What NOT to Learn from the Undercover Boss

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on February 15, 2010 · 23 comments


I don’t know if the show will last, but the Undercover Boss certainly has an interesting premise. Leaders of organizations go undercover in their own organizations to do front-line jobs, learning what is really going on. This is a great idea, and one consistent with lean where we talk about getting to the point of activity (what some refer to as gemba) and directly observing the work (referred to as genchi genbutsu). Lean bloggers Lean Blog, Curious Cat Management, and Lean is Good were all looking forward to what the show might demonstrate.

Every leaders should be spending time at the point of activity. I suspect many managers will want to mimic the show. Robert Galford offers some tips on how in Be an “Undercover Boss”. But there are some lessons of what NOT to do that I think are also worth sharing. Just going to the front-lines isn’t enough. What you do when you get there can determine the difference between adding value as a leader and causing disruption.

Here are some easy mistakes to avoid:

1. Don’t go “undercover”

Yes, the whole premise of this show is that you go in undercover. No one really knows your the boss. But they get away with it because of the TV cameras and the whole “it was all part of a plan” follow-through and wrap up that they do.

But do this in real-life and it’s likely to backfire. Some may get away with it, but that won’t refute the rule. Fundamentally it appears sneaky. People will feel tricked, untrusted, and turn untrusting back to you. If you want to go an do the job, be trained in it as another would, that is great. I recommend it highly. Just don’t do it undercover.

2. Don’t react on partial stories

If you’re a boss, I’m sure you receive complaints or suggestions that just don’t make sense if people had a broader perspective or had all the data. It’s easy if you’re putting yourself back into that position to do the same thing; to jump to conclusions without the whole story.

Your job is not to just solve individual problems. Clearly with the show, it helps close the loop on personal stories and connections, and that makes a nice touch. But that doesn’t really make the company better. It’s not scaleable. You can’t do that same thing for every employee. What you can do is leverage the opportunity to learn the patterns and systems that are failing, and learn to make changes at that level which will many many employees.

For example, Jodi Glickman Brown noted in “Undercover Boss” and the Missing Information Loop that Waste Management’s Larry O’Donnell missed an opportunity to do just that by not creating a feedback look. I couldn’t agree more.

3. Don’t do it just once

This is not for demonstration, or making a point. This is an ongoing activity. It is a built-it skill.

Direct observation, which I wrote about in Don’t Just See, Observe! and Observe with a Purpose is something that every manager must integrate into their toolbox. Observation involves understanding the current reality for what it really is. There is nothing better than doing the job, like riding around on a garbage truck, to understand the current reality. It is also about asking the right questions while observing. The goal is an understanding of the current state, not just a “I’m a regular guy like you” statement.

I hope the show continues. If managers learn that their organization looks a little different than they thought once you look under the hood, the net change will be positive for organizations.

What do you think? What mistakes must managers avoid when learning to observe?


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