Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Management Features
Jake Mazulewicz
Three tips from high-reliability organizations
Dave Gilson
Getting out of the boardroom for a stroll changes how women navigate
Bob Ferrone
Saving the planet and bolstering the bottom line
Jeanne Quimby
Kids can be the source of new ideas
Matt Fieldman
Vocational programs and apprenticeships show the way

More Features

Management News
How to drive productivity with a universal and powerful 3D inspection software
Research commissioned by the Aerospace & Defense PLM Action Group with Eurostep and leading PLM providers
Improved design of polarization-independent beam splitters
New industry-recognized guidelines for manufacturing jobs
ASQ will address absence of internationally recognized ESG benchmarks
Helping organizations improve quality and performance
Leading technologies empowering the next generation of 3D engineering software solutions
EstateSpace offers digital estate management system

More News

Davis Balestracci


How Does Your Organization Define ‘Accountability?’

The power of ‘what,’ ‘how,’ ‘I,’ and action

Published: Monday, September 14, 2015 - 11:55

Is accountability used as an excuse for draconian enforcement of arbitrary goals? We’re familiar with the insanity of wasted time spent overreacting to common cause. I remember the dreaded review meetings, spending all day listening to litanies of excuses, finger pointing, blaming others, and carefully crafted stories to explain lack of results, all of which only yielded confusion and an attitude of helplessness.

Has “Who’s to blame?” been replaced by “Who’s accountable?”

“When we are dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bustling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”
Dale Carnegie

Accountability should no longer mean “account for.” Accountability should be powered by commitment and hard work with a focus on current and future efforts, rather than reactive and historical explanations, with a mindset of reality, ownership, solutions to problems, and determined action that answer the question, “What else is it going to take?”

Enter John Miller and QBQ!

I have no financial interest in John Miller or QBQ!, but Miller has had a profound influence on my consulting. He is one of the genuinely nicest people I have ever dealt with, and it’s my pleasure to endorse his work.

Miller began his career providing leadership and sales management training to corporations from all industries. He observed the widespread victim mentality that our current society seems so perfectly designed to exhibit. Because it occurs automatically and is so destructive, Miller developed a disarmingly simple technique to defuse it and convert it to productive action.

He noticed that someone exhibiting the “victimitis virus” (and we all do at one time or another) tends to ask general questions beginning with who, why, or when. Miller’s message in a nutshell: When faced with one of these who, why, or when questions, ask the whining or angry person (or yourself, as I have done often!) to restate the question under the following conditions:
• It must begin with the words “what” or “how”
• It must include the word “I” [Note: not “they,” “them,” “we,” or "you”]
• It must contain an action

I was speaking to a group of more than 100 healthcare personnel in Cornwall, England, and was warned that a “grand old dame” of Cornish medicine would be coming. She had a tendency to disrupt things with angry rants.

During the question-and-answer period, following my “Data Sanity” and “Those Darn Humans!” presentations, she made her presence known, stood up, and began: “This is all very well and good. But what about Tony Blair and the ministers? When are they going to get this message, who is going to give it to them, and why hasn’t anyone done so? It’s futile to keep on going the way we’re going....”

“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “I would like you to apply what I have just taught by re-framing what you said using a question beginning with ‘what’ or ‘how,’ have it include the word ‘I,’ and contain some type of action. Could you please do that for me?”

She was absolutely indignant!

“Please work with me here, and give it a try,” I said.

She looked at the floor for about 30 seconds, then asked, “How could I see to it that a group of influential physicians got you invited to speak to some health ministers with this important message?”

“If you could arrange that, I would be very happy to oblige,” I replied. I could feel the tension in the room dissipate.

Do you see the power of this technique? It commits the questioner to suggesting an action and allows you to make them subsequently (and appropriately) accountable for it. If they don’t follow through, they have lost the right to complain in the future.

There are also two very important “givens” if a person adds a big “but…” after their question to explain why they can’t follow through:
• “Lack of...” is never acceptable as a barrier
• Lack of time = lack of priority

These are barriers because the current culture is “perfectly designed” to have them be barriers.

The book QBQ! The Question Behind the Question  (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004) takes less than an hour to read. I give it as a pre-reading assignment for any executive retreat.

After finishing QBQ!, most of us fall into a common trap and need to take Miller’s wise counsel. If you are thinking, “this is the best book that everyone else should read,” go back and read it again.

Miller’s books Flipping the Switch and Outstanding! published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 2005 and 2010, respectively, are excellent as well and great for building your improvement team. Unlike your culture, you don’t have the luxury of exhibiting the “victimitis virus” publicly because it loses respect for your role.

If you’d like to see a 10-minute video/overview with Miller (a real hoot!), click here. (It’s on YouTube, so some of your systems will block it. If so, go home, Google “john miller youtube qbq” and watch the video that lasts 11:03. That is the best one and it is well worth watching.)

As we ponder a new school year or change of seasons

In the blog QuickNotes, Miller wrote:

“Personal Accountability: Nine Questions to Ask as Seasons Change

“In June of 1991, at age 33, I made a sales call on Munsingwear, a Minneapolis-based clothier. During our discussion of his team’s training needs, the fifty-something executive made a comment I’ve since quoted often: ‘John, I’m about to enter my summertime slowdown, so I suggest you contact me again in mid-September. I’m sure you know that life begins after Labor Day.’

“Life begins after Labor Day… man, ain’t that the truth.

“After those steamy dog days of summer, there is a boomlet of productivity in America that follows our Labor Day holiday. It’s like New Year’s Day all over again and can be a time to reflect and renew, set goals, and change:

“Nine accountable questions to ask myself:
• What blessing have I been taking for granted?
• Have I allowed victim/entitlement thinking to creep into my life?
• Is there someone I need to forgive or apologize to?
• What relationship do I need to invest more into?
• Have I let any anger take a foothold in my life?
• Is there a skill-set I need to enhance? (If it’s parenting, click here.)
• What project have I procrastinated on?
• What excuses have I been making regarding nutrition and physical fitness?
• What problem in my life do I need to take personal accountability for today?

“As we write in QBQ! The Question Behind the Question, learning isn’t about attending a seminar or reading a book, nor is it about simply skimming our nine accountability questions above. This is truth: learning = change

“Never forget this: If I haven’t changed, I haven’t learned.

“So, as the lazy days of summer fade and before the next period of low productivity arrives (i.e., the holidays), let’s get about learning and changing… because life is about to begin again.”

Thank you, John… for everything!


About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.


Distracting customers

I remember an article you provided about how to not distract customers. Is it really necessary to have the pop up advertisements on each and every page of a QD article? I think not! Please consider removing or modifying this practice as a quality service to your customers.


Ken Kaniecki



just wondering

So did the grand old dame arrange for you to present to the ministers?

Care to take a guess?

Thanks for reading and for your comment.  No, I'm afraid she didn't -- but she certainly lost the right to complain to me (or anyone else) about it AGAIN until she did.  Unfortunately, I haven't been back and curious inquiry e-mails to the organizers were never replied to.