If you haven’t seen the new CBS TV show Undercover Boss, it’s worth checking out. Perhaps not so much for the cheesy endings (at least on the first two episodes) where outcomes are achieved for individual employees that rival Queen for a Day in terms of bathos. What is “new” here, though, is our ability to look over the shoulder of CEO’s from brand name companies while they experience first hand how hard their employees work to deliver a good outcome for their customers, often in spite of organizational obstacles imposed in the interest of greater efficiency.
I put “new” in quotes because the concept of understanding your front line employees as a means of understanding how to improve your business goes back to management research that Joseph Juran was pioneering in the 1950’s. When I was teaching total quality management seminars in the 1980’s, we were preaching the value of understanding the moments of truth where your employees either delight or disappoint your customers. What’s therefore so interesting about this show to me is what a revolutionary concept this field level view of the world has become for many organizations.
In the first episode, pictured above, Larry O’Donnell, President and COO of Waste Management experiences not only how difficult and dirty some of these waste disposal jobs are, but also how well meaning policies set at a corporate level can wreak havoc at the employee level. He seems genuinely surprised to see that truck drivers have no bathroom breaks built into their routes or that cleaning 15 portable toilets an hour is a superhuman effort. He appears equally surprised at the level of grace and humour that many of his brand ambassadors bring to their very tough jobs. Larry takes action to address these issues when he goes back to his day job that hopefully will make the work environment more friendly for his employees.
How great could your organization be if senior leadership could experience life in the trenches?
P.S. In the second episode, the CEO of Hooters seems perplexed that potential customers find the Hooters brand demeaning to women. REALLY?0