Don’t Fail Your Employees

Undercover Boss on CBS

Last night I finally went on to the CBS website and watched the first episode of Undercover Boss. The premise of the show is pretty interesting – presidents/CEOs of large companies go “undercover” and work as front-line employees for their own organizations. The assumption being that they’ll see things completely differently if they work in the positions that directly interact with their customers.

And of course that’s what happened in the first episode. It featured president and COO of Waste Management Larry O’Donnell. WM is a great first company because 1) they are huge 2) Larry was really really excited to learn from the experience, and 3) they have the shittiest possible jobs to do…literally. The episode can be watched in full online. Unlike 99.99% of the shows on television, this may actually make be worth watching on a regular basis.

In this instance, O’Donnell made it a point to correct some of the injustices that his employees encountered. Which was awesome. It was nice to see him take action. But it was even better to see him connect this to the big picture. Several times he said how his cost cutting initiatives to make the company more efficient were backfiring in ways that he couldn’t have imagined.

In a large organization like WM, this is a huge problem. The people making the policies are often several levels away from those enacting them. It seems like total common sense, but even in a large company like WM, you have to have some connection to your front line employees that are actually doing the day to day work and interacting directly with your customer base. Larry and his board really didn’t understand their own business.

The answer for most businesses isn’t going on a reality show. But that doesn’t mean that whomever is putting a new process in place shouldn’t actually do it themselves for a day or two. You can learn so much more than any amount of data can give you by just doing it and talking to those who do it on a daily basis. It seems like a waste of time but – as this show is probably going to prove every single week – it’s often the best use of an executive’s time.

There absolutely has to be a regular feedback loop where management solicits information from the people who are doing the actual work. If you empower them at their own job they’ll be much happier and more productive, and you’ll develop more efficient processes as a result of it (and in the end make more money and be more profitable). Again, seems like common sense, but how many businesses actually do it?

Now, in a small business like ours this is much easier but still not impossible to screw up. We’re at the point where the owners are all trying to remove ourselves from the day to day operations of our warehouse. By the end of the year it’s a pretty safe assumption to say that we’ll have a full time warehouse manager and 1-3 part time employees reporting to him.

All of a sudden we’ll be a step removed from our part time employees. It’s not too hard to see how we could lose touch with them while we “focus on more important things”. But the most important thing is always how your existing business operates on a day to day basis. If customers aren’t being taken care of in a way that meets our standards, nothing else really matters.

One of the reasons that our systems have worked so well is that we’ve designed them for us to use. We build it, we try it, and we tweak it, based upon our own feedback (and now the feedback of Charlie and John). We won’t always be the ones pulling the orders or stocking the shelves on a daily basis (in fact, we rarely do that stuff now), but we have to make a commitment to do it somewhat regularly…especially when we make a change to our processes. And we need to make sure our employees feel empowered to tell us what works, what doesn’t, and their ideas for improvement.

I think for the most part we’ve done that so far. Each of our employees has made several suggestions that have been implemented and made the system as a whole better, which I think is a good measuring stick for this kind of stuff – their willingness to speak up, and our willingness to implement. But as we grow it will take more of a concerned effort to achieve.

Today I was in the warehouse by myself (Mike was sick, the other guys all had stuff going on). It was the first time since the holidays that I pulled orders. It was a good thing. It reminded me what the job was like. It got my mind off of some of the other projects I was on and for one day got me thinking about the things that our employees think about. It was a very good use of my time, which is something I’ll hopefully always keep in the back of my mind.

If I don’t, I’m sure I’d end up like the millions of other business owners who make decisions based upon numbers on a screen without being able to consider the true impact that it will have on their employees, their customers, and inevitably their bottom line.

6 comments on Don’t Fail Your Employees

  1. matt b says:

    You are very right I actually really enjoyed the show and look forward to the next one. Not to mention I am a huge fan of WM as a company and have had my eye on the stock for a while now, just havent pulled the trigger. Now I like the company even more so. Good write up.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks Matt. Yea I kind of failed to mention that for years I’ve always heard great things about WM, both in terms of how they run their business and how they treat their employees. It doesn’t really surprise me how this episode went. I am curious to see future episodes with some more poorly run companies with executives who aren’t interested in changing things. It could get very interesting.

  2. Rob says:

    These are great shows, worth watching the original UK ones as well. “Back to the floor” – are also pretty good.

  3. Rob says:

    Just caught another great show today;

    She goes into failing businesses and tells them the harsh truth & tries to turn their business around; I don’t know if you can stream it online from the the official site outside of the UK, but I’m sure intelligent people like you & your blog readers will find a way of seeing the show if they want to..

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Awesome thanks Rob! I’ll definitely give it a watch. The video loaded and I watched a few seconds of it, so I think we’re OK to watch here in the US.

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