Undercover Boss – Going to the Gemba on CBS

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Genchi gembutsu.  Go to the gemba.  The importance of going to the ‘actual place’ to see the ‘actual thing.’  It’s something that lean practitioners value a lot.  CBS’s new reality show, Undercover Boss, premiering on February 7th after the Superbowl is where corporate leaders do just that – the voyeuristic ritual of reality shows goes lean?

In the first episode Larry O’Donnell, President and Chief Operating Officer of Waste Management,Inc. goes undercover as ‘Randy Lawrence’ and begins his ‘first day’ emptying porta-potties, sorting trash on what looks like a recycling line, picking up loose trash, and riding the back of a garbage truck.  In the extended preview (embedded below), Mr. O’Donnell gets worn out both physically and emotionally by the work that people in his organization do everyday.  He has experiences unexpected emotions on the back of a garbage truck.  He gets fired for the first time in his life from a job picking up trash (from what I could see on the preview, he lacked appropriate equipment and training).  He sees an employee whose responsibilities exceed her compensation in his opinion.  He witnesses unfair clock in / clock out rules.  He makes the realization that his garbage truck drivers have to relieve themselves in a tin can.

After transforming back into Larry O’Donnell he fixes some of these problems: he clarifies the company’s time clock policy, he gets an underpaid employee a raise, he arranges for a porta-pottie cleaner to address senior management to share his positive attitude and outlook on work.

I couldn’t tell in the preview if he went to the gemba and studied the work, looked for abnormality and escalated abnormality to problem as most lean practitioners think of going to the gemba.  That being said he acknowledged that this was an opportunity to see what it is like to work for Waste Management.  After his time in the gemba he declares that he has to do his job differently – change – because he has a new understanding of the implications of his decisions on people.  It seems to me that he is a guy who respects people, just never took the opportunity to go and see for himself.  I will be interested to see in Larry changes some systems to correct and prevent some of the weaknesses that he encountered.  Hopefully in a future episode they will have a really arrogant executive go through this for the entertainment value.

I usually don’t watch reality shows, but I think I will watch this one = at least a couple episodes.  It seems like a neat concept without being too contrived.  It will be interesting to see how many of the executives deal with issues relating to the work as well as issues supporting people.  Larry seemed to pick up on the people stuff – this is admirable and what I would hope senior leaders would focus on, but I wonder if these executives have been too far removed to recognize the absurdity in work methods that I have to assume they will experience.  In the preview there are a couple scenes (one picking up trash, and one sorting garbage on a conveyor) where Mr. O’Donnell seems to have problems with the work, but the 5 minute preview doesn’t make it clear what came of his objections (other than him getting fired for being incapable of picking up trash).

The preview below takes about 6 minutes (with a commercial at the beginning).  Let me know what you think of Larry and if you think the show will be worth watching.

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5 Responses

  1. Thanks for the heads up! Could be interesting…

  2. Bruce,

    Love the idea of the show (and like you, I’m not a reality TV guy) and will probably watch an episode or two. But your description makes me a bit sad: that these issues were never heard in the executive offices in the first place, and it took a TV stunt to make change possible. It will be interesting to see if Larry O’Donnell tried to put systems in place to improve respect for people, and to increase the amount of time that he and his fellow bigwigs spend in the gemba.

    • Daniel, I agree. It is sad that it takes something like this to get somebody to go and see for themselves. As you pointed out even if he fixes somethings if doesn’t change or create systems then he is just fixing a couple isolated issues.

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