHING in the plant is the plant managers responsibility.

One of the best books I've read on this subject is by a former navy seal titled Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink

Types of Accountability

So what are the types of accountability found in a manufacturing plant?  Here are some examples:

Production accountability

Each person needs to be accountable for the amount of work they produce.  One can always find reasons or excuses as to why they do not accomplish more, both at work and in personal life.  But we need to overcome these to produce at a level that makes the company money, or in reality, the company is better without us.  In job shops, it is difficult to measure this because of the day-to-day variations and levels of work.  But if looked at on a long enough scale, everyone needs to pull their own weight.

Production accountability doesn't just apply to shop floor employees either.  Office staff spending their afternoons on facebook instead of doing the reports required or supporting the shop floor are every bit as guilty.


Due to the disjointed nature of flow and the different routings product can take, it is very easy to pass bad quality on to the next process in a job shop.  While it is easy to demand a quality hold point be installed everywhere, that is often unneeded and unrealistic.  Operators need to be held accountable for the quality of what the produce.  This doesn't just involve corrective disciplinary action; it can mean things like first article operator inspections or lead checks.  One of my favorites is to force operators to repair their own mistakes; nothing improves quality faster.

Quality is very important in your office as well, and is in fact one of the most neglected areas of quality accountability.  Drawings need to be accurate, usable, and on-time. Material releases need to have the correct information on them.  Data needs to be up-to-date, accurate, and securely stored.  You get the picture.  How do you expect your shop floor employees to be accountable if you don't hold your controllers, drafters, or materials group accountable?

Cost Accountability

Many job shops have higher margins on work than conventional manufacturing because you can generally charge more for custom work.  However, that's no excuse for not keeping expenses down.  Some culprits include:

  • Buying excessive material that cannot be reused on other jobs
  • MRO waste
  • Not getting competitve quotes
  • Excessive shipping costs due to poor planning
  • Unneeded travel
  • Not doing your due diligence on capital projects


Everyone is responsible for your safety culture.  Do workers walk past unsafe acts every day and not tell their co-workers or report the hazards to management?  Do supervisors force workers to do things unsafely for the sake of production?  Does senior management avoid expenditures on known issues just to save money?

Unfortunately, safety has a way of forcing itself into the limelight when someone gets hurt.  We are always looking for the root cause so it doesn't happen again, but often the real root cause is that your organization does not have the discipline required for a strong safety culture because of a lack of accountability.

So How Do You Hold People Accountable?

The answer to this is surprisingly simple, yet often poorly executed.  Focus. Focus your efforts on your low producers, not on the group as a whole.  I can't tell you how many times I have seen a manager send out a blanket email to everyone about a problem, or verbally chastise the whole group.  Stop it.

Focusing your accountability efforts on the worst offenders really does work.  Trust me, if you take disciplinary action against the real problems, your marginal employees will see this and fall in line, and your top producers will think "finally".

One of my favorite tools to hold people accountable is to create a simple spreadsheet, and rank yout staff according to 4 criteria: Top Producers, Marginal, Below Average, or Support.  Here is a breakdown of each:

Top Producers (Super Stars)

You really have to do nothing to your top producers except thank them for their efforts, and point them in the right direction.  Your biggest challenge with this group is usually finding enough challenging work to keep them intellectually stimulated.  If they need additional support, they will generally tell you what they need.

Marginal (White Rice)

These employees do enough work to "make their numbers", but are capable of more.  They tend to be strongly influenced by their environments.  They are often called "white rice", because much like white rice they take on the flavor of the foods around them.  If your workplace is hard working, they will work hard.  If no one is held accountable, they will do as little as necessary to avoid attention.  These people need to be monitored and held accountable when they fall out of line, and constantly motivated.

Below Average (Sink or Swim)

These folks have all the tools needed to succeed, but not the desire.  They often are experienced employees, and have attitudes as poor as their work ethic.  Focus your accountability efforts here.  I often label them as sink or swim - whether they stay a part of your organization is up to them.  Their performance issues should be clearly outlined for them, and a plan to bring their performance up-to-par put in place.

Support (New Employees)

This group of employees are the exact opposite of the previous group; they have the desire to succeed, but not the tools.  They are often new employees, slow learners, need additional skills, or need a mentor.  They show some promise, but aren't quite up to where you need them yet.  These are the people you invest in to bring up their performance.

Once you have everyone ranked, go after the low performers.  Let them know they have been identified as such, and what the expectation is.  Build personal improvement plans for them.  If they don't succeed in the given time frame, or are at least not trending in the right direction, cut your loses and move on.  It is always difficult to terminate people, but it is even more difficult long term not to.


Accountability is one of the key tennants of a well-run business.  Without it, all your continuous improvement activities will fail, and your business will never achieve the success it is capable of.


actions, performance, accountability, discipline, control, workplace, production, quality, safety, cost, ownership, responsibility, jocko willink

Jason Van Wyhe

Jason Van Wyhe has over 22 year management experience in variety of job shop environments ranging from Fortune 500 corporations down to local machine shops. He is a student of continuous improvement and developing innovative ways of eliminating waste.

Want to learn more about implementing lean and continuous improvement in a job shop environment?  You've come to the right place.  Job Shop Lean Manufacturing is dedicated to implementing continuous improvement in a job shop environment... READ ABOUT US


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