I’m a big fan of the TV show Undercover Boss, at least for its entertainment value.
The format of the show is quite simple. A high ranking executive or owner goes undercover as an entry-level employee in their own company. The executives alter their appearances; assume an alias and a camera crew follows them around for a week to record a documentary about their experiences. What the executives are trying to “uncover” is how their companies really works and how they can be improved.
The show is emotionally charged (good TV always is) and what the executives find always seems to surprise them. One show profiled was a USA waste management company that employed a female garbage truck operator. Due to recent company cost-cutting her shift quota for garbage pick-ups was increased. She had to find extra time during her shift otherwise she couldn’t meet the new productivity standard.
The only way she could do it was to cut out any down-time. This included toilet breaks. Her solution was to carry a can around in the truck and use it instead of finding a toilet. The undercover boss’ reaction, upon finding this out, was predictably earnest. This type of “discovery” is the basis of the show’s format.
What struck me about the show is how little these executives seemed to know about the inner-workings of their businesses. If their level of surprise is genuine then they must spend a lot of time in their ivory towers and not much time at the coal-face of their operations. The decisions they are making, therefore, must be based more on speculation and less on actually “knowing”. They are using guess-work, old experiences and the opinions of their colleagues as the basis of their decisions.
What they are not doing is validating any of this first-hand by spending time out of the office observing behaviour, collecting facts and testing beliefs.
The author, John Le Carre, once wrote that a “desk is a dangerous place to view the world”. And yet this is how many executives and business owners operate. They rarely venture out, instead making decisions without understanding the full impact of them.
I wonder whether the waste management executive would have made the same cost-cutting decision if he knew that it forced his employees to pee into a can to comply?
I think part of the problem is that as executives move up the corporate ladder they “choose” to distance themselves from what is happening on the ground. They delegate this to somebody else to worry about and stay detached from it. I see it regularly. Entrepreneurs are just as guilty pulling out the line “I create companies but I can’t manage them.” This old chestnut always makes me smile.
Here’s the point – if all company information is pre-filtered by your colleagues (or advisors) then you’ll end up with a watered down view of reality. Raw, first-hand information is important too and the only way to get it is by regularly leaving your office and involving yourself closely in your operations.
Good information leads to good insights which lead to good decisions being made. The difficulty is that none of this stuff is lying around on the ground – you have to dig it out.
There’s no need to become an undercover boss but you do need to get out of the ivory tower. None of us know everything about our businesses and even more importantly we don’t know what we don’t know. Our job is to find out everything we can.