By Kevin Meyer
Over the last several weeks many of us have watched episodes of Undercover Boss. The premise is that a CEO has the brilliant insight, with the prodding of television producers, that he should visit the "front lines" to see what is really happening in his company. So off he goes, announcing to his stunned staff that he's "going undercover" to actually visit the troops, changing clothes in the executive locker room that all those companies seem to have but no company I've worked for has ever had, and checks into a cheap motel. The horrors!
It gets better. Usually he then acts dumb and ignorant, often gets fired from some entry level position, and is flabbergasted when he finds that some incredibly smart or dedicated people are not being utilized or that they have tear-rendering personal challenges that the company has somehow overlooked.
Yes, it still gets even better. The executive eventually returns to the hallowed cherry-paneled halls, can finally put his suit back on, and then summons his stricken underlings to his beloved headquarters. He meets again with each of them, reveals his identity, and does some good deed for them that changes their lives but with the exception of a couple minor programs does nothing to change the underlying condition.
Pathetic, truly pathetic. I guess an undercover stroll through a garbage dump is better than nothing, but not much. What got me riled up this morning was an article discussing how the improving economy is allowing executives the time to visit their operations more.
As the economy recovers, employees are more likely to see a new presence in the office—their chief executive.
Chiefs who spent last year battling the recession are coming out of
their foxholes to talk more with staffers. It's an effort to boost
morale, solicit ideas and better understand employee concerns. Some
hope to stave off defections ahead of a job-market recovery.
At US Airways Group Inc., CEO Douglas Parker is making weekly appearances at pilot-training
sessions. Quicken Loans Inc. CEO Bill Emerson began holding weekly
two-hour lunch meetings with employees in January.
PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP Chairman Robert Moritz is asking executives
to roam the halls more.
"As the economy turns around, there's more of a risk of losing
people so we've increased the efforts" to talk with workers, Mr. Moritz
Fine and dandy, about time, but "walking around" isn't enough. Roaming the halls and spying on the water cooler isn't learning about your organization. And it especially isn't a gemba walk.
What a lost opportunity these executives have, especially the ones that go "undercover."
A real leader isn't scared of his operations – he knows they are critical to the organization's success and wants to spend every possible moment in the trenches. He doesn't just want to learn about what's going on, he wants to teach. He wants to challenge the status quo, bring out ideas, find better ways. Help people understand why he and the organization is following a certain path, what his concerns are and solicit help and ideas.
What if the guys in Undercover Boss kept their identity, went to their operations every day so that their presence wasn't a disruption – but was even welcome. What if they were in their operations so often, at such a level, that incredible trust was built up so everyone felt comfortable bringing up any issue… and any idea. What if the top executive led groups of people in spontaneous kaizen activities. Teaching, creating, changing. Not just sneaking around and watching.
Wouldn't that be a great TV show? Maybe not. Not enough drama, mayhem and intrigue. Not good for TV. But probably good for business.