Who is Responsible?

“Who is responsible?” This is a phrase I used to translate all of the time when walking around with one of my Japanese sensei during a consultation. Other interpreters would use the English phrase “Who’s in charge?” or “Who is the manager of this area?” to communicate this question but these are not only misleading translations, they are harmful.

Asking who is in charge immediately brings to mind the power relationships, fear of being scolded by the Japanese man (rightly so) and usually resulted in some puzzled “responsible person” being summoned from the depth of the office for a lashing. This was not all bad, in hindsight. Asking who is the manager of the area could be less fruitful since these were often hard to find or summon to the floor. In either case, they were not the person that the sensei was looking for.

The word “responsibility” means to bear a duty. When one is responsible, it is because one has taken on a burden or duty. In keeping with lean principles this should not be overburden, or unreasonable duties, but it is critically important that individuals take responsibility for the role they have accepted. During the past year I have learned some expensive lessons about the difference between not assigning blame to people and not holding people responsible. One can take “blame the process, not the person” too far. Within a lean culture, within any healthy and functioning culture, mutual trust and respect must exist and this can only be built on each bearing their duties and upholding individual responsibilities. We need systems and processes for this but ultimately it is people who do or do not follow the standards, who take or do not take responsibility.

Culturally there are big differences in the notion of responsibility and the weight it is given within a community. In Japan to be labeled “irresponsible” is quite damning. Taking personal responsibility and being seen as a responsible member of society is essential to being a valued and respected member of society. In the USA individual rights trump individual responsibilities any day. This is a product of the history of rugged individualism, the frontier and the American Dream. In China it is again quite different. In other countries the value placed on responsibility, at what level and to what degree it is assigned all vary. These variations have their historical and cultural reasons. In order to succeed with lean management is important to understand what “Who is responsible?” means in each culture.

When the Japanese sensei would ask, “Who is responsible?” and I was fortunate enough to be the person there to ask it for them in English, my insistence on using that exact phrase would often puzzle people. They had heard the “Where’s the manager?” question before and knew what to do. They knew “Who was in charge” and which way to point the finger before ducking out. But we did not want them to summon anyone in charge, any manager. Often the dogged question of who was responsible for some specific item, area, process or result of the process was the very person we were questioning. When this realization hit them, the moment was gold and the learning could begin.


  1. John Hunter

    December 6, 2010 - 6:27 pm

    Very nice post. The balance between not blaming the person and not accepting/acknowledging responsibility can be tricky. You want to look for process and system fixes because they will provide the largest gains. But if people are not behaving responsibly that is a problem with the system that needs to be fixed. Or they are a special cause that needs to be addressed.

  2. John Santomer

    December 8, 2010 - 8:02 am

    Dear Jon,
    Just as it is important to know the extent, variation and grasp of responsibility in any culture – is it not also important to draw each and individual responsibilities, clear out gray areas and know each individual’s boundaries? I beleive therein lies the greatest challenges…drawing the boundaries and knowing where one should take responsibility for his or her own action/decision. It further clears out who should be requested assistance merely because the decision is out of one’s bounds – but never to point a blaming finger especially when all should be working together to find solutions and not placing the blame. Even with conflicting areas in responsibilities, a compromise or consensus can be reached to draw the best approach. But which do you think should come first? Acceptance of responsibilities or drafting one’s responsibilities and its boundaries. culture is an innate thing and still can be further challenged in some areas for improvement.

  3. ixbé

    December 10, 2010 - 2:38 am

    After 3 years of lean practising, we have change the plant from “activities” areas to “products” areas, but managers don’t change their boundaries management. So we have today, on the same production line, some machines and men under responsability of a manager and others under responsability of another manager, to produce one item. At least, nobody seem to be responsible of areas and we can’t go further with lean. The most important challenge we have now and for the next year is to definitively change the mindset of these managers, but it’s an incredible hard work and sometimes I don’t understand why these guys are so blind and deaf.

  4. John Santomer

    December 11, 2010 - 10:06 pm

    Dear Jon,
    For some time it has amazed me how nature has given us examples for a thriving (sustainable) bio-system. A lion’s pride, an ant’s colony, wolf’s pack, a bee’s hive all demonstrate inter-dependence on a unit’s responsibilities. I also remember a movie, City of Embers. In this movie-the students are given occupations by “lottery” on graduation day also called Assignement Day where each is designated a responsibility, e.g. Pipeworks Laborer, Mesenger, storeroom keeper, generator technician. In nature the selection is very different and final. For 247 years, as the movie was written; City of Embers survived under these processes. Not until the generators were failing and there were longer black outs was resistance to change called for implementation of urgent and altering approach.

  5. Jon Miller

    December 14, 2010 - 3:19 pm

    Thanks to everyone for your comments.
    Clearly establishing purpose, identifying customers (external and internal), setting standards and targets, and clarifying responsibilities against these is the key to successful continuous improvement. In a perfect scenario a leadership team would have a few years of practice in hoshin kanri and A3 thinking prior to launching a lean transformation.
    Unfortunately too often leadership are content to just “bolt on” lean to current management practices which may be incompatible with or conflicting with lean. In part this is because the definition of “lean” is non-standard, often too narrow and excluding most of the soft side and people elements. This is OK to start but leaders must be recognize that lean is not an operational strategy but a new way of doing business, starting with taking responsibility in the broadest sense.