Undercover Boss

“If you’re not getting good information, it doesn’t matter how strong your desire is.”

~Paul Azinger

Remember Undercover Boss? 38 million viewers watched the first telecast; the show became so popular it sprung versions in a dozen countries all over the world. The show’s producers came up with a novel idea: the big boss from HQ – aka, the CEO – would go undercover, getting hired in to perform the kind of work done by the good people in their outfit who are backbone of their business. Because nobody knew who the new guy was, the CEO would see real life, up close and personal.

The CEO of the hotel chain would clean rooms; the fast food franchise company CEO would make sandwiches; at a golf resort, the CEO raked the bunkers and mowed the fairways.

Talk about reality TV! Bet the CEO went home tired.

The consistent theme in every episode of Undercover Boss was how shocked the CEO was by what reality looked like, out on the front line of their company’s operations. In follow up interviews (conducted by a couple of clever researchers who realized how good this stuff was) here’s what some of the CEO’s featured in the stories had to say about what they learned from the experience:
“It’s much more challenging than I ever imagined being on the frontline, and doing the work that they have to do. For one thing, just the weather conditions that they have to do… it was 109 degrees in that garage that we were working in.”
“I came to realize the job is much more complex than I ever realized. I’ve been selling franchises and telling people this was a simple operation and anybody could do it, and here I am struggling to make a sandwich.”
“We sit in our conference room each Wednesday and we make decisions. I came to realize that we need to make those decisions with a much more specific knowledge of how the job actually works and how it affects things on the front line.”
Lest you get the wrong impression here, the findings weren’t always negative; in many cases, the CEO came away impressed by their followers:
“These are minimum wage employees who absolutely care. They are interested in what they’re doing, and I came to appreciate their work ethic.”
In organizations the world over, the dedication to the cause by those doing the real work to create value – what around here we call The Value Line – is nothing short of inspiring.
You’re probably thinking that none of this comes as any great surprise, at least to you. But to the leader, sitting behind the mahogany desk in the corner office, by their own admission, it did.
Makes you wonder: Why is that?
In Search of Good Information
If I’d been one of those researchers, conducting the follow up interviews with the CEO’s, I’d have asked this question: Now that you’ve taken a turn at bat, what have you learned about execution in your organization?
Bet the first thing they’d say is that execution is really tough, and how they now have a much better appreciation for those who “do the doing” in their outfit.  Likely, they’d admit that things aren’t helped by the fact that a lot of leaders – starting with moi – “don’t have much of a clue as to what’s really going on down in my organization.”  And, “How much better off I am, now knowing what I know.”
Totally predictable.
Sometimes it takes a bold step to cut through the bureaucracy that shrouds execution – the boss, undercover – but sometimes it’s as simple as asking followers for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Some –  but, probably not all – will give up the truth, if they trust the leader, and if they don’t think what they say will be put to some wrongheaded use. Note the ifs.
Of course, that presupposes the leader wants to know the truth – and asks about it. Why wouldn’t they?
Actually, that’s two questions, neither of which is rhetorical, and both of which are important.
There is some evidence to suggest that leaders don’t always want to know the truth. One example comes from the world of customer service. The authors of The Best Service Is No Service reported, “Over 70 percent of CEO’s believe their companies provide “above average” customer care, but nearly 60 percent of these companies’ customers stated they are somewhat or extremely upset with their most recent customer service experience.”
That is a huge disconnect! If they’d wanted to know the state of their customer service, I suppose the CEO could go undercover at the Service Desk: likely they’d get an earful – from their customers. On the other hand, if they’d asked, I’ll bet anyone in Customer Service would gladly give up the data, “A lot of our customers are not the least bit happy with our service.”
But they did neither. Perhaps customer service isn’t important – or perhaps asking that question means, “One more problem I have to fix.”
Getting Better Information About Execution
It’s all so simple. Execution is what’s done; how well it is done. Whether it’s business execution or safety execution, there’s no escaping the fact that, “It is what it is.” For anything done by we humans, execution is seldom easy, and never perfect.
Leaders know that. But, in the heat of the daily battle, leaders regularly lose sight of that. If it were otherwise, you would consistently hear leaders selling “fabulous – not flawless – execution”; reminding staff, “Our customer service is really lousy”; taking the position “I’m not signing off on that change until I’ve talked to the guys on the front line to find out if they think this will work.”
You never hear that. At least not anywhere I’ve ever worked.
Leaders at the top, who say they understand execution and just how important it is, should be screaming for information about what’s really going on out there. Leaders should be giving their favorite, “Don’t sugar-coat reality” Stump Speech; should be out on the shop floor watching what’s going on.  Your phone should be ringing off the hook, your boss constantly peppering you with questions about what’s really going on out there.
Should, times four, if you’re keeping score at home.
Instead, it takes a TV show producer, looking to make a buck by getting eyes on TV screens, to get the big boss out there to find out what’s really going on. As to all those viewers, I’m thinking they’re watching to see if this outfit is any different than the one they’re working for. Which it is not.
And that’s how it is.
Consider the Alternatives
Every leader, from the CEO to the front line supervisor, wants every follower to go home, alive and well at the end of every single day. Great execution will do that for you.  Up to this point, the finger pointing (and it is that) has been in the direction of the big boss, who’s far removed from the action. They’re an easy target for this critique. What about you?  Are you always in the loop? Do you know pretty much everything going on out there?  
If you are, and if you do, good for you.
That being the case, if you’ve got problems, you’d know all about them, and, good leader that you are, you’ll be on top of them. There wouldn’t be a lot of surprises, at least not on the downside. You’d be hard-pressed to remember the last time someone called in the middle of the night to break the bad news to you.
On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that bad news is still regularly coming your way. If it is, consider that a leading indicator: there’s a lot going on that you don’t know about – about execution.  
That’s particularly bad if the bad news you’re getting involves safety. If you understand execution in general and safety execution in particular, you’ll understand why that would be so.
So, back to the beginning. Execution is doing: that’s what produces an outcome. Safety incidents are the outcome; the causes producing that outcome are bound to be found in execution: what’s done: how well it’s done; whether it’s done at all.
The good news is that, when it comes to safety, people are hard targets to hit. Normally it takes a lot for the stars to align, for someone to get hurt. The odds are strongly on the side of the miss. But miss or hit and hurt, that’s simply the outcome. In either case, there was execution, and likely far from fabulous execution. If you knew what was really going on, likely you’d do something. Then, it wouldn’t happen.
That’s all there is to it.
Paul Balmert
May 2016

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