Accountability is a mess in many organizations. Often good performers are put into bad processes within systems that subvert rather than support them.

“The 85/15 Rule” emerged from decades of root cause analysis of service/quality breakdowns. This showed that roughly 85% of the time the failure is caused by the system, processes, structure, or practices of the organization. Only about 15% of the breakdowns can be traced back to someone who didn’t care or wasn’t conscientious enough.

Organizations Making a VAS of Themselves

VAS (Vertical Accountability Syndrome) entangles many organizations. It often causes leaders to look for who to “hold accountable” (aka blame) in which departmental silo or chimney. But the failure points often lie in the gray zones between departments:

Going Sideways: Processes Need to be Managed Horizontally

Most organizations are structured vertically, but customers experience them horizontally. Many work activities and individual tasks haven’t been planned and organized as part of a bigger, cross-functional picture. Walled inside their “functional silos,” managers and their teams focus on taking care of their own part of the sales, marketing, production, delivery, or support process.

At their broadest, macro processes can span an entire organization and cut across all major functions or departments. At their narrowest, micro-level processes are the work activities, methods, or procedures used by individuals or teams that make up the myriad of tasks within the broader macro processes.

Key reasons horizontal process management is needed:

  • Functional silos and chimneys create errors, delays, and waste.
  • “Turfdom” and political maneuvering.
  • Customers dance the bureaucratic shuffle (“That’s not my department”).
  • Websites and online activities can showcase disjointedness to the world.
  • Local/department/team sub-optimization.
  • Communication, collaboration, and coordination problems.

Less Mess with Strategic Process Management

When processes or projects aren’t managed strategically across departments, they create a knotty mess of problems. Communication failures and conflict are common symptoms that department or project teams are working at cross-purposes.


At the Task level, teams improve local processes within their functional silos. Often, upstream teams on the left make improvements to their part of the process, which causes bigger problems downstream for teams on the right.

Middle and senior leaders compound and confuse this sub-optimization problem by holding the downstream teams “accountable” for their “performance shortfalls.” They’re faulted for failing to transform the garbage in, into something better than garbage going out. Frustrated leaders might ask, ‘Why can’t you perform like those teams (pointing upstream)?”

Some leaders recognize the need for better cross-functional process coordination. So, they’ll form Functional or project teams that cut across a few departments. This is better and will help, but often doesn’t make a huge difference in the overall process effectiveness.

Seven Steps to Strategic Process Management

Over decades of helping organizations manage their processes strategically, we evolved this seven-step model:

  1. Process Clarity — Linking process management to the organization’s vision, values, purpose, and strategic imperatives. This establishes the purpose and vision for key processes and clarifies the process or project team’s charter, roles, and responsibilities.
  2. Process Mapping — The project or process management team creates macro and relationship maps of the strategic (end-to-end) process. They determine where the process begins (often at sales/marketing/customer contact) and ends (such as when the customer’s been invoiced, or delivery is complete).
  3. Data Collection — Customer expectations/requirements are mapped back through the service/quality chain. The team collects and displays data on all steps, identifies everyone involved in the process, and clarifies each person/group’s understanding of the process.
  4. Data and Process Analysis — The macro process (often large, visual, multiple step) maps are analyzed for “hot spots” such as loops, delays, rework, miscommunication, and breakdowns. The team begins correcting and redefining the process.
  5. Process Measures — The process management team agrees on three to five “hot spots” and sets stretch improvement targets such as 25% cost reduction, 50% cycle time improvement, zero defects, etc.
  6. Process Redesign — Problem-solving tools such as Cause-and-Effect Diagrams, Pareto Analysis, Force Field Analysis, 5S model, etc., are used. The team develops Key Performance Indicators and process measures to watch for and quickly correct bottlenecks or breakdowns.
  7. Implementation, Measurement, and Continuous Improvement — Process outcomes and effectiveness are monitored and adjusted. Communication systems (often visual) are developed to keep operational teams at the functional and task levels of the process connected and involved in continuous improvement activities. Key milestones are celebrated as improvement efforts continue.

Knotted Wires Crossed: Process Management Pitfalls and Traps

It’s been said that “a process is only as strong as its weakest think.” Many project or process management programs haven’t been well thought through and planned. They’re often tangled into knots by many of these problems:

  • Jumping to process redesign without thoroughly defining, mapping, and analyzing.
  • Poor customer/external partner data and input.
  • Allowing opinions, power, and politics to override hard data.
  • The frontline team members who know the processes best — and will make or break them — aren’t involved.
  • Processes narrowly improved at micro/departmental levels.
  • Lack of senior managers’ strategic leadership.
  • Rearranging the organizational boxes (restructuring the org chart) vertically to serve management rather than horizontally to serve customers.
  • Weak training, ineffective approaches/templates.

That Sinking Feeling: Don’t Fix the Blame, Fix the Process

A group of sailors were out in an old boat. The boat hit a rock and sprung a slow leak. The group began to fight over whose fault it was that they hit the rock. Then they argued over whose responsibility it was to fix the hole. Those on the starboard side shouted that those on the port side, where the hole was, should be responsible for fixing it. All the while, the boat filled with water and floundered in the increasingly heavy seas. As the shouting and finger-pointing grew, a large wave swamped the boat. Everyone drowned at sea.

Functional or vertically managed organizations force the people in them to act like foolish sailors. Everyone focuses on a narrow piece of the organization while losing sight of the big picture. With a narrow focus on their own departments or functions, people in a vertically managed organization easily forget that they’re all in the same boat.