Not on My Desk

You know the neighbourhood mantra. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself: “NIMBY – Not in my back yard.”

Here’s a variation on that. “NOMD - Not on my desk! It’s not my responsibility. Don’t look at me guv”.

That attitude doesn’t occur accidentally. It is the result of tacit approval.

When you tolerate it of yourself, then you feed that lack of personal responsibility to those around you. If you happen to be in a supervisory or managerial role in an organisation, then you create a culture – a culture where no one will own a decision or an outcome. The longer NoMD persists, the more damage it can do and the least likely that it will ever change.

Perhaps the most poignant example of this is the debacle concerning GM’s eventual recall of vehicles that used its infamous ignition switches. Recently, they sent notices to millions – did you get that? – millions of car owners regarding three of its switches. The problem, which has been going on for more than 10 years, is that the slightest nudge of the key fob shuts the engine off. How often does your knee rub against your key while you’re driving?

Like the vast majority of cars built today, the engine must be running in order for many of its systems to work. Power steering, power brakes, and air bags all depend on it.

If you’re a careful driver, then you know that there’s more to negotiating your way through traffic than holding your hands at nine o’clock and three o’clock and staring straight ahead. That’s a stereotype for learner drivers. And so little things like glancing in your mirrors, changing channels in your digital radio, or checking your route on the GPS may also mean brushing up against your keys, one of which is in your car’s ignition.

In GM’s cars, the act of doing so shut off the engine. Just think about what might happen to you on the M1 at 70 (if you’re lucky) or 80 (which is more likely) mph if your car suddenly lost all of its power. If you were in the left lane, then you might be able to just about get over onto the hard shoulder. But what would happen if you were in the middle lane or worse, in the lane on the far right? Without power steering and power brakes, what do you think the odds would be of you getting out of traffic without incident?

Now think about what happens when there’s an accident. What is supposed to happen inside your car? How is it designed to protect you?

There’s an amusing clip floating around on the Internet. It shows a middle-aged man behind the wheel of an expensive executive car. He has been forced to stop at a junction because a little old lady has decided to cross the street with her shopping. He blows his horn. She proceeds to smack the front of his car with her handbag.

Can you guess what happens?

His airbag goes off!

In GM’s cars, this didn’t happen. When the engine switched off, so did the power to the airbags. This is a safety feature. None of us would want it to go off while we were sitting in our cars either. But if you lose power to them at 80 mph, then you certainly do want them to work.

More than a dozen people had to die in 50+ accidents before someone realised that they had a problem.

What makes all of this so tragic is that this could have all been prevented if GM had had the right organisational culture from the start. If personal responsibility had been a virtue, then the engineer who initially decided to use a substandard part would have chosen something else; the company’s quality controls would have caught the error it got off of the drawing board; and the safety people would have recognised straightaway the lethal threat that the part posed for its customers.

Instead the culture passed the blame to everyone else. With more than 200,000 employees in 30 countries, that’s a lot of blame. It’s also a lot of irresponsibility.

What about you? Do you own your decisions? Do you willingly take responsibility for the outcomes that result from what you choose to do? Do you hold your subordinates accountable for what happens? If you don’t, what would it take for you to get that message?

Learn from GM’s appalling example. Look for the pockets of irresponsibility today, and then do the responsible thing.

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