Change managers know perfectly well that cultural change cannot take place without leadership. This is because cultural change demands that people take accountability for, and ownership of, their own change. Consequently the intention to change culture is often where leadership begins to develop.  For, how can leaders deliver change when accountability and ownership turn out to be weak or, worse, absent?

Leadership, ownership and accountability: a desperate call

This was the situation I faced as a change practitioner in a chemical factory in Johannesburg (South Africa). We needed to take our plant off line at frequent intervals for proactive maintenance, in order to avoid unplanned shutdowns and breakdowns that cost millions in production losses. Meeting the pre-defined shutdown turnaround time seemed to be an impossible challenge.

The scheduled turnaround time was 18 days, from shutdown to completing the work and recommencing production. Yet the best the plant could ever achieve was 21 days, which meant at least 3 days of additional production loss at every shutdown.  This unsatisfactory situation demanded a change!

Start seeking the answer by asking ‘Who’?

The plant manager investigated and eliminated all possible technical causes for the bottlenecks but found his efforts made no difference. Consequently, he concluded that he needed to investigate the people side of operations. He found that people were not communicating well and often were not at their posts as expected, and were unreachable on their two-way radios. All this apparently contributed to the overall 3-day delay. The plant manager decided that a lack of accountability and ownership lay at the heart of the problem. In his opinion, people did not see themselves as accountable for doing what was required to get the shutdown completed in the allocated 18 days. Determined to remedy this, he began by identifying who could help bring about this change.

Several maintenance departments (electrical, mechanical and instrumentation) were responsible for turning the plant around in time. The lack of accountability had to begin there. Consequently, the 24-people management team, which was ultimately accountable for the plant’s performance and efficiency, were the ones needed to make the change stick.

Tools to measure the culture of the organization

In order to get a better understanding of the problem and to gauge the entropy, the management decided to use Barrett Values Centre™ tools to measure the culture of the plant. This assessment identifies the mismatches between the desired company values and those of employees, beginning with the principle that leaders provide the role model that shapes the culture.

The organization decided it was time to deploy a Cultural Ambassadors program and, as a certified ambassador, this is where my help was called in. The Barrett Model culture diagnostic provided useful insights that became the first data point to address the perceived problem. It still, however, had to be unpacked to unearth the potential behaviors that led to this poor shutdown performance.

One thing I know for sure: the diagnostic confirmed that accountability was a problem in the plant. Thus a conversation about accountability became the first step in the search for the solution.

Ownership and leadership dilemma: a chemical industry case scenario

Time to start our search for accountability issues

After being briefed by the plant manager, we reached an agreement to develop a workshop where the main topic — and possible solution to our issues — was accountability. The top 24 leaders of the operations were invited to our workshop, which was built on the results of the Barrett values assessment.

During the workshop, many examples were quoted about where accountability in this operation was evident and where not, and the team wrestled to find the actual roots of the problem. Then the conversation focused on the values assessment results, which indicated accountability as key in personal values and critical as a desired organizational value, even though this was not manifest in the organizational behavior.

After a while, I decided to stop all this conversation about others not taking accountability, and asked why I hadn’t heard a single I yet.

“In the past hour and a half, how many times did anyone of you use the word I? I heard many yous and theys and thems, perhaps the odd we but not a single I?”

The room went silent, you could hear a pin drop! And I followed up with another question: “It was THIS leadership team and none other than you who participated in the values assessment process. So, who were you then referring to when you stated that accountability did not show up strongly in the present culture?” Still there was silence.

We broke the silence

The root of the problem had been discovered. The leaders themselves were guilty of blaming and finding fault, without conducting crucial conversations, providing constructive feedback and managing consequences. The change was born! The HR Vice President was approached and the project launched to drive three critical cultural changes:

  1. Consequence management
  2. Accountability
  3. Ownership and involvement

The change was born, what happened next?

A few months later, after implementing the leadership development stream, the basics of management effectiveness, creating a more unified culture and forming a union partnership, supported by a Change Management stream, the shutdown turnaround times were met.

For this to have happened it was imperative that the behavior of people was addressed. But first the leaders had to realize that accountability at leadership level lay at the root of the challenge. This could not have been identified upfront, and only the confrontation process unveiled the issues that would unlock this problem.

Once the leadership team discovered their own dilemma, they could start working with their own sense of accountability, unlocking the key to all change processes.

The leadership was now able to drive a change because they believed in it.