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Monday, February 8, 2010

The Undercover Boss


The premier of Undercover Boss took place last night, immediately after the Super Bowl. In this latest version of a “reality show,” Larry O’Donnell, President and Chief Operating Officer of Waste Management strips off his suit and tie and goes to work in several jobs in his company, as a guy named Randy, making a “documentary” about seeking entry level work. He sorts recycling, cleans portable toilets, attempts to pick up flying debris at a landfill and (for the first time in his life) is fired for not having what it takes.
He spends a day helping collect residential trash, where he discovers that his female boss for the day has to pee in a tin can while at work, because her schedule does not permit her to take the time to do it any other way. She also feels resentful of the inspectors who sometime follow her in unmarked white pickup trucks. Jaclyn, an administrative assistant to the a landfill manager on an administrative assistant’s hourly wage, is also the scale operator, the scale supervisor and handles all accounts payable and accounts receivable. She’s had cancer five times by the age of 25 (she is now 29) and supports a household that includes, in Larry’s words, three families. She has her house up for sale, because she cannot afford it.

I can believe that Larry discovered many things about which he had no idea. In over 30 years as a consultant helping to improve processes in business and manufacturing, I have facilitated workshops in which high level managers and company presidents have been surprised at what they find on the factory floor. I have heard the expression, “I had no idea!” or similar comments many times.
It isn’t necessary to go undercover to make these discoveries. Sidney Harman, founder and long-time leader of Harman International, now its Chairman Emeritus, implemented what he called Senior Executive Service (SES) in which he has reported that all senior executives spent one day a month working in a production job, alongside production workers. He described this in his book, Minding Your Own Business: A Maverick's Guide to Business, Leadership and Life. Harman is an unusual CEO, but he is not alone in creating requirements that executives of the company spend time in the workplace of most employees.
Costco Wholesale warehouse managers are expected to spend the majority of their workday out in the warehouse. They do have desk work, but their offices are shared, not private. I have witnessed Jim Sinegal, the CEO of Costco, spend hours on the floor of a Costco warehouse. It is a part of his regular practice to visit and spend time in warehouses all over the country. Costco has the lowest employee turnover in retail and Costco is a profitable company.
Many high level managers lose touch with what goes on in their organizations and what it means to be a worker in them. Some of them really mean it when they say that their people are their most important asset, but their ignorance of what really happens makes their statements sound empty.
Larry O’Donnell took a series of actions based on his experience as an undercover boss. He tells us in the show that he saw to it that the talented but overworked administrative assistant, Jaclyn, got promoted to a salaried position, and some people were hired to help. Her increased pay, we are told, made it possible for Jaclyn to keep her house. Larry took steps to make better use of the talents of his landfill supervisor, who has been on dialysis for 19 years, and the worker who cheerfully vacuums the crap out of and scrubs 15 portable toilets an hour (one every four minutes).
A smiling Larry O’Donnell, dressed as Randy, now appears on Waste Management’s home page. What other changes were there in the company?
How many other decent, hardworking, under-recognized employees who are struggling to keep their homes does Waste Management have? Is anyone in the company asking that question? Will this undercover boss yield benefits for workers other than those selected by the reality show’s producers because they make interesting stories? Is there a tension between running a profitable company and treating the workers well? I contend that there does not have to be, but often leaders of large organizations as necessary to sacrifice employee welfare for profitability. It is good that the COO has had his consciousness raised, but how does that translate into improvement?
This blog will be devoted to exploring how organizations bring out the best in their people to become highly effective, achieve excellent customer satisfaction and maintain the highest quality. In short, how do productive organizations contribute to the productivity of their workers, who in turn make the organizations more productive?
The Undercover Boss airs on CBS. The Waste Management show that premiered last Sunday can be viewed on CBS online. Harman describes the SES in his book, Minding Yours Own Business: A Maverick's Guide to Business, Leadership and Life. Information about Costco turnover is from ABC News/20/20.

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