Undercover Boss

[tweetmeme source=”leanisgood” service=”ow.ly” only_single=false]The other night after the Superbowl (congratulations to the Saints) CBS debuted a new reality show that has gotten minor play in the lean blogosphere (here, curious cat, and LeanBlog).

The premise of the show is bosses going undercover to do the actual work that happens in their companies.  Last night Larry O’Donnell, President and COO of Waste Management, emptied portapotties, picked up trash at a landfill, sorted trash on a recycling line, worked a garbage truck route, and followed the AP / AR / scale operator / office manager at one of their landfill sites.  Here is the complete episode in case you missed it and want to watch it:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I doubt that the creators or producers of this series intend it to be an expository documentary on genchu genbutsu or Ohno’s 30″ circle.  I think the intent of the show is to appeal to our sense of social justice (in the sense that the moral test of an organization is how it treats its most vulnerable and politically / socially isolated members) and to our affinity for the underdog (how many of us were rooting for the Saints last night even though we might not have any tangible connection to them).

I would predict that the denouement of future episodes will be similar to last night’s humble and reflective confessional by Mr. O’Donnell that the decisions and policies that he makes profoundly affect people lives both at work and away from it.  Further he admits that he must do things differently.  This gives us the viewers, as real people who want executives to conduct themselves in a fashion that gives them moral claim to run businesses, emotional satisfaction by seeing an executive use his or her power to rectify a couple anecdotal examples of corporate injustice.  This is especially so since the producers will assure that we have the opportunity to make emotional invested in the ‘aggrieved’ during the show. Mr. O’Donnell’s recognition of the incredibly upbeat portapottie cleaner — Fred and his attitude certainly made most people feel good.  Who wouldn’t want to see the overworked and underpaid Jaclyn not get her promotion (her boss quickly admitted to Larry that they were short a couple people). This makes for good ‘reality drama’, and it is fitting and proper that Mr. O’Donnell should do these things.

But, in a larger sense, how would we , as lean practitioners, advise Mr. O’Donnell and future bosses on the show?  I’ve got one suggestion.  Start with Deming’s 14 points.

When Larry asks about Fred’s passion for cleaning portapotties,  “I kept tryin’ to figure out what motivates him?”  I would try to get Larry to understand that it is probably the same thing that motivates himself – his desire to do a good job and find joy in work.   Fred’s boss Gilbert, from the little bit we could see on the show seemed to be a pretty supportive supervisor.  Fred seemed to be the one worker in the show who wasn’t spied on, overworked, or otherwise mismanaged.  From the little bit that was on the show it might seem that Gilbert hasn’t put barriers in Fred’s way that rob Fred of his right to pride in workmanship (Deming #11).

I would remind Larry of his commitment that Waste Management’s people should know how to follow proceduralized (standardized) work.  His commitment flows from a medical mistake that left his daughter brain damaged.  In the segment where Mr. O’Donnell picked up trash at a landfill site under the ‘supervision’ of Walter, Larry wasn’t given any instruction (even when he asked for it).  You can watch this segment here.  Walter told Larry that it isn’t “rocket science.”  Larry ended up getting fired from this job.  I assume that Larry to a positive intent to work with him that day and really wanted to be good at picking up papers.  He should think about helping people in that job: improve that process constantly and forever (Deming #5), and train people in the required skills (Deming #6).  He certainly needed different gear and a process.  Training Within Industry‘s Job Methods and Job Instruction modules might be a nice package to help him with that.  It was nice that Larry recognized Walter’s 19 year battle with kidney disease and that he was an inspiration for living the life that he does in spite of multiple dialysis treatment each week, but his gemba is a literal and metaphoric mess.

Larry should just end the practice of paying people (route managers) to follow and spy on garbage truck drivers.  Janice , the garbage truck driver, rightfully felt like she wasn’t trusted because of the ‘white pickup trucks’ (Deming #8).  You can watch this clip here.  His experience with Janice should cause him to reconsider what his numerical ‘productivity’ mandates do to the truck drivers (Deming #11), who Larry admits are the face of Waste Management.  Because of the productivity numbers Janice has to pee in a can – watch it, i ain’t making this up.  Janice also seemed to have created some goodwill with some of her customers.  We can argue the economic value to the enterprise of this goodwill, but it will probably go away if Larry continues to push for more productivity numbers.  to Larry’s credit his did seem to be cognizant that his policies were in the causal chain of a lot of the problems that he encountered in the Gemba.

This is a blog not a book so I will wrap it by saying he needs to institute leadership (Deming #7) by teaching his leaders the new philosophy (Deming #2), send them to the Gemba (make it visual with a kamishibai boards in his conference room and in the field locations – sorry to everybody who doesn’t like the Japanese words but I still use that one), get everybody working on improvement (Deming #14), and create constancy of purpose by focusing on improvement in process and service (Deming #1) – the bottom line will follow.

Larry seemed to have the humility to see that he was part of the source of much of what he saw that he didn’t like.  He really seemed to believe and trust his people.  I am an optimizing personality when it comes to people so I will be rooting for him and believing that he can help transform Waste Management.  I would have more faith if could learn more about people, how they work, and about systems from Dr. Deming.


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3 Responses

  1. Great post! I was most curious about Jaclyn’s story. I couldn’t help but wonder what led the site manager to keep his operation “down a couple people.” Was there some type of headcount edict from Larry? Was the site manager meeting some cost savings plan?

    Jaclyn got her promotion and salary, but I also wonder how many other site managers are doing the same thing? Can Larry approach all the sites with some type of system to ensure what happened with Jaclyn isn’t going on elsewhere?

  2. You should also check out this Fox news video where they interviewed Larry O’Donnell. He talks about what he was proud about from his work force, how hard the job was, and an improvement he made from the experience.


    I tend to believe him.

  3. A great perspective on this. I think what managers ultimately take away as lessons that go through this and what fits on the TV show may be very different. Last night’s episode I think he gained some valuable perspective, but how that translates in the long and tedious task of everyday decision making and improvement doesn’t fit in the 12 minutes at the end where they turn their new knowledge into action. Making a donation in the name of an employee and handing out ad hoc vacations fit very well.

    I have some lessons that I am concerned people will learn but shouldn’t, starting with the ideal of going undercover. That works great on TV, but not so much in real life. Here are some of my thoughts on it: http://jamieflinchbaugh.com/2010/02/what-not-to-learn-from-the-undercover-boss/

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