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?

1 Dragan Bosnjak February 15, 2010 at 7:05 am

They need to recognize that there is not just their point of view, which is what often happens in traditional organisations.
People are capable of thinking and creating if put in a proper environment, even if that is not what they might think…
And the example of this program probably helps them seeing the other point of view, the problems that their personel has every day.
And they need to LEARN about it and DO something about it when they are back to managing.
If learning and doing does not take place, this practice is absolutely futile and just a spectacle for the tv show…

2 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 15, 2010 at 8:25 am

I found this interview with the COO of Waste Management which I thought was relevant and interesting..


3 Bruce Baker February 15, 2010 at 8:37 am

Thanks Jamie. I agree with all three points. It does make for great drama when the CEO sends a branch manager on a vacation because she is too stressed, but what about the other 400 and some stressed out managers? Last night’s CEO made one person’s problem his problem. The right problem for the CEO is the system and the environment that affects all 400 branch managers. He was a lot better than I would have been in one repsect though – I would have sent Jimbo packing.
Bruc Baker

4 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 15, 2010 at 9:12 am


I agree – the vacation made everyone feel good, but didn’t solve the problem (although he did elude later to wanting to find a way to make schedules workable for single mothers and fathers).

Jimbo is interesting. He couldn’t fire him, because he’s not his employee, he’s an employee of the franchisee. But it too is just a symptom of a bigger problem. The problem wasn’t Jimbo, is was how was Jimbo both allowed not to be found but also perhaps encouraged. I saw a blog post this morning from someone who used to work for Jimbo, and her point was that he was much better than the previous manager. Scary.

5 Mark Graban February 15, 2010 at 10:40 am

I feel like I’m wasting my holiday day off watching the Hooters episode. The CEO got the job because he dad owned it and he was named President/CEO without the dad even talking to him about it?

Yikes, holy bad company governance. The “best company in the world” this guy says??

6 Jim Fernandez February 15, 2010 at 11:23 am

Well first off Undercover Boss is a TV show. For the TV show to be successful there must be character development, drama, emotion, conflict, resolution etc. Which you somewhat pointed out. I agree going undercover is not a good idea, but it’s a cute idea for a TV show.

I work in a company with 150 employees. When the big boss comes out to Gemba, Gemba changes. For lots of reasons. So here in my small company it’s hard for the boss to observe the real Gemba. On the other hand I can observe Gemba and the activity there changes very little. This is because I go there all the time. Workers are comfortable with me there. So my point is if the boss wants to know what’s really happening he has two choices. One, get the information from someone like me. Or two, develop a relationship with the workers where the workers are comfortable with the boss being there watching the work and comfortable with him talking to them.

7 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 15, 2010 at 11:32 am

Mark, yes, that is very bad government, and is quite common in family owned businesses. I believe poor succession planning is one of the top threats to any family owned business.

Jim, I absolutely agree. Heading down the second path, I have seen leaders who every time they were on the floor people changed their behavior, get to the point through repeated exposure where the leader was just part of the environment. When an issue took that leader away from the floor for a period after that, they all noticed, commenting “where is he?” They were concerned. That was a great indicator of the change.

8 Mark Graban February 15, 2010 at 11:39 am

Jim makes a great point that you have to build trust over time. I’ve seen some hospital leaders try to start going to the gemba… and people freak out. “What’s gone wrong?” is their first reaction, as if something serious had happened. People tense up. You change the system by observing it.

The good news is you CAN build comfort, trust, and rapport, but it takes time and consistent behavior from leaders.

9 Mark Graban February 15, 2010 at 11:40 am

One other consistent theme I see across the two shows are a lack of training new employees and managers who just say “come come on, go faster.”

They could all benefit from Training Within Industry training. Why is that not part of any so-called stimulus bill or so-called “jobs” bill?

Think how much more productive America would be if managers knew how to actually train and manage employees?

10 Ron Pereira February 15, 2010 at 12:15 pm

I caught the last 40 minutes of the show last night… first time I had seen it as I was mad the Colts lost so turned TV off after Super Bowl!

Anyhow, I think this show is a marketing gimmick through and through… but hats off to the company’s that do get on the show as the marketing they have gotten is priceless. I live in DFW and the new was abuzz with the fact this show was in our neighborhood. Huge watching parties, etc.

The fact the Hooters CEO hadn’t been in the manufacturing plant, for like ever, leads me to believe he has no understanding of how going to the place the actual work is done is so important.

Also, maybe they cover this and I missed it, but don’t the “workers” think it’s weird that at LEAST 3 guys holding $40,000 video cameras is a bit strange? I mean is this REALLY undercover? Again, maybe they have some explanation for this… but I am very skeptical.

But… my wife seems hooked so I’ll probably watch next weekend. Again, brilliant marketing… hook the wife and the husband will watch too!

11 Mark Graban February 15, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Ron – they have some sort of cover story, filming a documentary about something or other. Probably doesn’t seem that unusual for Hooters to have camera.

The poor CEO needs to do some soul searching. Is he really the right guy to run that business? Is that really the right business for a guy with two young daughters?

Forget being clueless about the factory, how could he be SO clueless about the perception of the brand and how some people might be bothered by Hooters? What does he understand? Seems like a bunch of good ole’ boys on his board (and women)… seems like he has a nice cushy existence.

12 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 15, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Ron, the cover story is that the individual is an out-of-work construction worker who is trying out entry-level jobs as a documentary. It’s enough to convince people that this won’t affect their career, but not enough to ignore the camera. I’m sure there is plenty of “showing off” for the camera, as it appeared Jimbo was trying extra hard to do.

The first episode, Waste Management, was much better from an image standpoint. It sounds like are trying to do stuff with what they learned. But the whole show is a big gimmicky. I think it send s a directionally correct message, but the execution is poor. Hence, my advice above.

13 Mark Graban February 15, 2010 at 12:36 pm

The Hooters CEO had such a weak response. Giving donations and vacations… that’s paying your way out of a problem, feels good, but doesn’t fix the system. Maybe the internal education campaign will help, but I can’t believe he didn’t fire Jimbo. It wasn’t so much Jimbo’s repugnant attitude and behavior, but his “hey, I get results” defense. Should have been fired right then and there. The CEO was a wimp. That’s the image of Hooters? The CEO should be a Herb Kelleher type, unapologetic for who and what they are.

14 Ron Pereira February 15, 2010 at 12:37 pm

I see, Jamie. Agree with you 100%, it seems old Jimbo was definitely playing it up… especially when he bowed up to the CEO about how he grew sales, etc. Then, in a flash, with soothing music playing in the background to set the mood old Jimbo finds religion… tears almost come to his eyes… and he is a changed man. Yeah, right.

But one thing I am confident in is that old Jimbo’s store sales are about to SKY ROCKET for at least the next 2 months making him and the CEO happy men!

15 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 15, 2010 at 12:38 pm

This show originally aired in the U.K., as do most of the U.S. reality shows it seems. I don’t know how successful it was or if it’s led to real change. Here is one executives lessons learned, which appear pretty solid:


16 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 15, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Mark, I doubt he could have fired him. This is a franchise, which means he’s not a Hooters of America employee. The franchisee has the right and responsibility.

17 Mark Graban February 15, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Then he could have certainly chewed him out in a less wimp-tacular way.

18 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 15, 2010 at 12:52 pm

No question about that!

19 Liz Guthridge, The LEAN Communicator February 16, 2010 at 1:47 am

Jamie, a great topic and angle for you to cover. The mistakes you suggest avoiding are so on point.

Undercover Boss is great TV but lousy leadership for 2010. Leaders need to be transparent, which is supported by the new Edelman 2010 Trust Barometer. You can’t build trust if you’re hiding who you are and what you’re doing.

I have to say it’s a sad story when so many leaders don’t regularly go to the gemba.

20 Lyle February 16, 2010 at 10:04 am

I was manager of a large corp, and I did a lot of walking around visiting dept managers, and the lower level workers. I actually learned from all my workers how to improve operations.you can’t learn if you lock yourself in an office.

21 David Drickhamer February 18, 2010 at 11:24 am

Management-by-walking-around with cameras. Hooters PR attempt may or may not have backfired amidst slumping restaurant sales. I’d add that all reality TV, all TV, has to be gimmicky. That’s just the nature of the beast. Even if it were a real documentary, there has to be something compelling about the situation or the characters for us to watch. Nuance or deep insights aren’t what it’s about. Sustainability will be a challenge; the more popular it becomes the more difficult that it will be for the boss to go undercover. Too bad no mfrs. or women CEOs are on schedule:
7-Eleven (Joseph M. DePinto, President and C.E.O.)
White Castle (Dave Rife, Owner/Executive Board Member)
Churchill Downs (William C. Carstanjen, C.O.O.).

22 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 18, 2010 at 12:14 pm

I agree David, it would have been nice to see a couple manufacturing companies in there.

23 Kathleen Mennillo February 24, 2010 at 7:47 pm

I want to continue the thought found above from Jim Fernandez about the “Big Boss” tapping into company leaders to understand what happens at Gemba. I often see the head of the company or the executive level not listening or acting on information brought up to them. I would love for the show to explore this aspect (we see the exec. leadership on the show for a few minutes) and see if these leadership teams will incorporate any of the “undercover” or “going to Gemba” activities themselves.

Previous post:

Next post: