Rather than Blaming Employees, Managers Must Take Responsibility for Problems – in a Taco Joint, a Hospital, or a Factory

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Eight years ago today, I published a piece originally on LinkedIn as part of their “Influencers” series:

Rather than Blaming Employees, Managers Must Take Responsibility for Problems – in a Taco Joint, a Hospital, or a Factory

Here is the full text of that piece:

When any organization has quality problems or safety problems, this is clearly (to me) the responsibility of leaders and managers. When you're the boss, you are (like it or not) responsible for everything that happens in your organization, whether it's a restaurant, a factory, or a hospital. Sadly, many leaders think they can get away with blaming their employees when things go wrong. This behavior doesn't improve quality or safety.

My wife and I were about to go to a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio last weekend. We had been there once before and it was decent, if not good – but not great. More importantly, it was located pretty close to other places we needed to go on Sunday. My wife was looking up their hours online and, thankfully, found a report of a bad health department inspection (read here).

The news story said the restaurant:

… failed their inspection with 41 demerits.

A year ago this month, they failed with 51 demerits. Some of things that were a problem last April were a problem again.

What were some of these problems?

  • Refrigerator at too high of a temperature
  • Blood from raw meat dripping down into flour
  • Moldy cutting boards

None of these problems are invisible. There's really no excuse for any of those problems happening, ever. If a restaurant hires well, trains well, ensures employees have safe food handling certifications, and manages well, these problems would never occur.

As Dr. W. Edwards Deming said, “quality starts in the boardroom” or the top of an organization – in this case, the owner.

What's even worse is the owner and the manager of the restaurant did not correct serious problems found a year ago. Or the problems were “fixed” (in the short term) but were allowed to pop up again. Yuck. We would have never eaten there, had we known (and we found another restaurant that day).

As we see on TV shows like “Kitchen Nightmares” and “Bar Rescue,” these types of problems occur and fester due to a lack of leadership, plain and simple. You have absentee owners or weak leaders who don't look for problems or they just ignore them. These owners either don't see the problems (because they aren't looking) or they just don't know what to look for.

Sometimes TV cameras and a screaming guy show up – sometimes it's the health inspectors.

Back to the news article about our local restaurant:

The manager confirms that many of the same problems exist and he's called another all-hands-on-deck meeting to get the staff on the same page. He says their re-inspection was last week and went well.

This sounds like he is blaming the staff. Why weren't they “on the same page” to begin with? This is the owner's responsibility and the manager's duty. Did a manager get fired? What is the owner going to do to improve the system? They had one good inspection… but will the improvements last? Will people slip back into old bad habits?

If they had an “all-hands-on-deck meeting” before and quality didn't improve, why will this work this time?

Quality starts at the top because leaders are responsible for the design of the system. This includes hiring, training, and supervision – along with making sure people are aligned with the mission and values of the organization. Do employees feel appreciated? Do they have the time to do their work the right way or is the organization understaffed and overburdened

If you have a bad system and you fire all of the workers… you'll still have a bad system.

We often see similar things in healthcare, where the stakes can also be a matter of life or death (with outcomes worse than food poisoning). If you recall the case of the actor Dennis Quaid's twins being harmed by a preventable medication error at the famed Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, leaders blamed employees for systemic problems.

The Chief Medical Officer said:

This was a preventable error, involving a failure to follow our standard policies and procedures, and there is no excuse for that to occur at Cedars-Sinai.

“There's no excuse”? There are plenty of “excuses” (or reasons or causes), including poorly designed work processes and a lack of understanding of human factors that led to multiple nurses making the same mistake with the same babies. The nurses gave an adult-dose medication to the neonatal ICU patients… a medication that wasn't even supposed to be there. So, the pharmacy made errors and nurses didn't catch an error that they weren't expecting could even happen (and the bottles of the two different medicines were very similar shades of blue… especially with the caps off and in a dark room at 2 am).

As one employee (at a different hospital) told me recently, “We aren't given the tools we need to do our job and then we get blamed for the problems that result.”

Far too often, when leaders talk about “accountability” and “holding people accountable,” they mean they are going to blame and punish employees. When problems are caused by systemic factors and poor processes, leaders need to look in the mirror and take actions that only they can take to improve the system.

As the great Paul O'Neill said (when he was CEO) after an Alcoa worker was killed in an accident:

“We're the leaders. Leaders are responsible for everything in an organization–especially what goes wrong. We killed him.”

Do you see examples in your own work where individuals are blamed for system problems? What actions do leaders take? Do you see leaders shirking or pawning off their own responsibility? Do these actions lead to improvement or do we need to try something new?

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

3 Comments
  1. William Pietri says

    That reminds me of this bit from Confucius:

    “They wishing a tranquil and happy kingdom, first ordered well their own States. Wishing to order well then their States, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed. Their States being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.”

  2. Rafael Castillo says

    I recently had a conversation with a client about why an employee was under performing. The supervisor explained everything the employee was doing wrong. I asked the following questions:

    Has the employee been properly trained for the task?

    Have you provided the right expectations for the task?

    What was the results when you followed with the employee about his performance? What is his improvement plan? Have you confronted the employee about any past performance issues?

    Many of the answers he replied was “No”. I coached the supervisor that if the employee is not managed correctly, then the employee is not the problem, “YOU” are the problem. The problems are somewhere in the organizational change. The next question I asked “Can we fix this now!”.

  3. Harry Conner says

    I worked with a supervisor once that was complaining about an employee not doing his job. He had written this employee up twice for not meeting takt time and was about to issue his final warning. I asked him “have you evaluated his cycle time to see if the job can be done within the takt time” he said “I don’t need to; he can do it; he’s done it before.” So I did the time study only to find out that the operator was 30 seconds over takt time. This was after doing the job for a month. Looking at the person next to him, he was under takt time by 2 minutes. I agree if there are problems in a process, blaming the employee does not solve anything. Doing the due diligence of a manager is what fixes problems.

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