Can You Spot the 5 Responsibility Runarounds?

Aug. 23, 2011
Lean 'leaders' who engage in these tactics will cripple a change initiative.

Are you trying to implement or perpetuate a lean initiative? If you are, I can tell you with certainty that you will not succeed without great leadership. It will take great leadership to guide your company through the minefields of change.

By leadership, I do not mean management. By leadership, I mean that all-too-rare combination of abounding initiative coupled with the ability to create a vision, the ability to sell that vision and the ability to motivate the personnel to execute that vision.

True leaders have a rare combination of personal traits that include a strong personality balanced with their own sense of fallibility.

They have tremendous courage, yet are very humble.

They have an innate ability to act, yet are introspective and listen to a wide range of persons before they act.

These traits and more are required so leaders can respond both to the changing external environment and the changing internal environment.

In a phrase: To be successful, your leadership must be responsible.

In the short-term, it is often difficult to tell if your leadership is really successful -- if it is guiding the ship in the correct direction. External environmental conditions sometimes make it very easy to be profitable.

In these times it is hard to tell if the company is doing well because of the leadership or in spite of the leadership. The greatest tests of leadership are exhibited when the leadership must guide the company in times of peril and crises.

The Big Derail

However, even in the absence of peril and crises, there are always "signs" indicating that your leadership is not responding well.

For example, how does your leadership respond to failures and bad news from everyday, routine activities?

Are these smaller problems met with open, honest data-based evaluations and dialogue leading to the appropriate acceptance of responsibility and corrective actions?

Or do these issues routinely get derailed by the "Big Five Responsibility Runarounds"?

The Big 5 RRs are sometimes subtle, sometime not-so-subtle, techniques used to avoid the responsibility of facing these "failures." The Big 5 RRs, with some of their characteristic traits, are:

  • Denial. When people are in denial, you will hear such talk such as: "The upset was not really an upset at all"; "It was not really our fault"; or "It could not have been avoided." Inattentional blindness and other phenomena feed our ability to deny the existence of problems -- even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Never underestimate the power of the human ego to use denial. This is the most powerful and most pervasive technique of the Big 5.
  • Avoidance. This is used when you have a known problem that is largely ignored or grossly minimized in importance. Managers with a "current shiny halo" benefit frequently from this technique. Avoidance is the skill employed to completely dodge dealing with the elephant in the middle of the room no one wants to acknowledge. Using this technique, problems are simply swept under the rug.
  • Rationalization. When we rationalize we only create "rational lies." This occurs when the words used to explain away the problem defy logic. Yet these same words seem to sound good to those who are rationalizing. There is no end to the possibilities with rationalizations; we are limited only by our imagination in the ways we can come up with excuses to "rationally lie" our way out of accepting responsibility. I believe Benjamin Franklin said, "He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else." Such is the case with the rational liar. Frequently those with a little distance from the problem can readily spot the rationalizations.
  • Projection. This is blaming someone else for your deficiencies. It is always "them other guys." The problems are "out there," never "in here."
  • Idealization. This is the problem of being so close to a situation and so invested in it that you cannot see any of its flaws or failings -- much like the idealizations you might have of your children. Idealization is used to convince ourselves and others that "we could not possibly create this problem. Our systems are just too robust, and after all, this has never happened before."

Often Unconsciously Employed

These techniques are used for some responsibility runaround, some "lack of acceptance" of responsibility. What makes them so dangerous is that they often are unconsciously employed.

Consequently, they can be used with a high degree of passion and even a high degree of sincerity. But make no mistake about it: Being sincere and being passionate about a topic does not make it correct.

When people employ any of the Big 5 RRs, they simply are dodging their responsibilities.

The Big 5 RRs are ubiquitous. Even the most dispassionate and analytical of us uses them from time to time, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. In the hands of someone with no power, these techniques are not too damaging to others. They simply allow people who use them to "save face," sometime just with themselves but other times with their coworkers.

Unfortunately, when the Big 5 Responsibility Runarounds are used by those in power, entire organizations get completely upset and cease to function normally.

When the powerful folks (leadership and management) avoid their responsibilities, someone else must fill the insidious responsibility void that is left behind or nothing gets done. Unfortunately this, by definition, places someone with the responsibility -- but not the power -- to resolve the problem.

Responsibility without attendant power is a perfect prescription for failure. First, there will be a failure of the issue at hand; later there will be long-term failure as it becomes less and less clear who is really in charge. If this responsibility runaround persists, it becomes less and less clear how people are supposed to behave. The entire organization takes on an uncertainty both in decision-making and in action that is always damaging and possibly crippling.

What is the Remedy?

What is the antidote to this problem of responsibility runarounds?

Any problem is half solved if it is first recognized. So you, as a leader, must make yourself aware of the telltale signs of any of the Big 5.

At first, the Big 5 may be so commonplace in your culture that they dont seem out of place. Using the guide presented earlier in the article, ask yourself if you are thinking clearly, or is the problem being displaced through denial, avoidance, rationalization, projection or idealization?

You will be surprised how effective this self-questioning can be -- if you are really honest with yourself. And as soon as one of the Big 5 is recognized, it must be shot on sight.

Second, those in the titular positions of responsibility must be ready, willing and able to respond.

They must be ready, willing and able to accept the attendant responsibilities of leadership.

They must be able to recognize when change is needed or when thoughtful lack-of-change is appropriate. (Deming would say they need to recognize normal variation from special cause-variation.)

Finally, they must initiate the actions that will appropriately guide the company through the needed changes, using the company vision to establish the direction and the company values to guide the needed decisions.

It may seem almost trite to say that responsibility is a main requirement to be a leader. But go back and critically and carefully evaluate if your leadership is ready, willing and able to always accept the responsibility inherent in good leadership. If they are, you are learning the correct way to lead. So count your blessings and model their behavior.

If, on the other hand, they are too skilled at executing the 5 Big Responsibility Runarounds, learn from that as well. You will learn what not to do. Either way, you observe, you learn and you come out stronger. You will become a more effective leader.

Pleasant leadership thoughts to all.

Lonnie Wilson has been teaching and implementing lean and other culture-changing techniques for more than 40 years. His book, "How To Implement Lean Manufacturing" was released in August 2009. His new book on "How to Lead and Manage a Lean Facility" is under construction and will go to print in the third quarter of 2011. Wilson is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. In addition to IndustryWeek, he has published articles in Quality Digest and is a frequent contributor to iSixSigma magazine. His manufacturing experience spans 20 years with Chevron, where he held a number of management positions. In 1990 he founded Quality Consultants,, which teaches and applies lean and other culture-changing techniques to small entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 firms, principally in the United States, Mexico and Canada. In particular, he specializes in "lean revitalizations," assisting firms that have failed or failing lean implementations and want to "do it right." You can e-mail Lonnie Wilson at [email protected].

See Also: Cheerleader or Lean Leader

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