In (corner office) Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

Any dad who’s ever shot his kid’s birthday party knows the camera work in Undercover Boss is just too good to be true.

Reality shows are show-biz first and reality second, but the fact that it isn’t all real doesn’t mean it isn’t true. In fact, the truth of this show is astounding—although not in a good way.

For those unfamiliar with the premise, the CEO or COO of a large company shaves—or unshaves—and heads out to work with real people at the bottom of the food chain. He spends a few days with five or six employees who are hard-working and ethical and—verrrry coincidentally—have a sick child or a debilitating disease or a plan to make millions for the company, if only they could talk to someone high up in the corporation…….

By the end of the show, the suit has discovered all kinds of things he didn’t know before and brings in the people he worked under for a surprise announcement that’s he’s really Prince Charming and all their dreams are about to come true.

Leaving the other 149,994 employees of the company in the same crappy spot they were in before the cameras started rolling.

In the first episode I saw, the COO of Waste Management runs around doing various grunt jobs very badly for people who will not earn in a lifetime the amount he took home last year.

In one segment, the woman driving a truck indicates she needs to pee in a can in order to meet her schedule because nobody at corporate—as in, the genius sitting next to her—thought to put a bathroom break in the schedule.

The COO of 1800Flowers works in various menial jobs and is shocked to find that people at the lower levels don’t know the parent company offers training programs. He works in a candy factory where he can’t keep up with the workload and realizes he’s been asking the managers to cut costs even further—by increasing the workload.

At the end of the show, the captains of industry all vow that, gosh darnit, things are going to be different from now on.

Let’s all make a mental note to check back next year.
Because the problems highlighted on Undercover Boss are now the fundamental economics of these businesses. Waste Management’s profit model—and the stock option plans for top executives—rely on a cost structure that requires drivers to pee in cans. The budget for training at 1800Flowers would blow up in a minute if all the people who need and want training actually knew it was available and applied for it.

Which brings us to the number one rule of business pathology, a rule so fundamental that it is almost universally ignored.

Managing by the numbers is not managing at all.

It’s pretending to manage, as if the numbers were real and not the shadow of real people and products moving from the receiving dock through to the customer. The further we are from the plant floor, the less we know about our business and the less capable we are of managing it.

On paper, we can cut any cost and adjust any timing. We can trim costs 30% and send the sheet to a regional manager with the instruction to make it happen or be replaced. And the regional manager will make it happen, because he is more interested in saving his job than in saving the company.

So he’s going to cut short-term costs in a way that will absolutely make the company less stable or sustainable over the long term. But nobody asked him to make the company more sustainable over a lifetime; his job is to make it more profitable next quarter.

Five or six quarters from now, when some competitor starts digging into market share or some state’s attorney general files a suit, the people in the home office will be stunned that shortcuts were taken at the regional offices. It seems that we’re always shocked when we get exactly what we asked for in life—including business life.

Frankly, I think every CEO should go undercover. I know it isn’t really, really reality, but it’s all true.

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