The “Undercover Boss” which is also televised in the Netherlands is an interesting show: the managing director or CEO of an organization goes onto the shop floor in disguise to find out what actually is going on in his or her organization. And in some matters the “undercover boss” immediately takes action. What a feeling of power that must give… At the end of the show the surprised associates meet with the real person behind the person in disguise: their boss. By the way, it is interesting to see that even without disguise, the boss is not always recognized… The “undercover boss” then solves the problems that were surfaced and rewards the employees for their efforts. All very desirable and worthwhile, but the question that arises is of course: “Why in fact only in such a TV show?”
Genchi Genbutsu – Go and See
What actually is going on in an organization cannot be found out by staring at a monthly report, attending a presentation or organizing a meeting. To actually find out what’s going on you need to go to where the work is actually being done. It is there where quality and service are actually being delivered and value is created, it is there where people can work safely or run into safety risks and it is there where during the execution of work, associates lose valuable time in performing non-value adding activities that might be prevented.
Still, I see a lot of managers and support functions that do not take the step into reality. Many decisions are being taken in distant offices and based upon general abstractions and opinions on how the work works thereby impacting the operational and consequently also the financial results of their organization.
The Lean manager and support associate go to the actual place where the work is performed, the so called “genba” and studies how the work actually works. This is also known as “go and see” management or “genchi genbutsu”. Only on the basis of actual observation and experiments, conclusions about what causes problems and how work may be improved can be drawn.
The question that arises is why, in fact, the “Undercover Boss” needs a TV show to find out how the work actually works…
Sticking Plasters or Preventing Wounds
While touring its operations, the “Undercover Boss” often runs into problems of which he or she does not understand why they have not been solved yet. A call is of course quickly made and at the end of the show, the “Undercover Boss” suddenly turns into the “Fairy Godmother” and tells the grateful employees that their issues will be history as of now. Old machines are being repaired or replaced, projects rescheduled and procedures accelerated, no sooner said than done.
But do these actions indeed improve the way the work works? Next time around, in another location or another team, I am sure the same problems most probably will arise in the same way as they did now. The organization is not effectively learning and not actually improving; it is fixing. What we see is a case of single loop learning where we fix stuff, but we never actually change our ways. To actually improve, we don’t need managers that fix, but leaders that improve using double loop learning.
Because of the foregoing, the “Undercover Boss” might become a temporary “Fairy Godmother” with good intentions, but not the leader that the organization actually requires. A leader that challenges the way the work works based upon the problems that are being detected and the root causes that underlie these problem cases. Unfortunately for the employees in the “Undercover Boss” we do not see evidence of the organization’s management taking up this far more important challenge…
But even if the “Undercover Boss” would visit the “genba” more often and structurally tackle the detected problems, we would not be effective as an organization. In the TV show, the “Undercover Boss” in fact bypasses all existing management layers between the CEO and the shop floor. The real question is why problems aren’t being detected and tackled by the organization. Why in fact does the boss need to go to the shop floor to find out? These are all indications that something is wrong with the management process and structure of the organization.
Also the other way around, at the end of the show, when the “Undercover Boss” proudly presents his or her actions, all management layers are being bypassed. Implicitly the organization states that all of its management cannot accomplish routinely what the “Undercover Boss” fixes at the end of the show; nice to know if you’re part of that management. And it is of course an illusion to think (and not desirable as well) that the “Undercover Boss” can be everywhere at the same time to fix the organization’s problems.
Shortly: the “Undercover Boss” shows us in various ways what is wrong with many organizations when it comes down to improving the way its work works: we do not know what our problems are, we do not learn from our problems and stick to fixing instead of improving, and we fail in addressing the way we manage in order to actually tackle the first two things I mentioned… Enough work to be done it seems for organizations both in the Netherlands and around the globe…