When work is partitioned into intermediate results, results that may or may not lead to a desired outcome, responsibility fractures. In a chain of intermediate results, individuals do their part, like working an assembly line to produce a desired outcome.
When the desired outcome involves the application of knowledge in a creative fashion, quality is no longer objective. The work of lawyers, accountants, marketing gurus, and software professionals can’t be quantified like the circumference of a bolt produced by an assembly line. This is the nature of knowledge work.
Responsibility to quality lies within the minds of the workers. It’s subjective. Each person must judge the quality of what they produce. Responsibility to intermediate results means each person must judge the result of assembling their slice of the pie. But each successive slice of the pie is dependent upon the quality of the pieces before it. Each person down the chain must judge the work of those before them. If not, they may perpetuate a problem.
When someone down the line finds a problem with the results of a previous step, they have to fix it themselves or hand it back to the person who was responsible. For example, if you imagine an assembly line putting a car together, if a wheel doesn’t spin, the car may need to go back up the line to have the wheel adjusted.
However the wheel is fixed, the person down the line, that attaches say a fender, will feel it’s necessary to double check the wheels every time a car comes by. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But if every person involved checks the wheels independently, it can lead to a problem. If every person checks the work of every person before them, things are going to grind to a halt.
Even if an upstream problem was an abnormal occurrence, it chisels away at the trust downstream. Because individuals work isolated, they tend not to communicate about mistakes and come to an agreement about who best should handle them and be accountable to ensuring they don’t repeat. Individuals either don’t care about upstream work, or they feel obligated to double check everything.
If individuals downstream fix problems, those upstream may never know about them. If people upstream are careless, they may rely on people downstream to check their work. People downstream may or may not catch the problems. When mistakes slip through the cracks and into the hands of customers, a game of blame is sure to ensue. All of this erodes trust, a vital component to success.
If however, people work together to share the risks and responsibilities in producing a working vehicle, people will learn to trust and rely upon each other. That means nobody is responsible for an intermediate result, and everybody is responsible for the final result: a working car.