Which way to accountability?

The employee looked even more confused than the customer.

“I’m not sure where that department is,” he said. “I’m new here, and…”

“Maybe I can help,” I interjected. “What are you looking for?”

They told me the department – rather far away from mine. “No problem,” I said. “Follow me.”

Even though it might have made me late for a meeting, this kind of scenario is explicitly approved by my workplace. We are supposed to jump in and help – even if it means we’re late for something else. It’s obvious why, too. The new employee was visibly relieved, and the customer was thrilled, saying “It’s been a long time since I had service like that!”

I think this is one aspect of responsibility and accountability that Seth Godin was talking about yesterday. Even though that customer will never be in my department, they will not make that distinction.

But that’s the easy part.

The other aspect – the one that Seth explicitly talks about – is when someone in another department drops the ball. And that part is a little bit more difficult.

My department – or “fiefdom” as Seth calls it – is not under my control. I’m a worker bee, not a supervisor. Any complaints I get about another department go to my supervisor. But even if I was a supervisor, I would still have to channel any complaints through another supervisor (or two, or three) until it finally got to the appropriate department.

I can, of course, do what I can to fix an immediate problem. When the problem is still there, I’ve been able to intercede on a patient’s behalf with another department. But there is very little I can do about a past problem like the ones Seth is talking about.

This isn’t to minimize Seth’s observation or complaint – he’s absolutely correct. The actions of one person in a company reflects on all people in that company. The positive side of that is easy to do. In a flattened hierarchy it might even be easy to deal with the negative elements as well.

But what solutions are there for those of us working for companies that have a traditional hierarchy? When we solve that problem, I think all of us – employees and customers alike – will benefit.

Until then, I can only keep giving directions.

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