What is a KPI Owner Accountable For?

by Stacey Barr |

If you think performance will improve by holding people accountable for hitting targets, you’re wrong.

Fingers pointing at man holding him accountable. Credit: https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/siphotography

Performance measures and accountability have an uncomfortable relationship. People don’t like to own measures or KPIs because of the fear of what they’ll be held accountable for.

But can performance ever be expected to improve if no-one is accountable?

Why don’t people want to be accountable for performance?

Traditionally, a measure’s owner is held accountable for whether or not performance hits target:

  • If the company profit doesn’t meet target, the Board holds the CEO accountable.
  • If the percentage of customer problems that are solved in the first call is too low, the Customer Service Manager is held accountable.
  • If the percentage of help desk calls that are answered within three rings is too low, the Help Desk operator is held accountable.

We know from experience the kind of behaviour this type of accountability drives. It’s often called ‘gaming’, where quick and easy actions are taken to show quick progress in the KPI:

  • The CEO will cut costs across the board, inspiring everyone to work smarter.
  • The Customer Service Manager will change the definition of “solved” to get a better first-call resolution rate.
  • The Help Desk operator will rush through the call she’s on to answer more within three rings.

And what happens in all cases is the measure might improve in the short term, but there are consequences, such as long term performance worsening and other measures being sabotaged:

  • Cutting costs means corners are cut and quality goes down, along with customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.
  • Changing the definition of ‘solved’ means problems come back into the pipeline again and cause even bigger bottlenecks.
  • Rushing customers to end calls sooner makes them frustrated and dissatisfied, likely to tell their friends of the bad experience.

When accountability is explicitly or implicitly defined as hitting targets, people feel threatened and judged. They know this is unfair, and naturally need to defend themselves. They will do whatever it takes to hit the target, as a higher priority over fundamental performance improvement.

Accountability itself isn’t the problem.

The problem is what we hold people accountable for. Particularly when it comes to performance measures. Holding a person accountable for hitting a target assumes that person has full control over everything that is needed to hit that target. And that’s true almost never.

The ability for a target to be hit is the product of many things beyond a single person’s actions:

  • the design of business processes and systems
  • the requirement to comply with regulations or policies
  • the availability of (or competition for) limited resources, like time and money and other people
  • the level of skill and knowledge people have, or are able to get access to
  • competitive, political and legislative forces in the organisation’s business environment

Everyone has to work within the constraints of the business system and its environment. W. Edwards Deming had much to say about this, pointing to the overwhelming observation that most of the constraints on performance are in the business’s processes, not the people.

It’s unfair to hold any individual person accountable for a performance result that is constrained by the business system. Accountability needs to be framed in a more constructive way.

We need a constructive definition of accountability for performance measures.

A constructive definition of accountability drives the right behaviour. The behaviour is right when it results in a net positive change for the organisation as a whole. A net positive change is when targeted areas of performance improve, with no unintended reduction in other areas of performance.

A constructive definition of accountability has three parts to it:

  1. Monitoring the important results with meaningful performance measures
  2. Interpreting the performance measures to identify performance gaps
  3. Initiating action, if and when action is needed

Part 1: Monitoring the important results with meaningful performance measures

When someone is responsible for a specific business result, like problem resolution, or accuracy of advice, or eliminating rework, they can be accountable for routinely monitoring that result with a performance measure.

When that same someone is involved in designing the performance measure they are to be accountable for, their ownership of it will make Part 1 of accountability very easy. They will believe in the measure, and why it matters.

This drives the behaviour of people focusing on the results that matter.

Part 2: Interpreting the performance measures to identify performance gaps

When someone is responsible for monitoring a performance measure, they can be accountable for interpreting what that measure is telling them about the business result it measures.

And when they are also involved in setting improvement targets for the measure, the gaps between current performance and the target can be motivational for them.

This drives the behaviour of people seeking feedback about how the results are actually tracking.

Part 3: Initiating action, if and when action is needed

When someone is responsible for interpreting a performance measure, they can be accountable for deciding what kind of action is needed, if at all.

If they are also involved in analysing the causes of their measure’s performance gap, and choosing the actions to fix those causes, their commitment to continuous improvement keeps getting stronger.

This drives the behaviour of people to work on their processes, and not just in them.

***

If we want performance to truly improve overall and over the longer term, we need to carefully define what KPI accountability means. Leaving it undefined, or implicitly defined as hitting targets, will drive behaviour to hit targets, not improve performance.

Instead, if we define accountability as monitoring, interpreting and acting on what our KPIs or performance measures tell us, then it will drive the behaviour we want: continuous performance improvement.

What does accountability for KPIs or performance measures actually mean in your organisation? How do people feel about it? What behaviours does it drive? [tweet this]

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  1. Scott Barton says:

    Instead of “Holding People Accountable”, how about we mentor them in what skills they are not proficient in. Team them up with a partner in their position that is on their level to help them on what they do. As leadership we need to look more how to help and improve, instead of where to lay blame. To be a team we all have to do our part, and part of that part is strengthing other junior members on the team to be great assets to the team. Most of us were not hired because we needed to fill a spot. We were hired on talent, and talent needs to be developed not scorned for what they lack.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Nicely said, Scott. Accountability and what people interpret it to mean can often get in the way of learning and collaborating. I do believe we need to be responsible for specific behaviours and results. But the word ‘accountability’ seems so loaded with the threat of blame that brings out just the opposite.

  2. Adnan Poonawala says:

    Accountability is a significant issue where I work and I think you’re right Stacey, the issue is not with accountability but what we hold people accountable for.

    The issue is also about using accountability to shift the blame. I think there needs to be consistency and upfront agreement and understanding of what you are accountable for including and importantly collaboration between business, system and process owners for addressing problems.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Yeah Adnan, that’s a good point, about accountability often being related to blame. So perhaps another point is to understand what it really means to be accountable, what the evidence is that someone is or is not being accountable, and what are the consequences of not being accountable.

  3. Jean-Pierre Tanguay says:

    I believe team members need to be accountable for KPIs they own, but the targets need to be SMART, with a focus on Achievable. This doesn’t mean that they have control over everything (we never do in large organizations), but they have enough influence to make it happen. Otherwise, the KPI isn’t Specific enough for that person. Also, if the thought of not achieving a target (failing) drives fear, it’s because of a culture problem within the organization. Fail fast right? Finally, setting the targets should involve fair process to increase engagement in team members. SMART accountability is good, fear of failing is not.

  4. Kristina says:

    Great this I get hold people responsible and accountable for the effort and not the result. But how do segregate and measure this type of accountability – and know who on the team is not doing there job and who is doing their job amazingly?

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Kristina, I don’t believe in using measures to assess if someone is doing their job or not. That’s something that should be managed through a one-on-one relationship between the person and their manager. Measures only tell a very small part of any story, and when it comes to people as individuals, using measures is more often undignifying and unhelpful in understanding the story. So I cannot answer your question because I don’t specialise in measuring people, due to not believing in it.

  5. […] What does it mean to “own” a KPI?  Stacy Barr outlines the 3 things a KPI Owner is accountable for.  […]

  6. Peter Rafferty says:

    “We need some new KPIs to drive better behavior.” That’s exactly the order I got from a senior leader in my own organization – no, not worried about them reading this, if only – and a too common mindset in other organizations. This blog update is exactly the sort of response we should all have in our heads when faced with folks who think performance measures are just targets to paint on the backs of our workforce. Your tie in to Deming and the point about process vs people is also well put. Thanks so much for your concise insight.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Peter, thanks for sharing this. Not every reader agrees, as you’ll see from other comments on articles such as this one. It’s a matter of perspective and I also think the opportunity they have had to understand systems thinking and human nature. I love your words “targets to paint on the backs of our workforce”. It speaks volumes about who some leaders in such organisations are trying to pin the accountability for whole-of-organisational performance on!

  7. I like this a lot – accountability meaning to initiate action.

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