Accountability in a Lean Environment

In our high performance team model we refer to “Accountability for Business Performance”. But what exactly is “Accountability”? And how can it contribute to, or detract from, business performance?

One way is to define Accountability is through the RACI Model (Responsible; Accountable; Consulted; Informed): 

Accountable = the person who is accountable for the correct and thorough completion of the task. This person delegates work and is the last one to review the task or deliverable before it's deemed complete. This must be one person and is often the project executive or project sponsor.

Another way of describing it is in terms of the relationship between obligation and reward/punishment: if you do what you are accountable for, you are rewarded; if you don’t, you are punished. A little harsh, maybe, but clear.

While both of these definitions are useful in context, they can also be counter-productive where the “accountable” person feels they have no options.

So how can we help people see options?

We like to talk about accountability from a more enabling and empowering perspective: changing the emphasis from “what can I do?” to “what can I do?” Same words, but an entirely different meaning. And an entirely different energy.

When we use the term “Individual Accountability”, we are referring to the ability for an individual to see themself in the objectives of the organization and to find ways of contributing towards the attainment of these objectives. There might not be a single perfect solution to do so (as we are oft searching for), but there might be one or more partial solutions that at least move the yardsticks forward. Which is entirely consistent with the Lean principle of continuous improvement: identify a problem; come up with an idea that might help; test it; if it works, bake it into the process; come up with another idea that might help; test it; if it works, bake it in; and repeat and repeat ...

We draw on a number of sources for our material, but principally we are inspired by the “Above the Line / Below the Line” model described in The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability, by Hickman, Smith and Connors.

Simply put, “Above the Line” responses are pro-active and productive in nature; “Below the Line” responses are reactive and less productive in nature. In our parlance, being “Above the Line” is about doing what I can do; whereas being “Below the Line” is about feeling there is nothing I can do. We suggest – however imperfect it might be – there is always something we can do. That thought alone can be inspiring. So, let’s be/stay/go Above the Line as much as we can!

In this content area, we cover:

  • The Above/Below the Line Model: what is it? How do we know when we are Below the Line? Why do we go Below the Line, and why is it a problem?
  • When we are Below the Line, how do we get back Above the Line?
  • How do we help someone else get back Above the Line?
  • How do we distinguish long-term patterns of falling Below the Line (usually for the same underlying reason) and what can we do to avoid going Below the Line in the first place in such circumstances?

Connors, R., Smith, T., Hickman, C. (2010) The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability. Portfolio

Responsibility assignment matrix. (2004, September 6) In Wikpedia.


  • One-hour talk
  • Group/team 1/2 day workshop and a 2-hour follow-up session on: the Above the Line/Below the Line model: how to recognize when you are/someone else is Below the Line and what you can do about it; an in-depth self-evaluation of what drives me Below the Line – and what I can do about it


Telling someone they are “below the line” is not usually a useful strategy. When suggesting someone is not reacting well in the moment it may well trigger defensive behaviour-- which will only make it worse!

Instead, doing the following could help them get back “above the line” quicker:

  1. Don’t feed the negative emotion, but do empathize that a genuine feeling of frustration – and maybe fear – exists
  2. Ask empowering questions to help reframe the situation such that the person:
    1. Reflects on how they might have contributed to the problem; and
    2. Begins to see options for what they can do next
  3. Support, but don’t take ownership for the person getting back “above the line”.