Beating the Blame Game

Kevin Herring | HBMA

Staff shouldn’t take all the blame.

I recently worked with a seriously cynical supervisor (an accounting manager) who swore he had really smart employees. The problem: They kept making mistakes and falling behind on their work.

The manager’s first inclination was to deal with the problem by paying incentives for fewer mistakes, reallocating work between staff, and replacing his worst employees as soon as he could. He didn’t consider that maybe his employees were doing all they could and that the system was the culprit all along – that is until he dug deeper. That’s when he realized his staff shouldn’t take all the blame and instituted a system that can be applied to any company with broken processes.

The manager and staff asked for help discovering what caused their biggest headaches and found broken work systems were at least partly to blame. They grouped them into three problem areas.

Problem #1. Each staff member had a different idea about who was going to do what. Staff members were shocked that fingers pointed to them when a project was dropped, a deadline was missed, or a critical call to a client wasn’t made.

Problem #2. When the manager and staff agreed to procedures, they didn’t account for the unexpected. So, exceptions piled up in the manager’s inbox waiting for the manager to decide what to do with them. Because they were buried in his pile, the manager often didn’t know about urgencies until clients got upset.

Problem #3. Sometimes a second or third accountant needed to help with a project. When that happened, whoever was handing it off to the next accountant tended to figuratively “throw it over the wall” and assume it was taken care of.

Unfortunately, the other accountants often had no idea a project was waiting for them until clients asked where their data or reports were.

The team attacked these problems by looking for ways to fix their broken work processes and systems.

First, the manager met with staff to prioritize services they provided according to resources required, ROI, and constituent needs. Since it would take a while to work through every process, they wanted to start with the most critical ones first. The manager charged staff members with most of the work so they would own improvements they came up with.

Second, staff members mapped their workflows. They looked for ways to streamline processes, attacking both actual and potential process bottlenecks and redundancies. They tried to account for unusual and unexpected situations so in-process work would “hang” less often. They clarified who would be accountable for each step and that everyone was accountable for the end result. Again, to support staff ownership, staff members drew each final process map and selected a process champion to coordinate future tweaks.

Third, staff created systems to regulate each process step and make sure everything went according to plan. They automated as much as possible using technology. When they couldn’t, they built in reminders and quality checks like alarms, checklists, and speech balloons that cut down on mistakes, missed steps, and missed deadlines.

Last, they reviewed each staff member’s roles and accountabilities, including what each would do to make the changes, and they made sure any anticipated problems had well-planned responses.

It was a great plan developed from a reliable process. But as they say, the devil is in the details. After creating their plan, they had to grapple with the hard work of personal change and successfully executing it. That’s when things can get tough.

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