The small and mid-sized companies I work with consistently deliver on their promises to customers. These promises are important, but they are promises made outside the organization.

When a promise to a customer has been broken or is about to be broken, it’s often because someone broke a promise to a colleague. When this news reaches you, the usual immediate response is that you, one or two of your star players, or a special group of team members you can count on gets busy fixing the problem. I call it the Heroic Event. You may call it fire-fighting. Whatever you call it, your job as the leader is to deliver on the promise that’s been made to your customer. And while these Heroic Events may be keeping your customers happy, they are making your job more difficult.

Why do we treat customers one way and colleagues another?

What Lack of Accountability Costs You

When these types of events occur inside your organization, they signal an accountability problem. Such problems make it hard to scale your operation because you’re managing by exception.

So the next time a customer deliverable is fumbled, ask:

  • What was the cost?
  • Could the event have been prevented?
As you calculate the cost of a Heroic Event, bear in mind that more than money is at stake.

Your workflow has been disrupted as you moved this particular problem to the head of the line, effectively jeopardizing the timing of other projects for other customers. Your reputation with your customer has been tarnished as you beg forgiveness and ask for another chance. Your reputation with your colleagues hangs in the balance as employees wonder why these problems are allowed to continue and why the people who are part of the problem are still on the team.

As you dig into the problem to learn why it happened, you’ll likely find the answer to the second question—Could the event have been prevented?—is usu¬ally “yes.”

Before rushing to blame a person, first reexamine your pro¬cesses.

Is hiring a process or an exercise in individual judgment?  Are you hiring the right people, not just for a job, but for your cul¬ture?  When assignments are botched by your employees, what’s happening? Do they not share your sense of urgency? Your sense of responsibility to others in the organization? Your commitment? Your character? Perhaps not.

Accountability starts with character: yours and those around you. Your company’s character is codified by its values. So take a fresh look to see if the values you say are important are being used as a filter for decision-making throughout your organization.

Find the Root Cause of Under-Performance

Once the crisis with your customer has been addressed, gather those involved in the event to reexamine how it happened and—just as important—how similar events can be prevented.

Examine three areas of your business:

  1. Workflow. What systems are in place to replicate success? Do those systems reflect the way work really gets done? What steps can be added, deleted, or modified to improve efficiency?
  2. Tools, training, and development. Do people have the tools they need to be effective? Have we provided training and development to help people do their jobs to the best of their abilities? How do we test to ensure people have the tools and training they need? How do we develop soft skills, such as leadership, judgment, problem-solving and conflict resolution?
  3. Communications. Were the expectations of the job clear? Were the expectations related to individual performance clear? Were the expectations specific or ambiguous?  Was the direction provided consistent throughout the life of the project?
When you turn from the Process component of the Heroic Event to the People component, consider these factors:

  1. Skill. Did the person who made the mistake have the skill to perform the job he or she was asked to do?
  2. Will. Did the person who made the mistake have a passion for what they’re doing or were they just going through the motions? Do they want to improve?
  3. Fear. Did the person recognize that something wasn’t right, but was fearful of bringing a question or problem to the attention of his or her supervisor? If so, was it out of fear because the person believed he or she would be asked to add solving this problem to the long list of tasks already being worked on? Or was the person afraid of a “shoot the messenger” syndrome?
Stars who see their colleagues drop the ball and get away with it or who watch their suggestions for improvement fall on deaf ears will decide it’s not worth giving their best and may, in the end, decide to jump ship.

The sum of this behavior is your culture.

What are Heroic Events costing you?