Denny Slagle, President and CEO of Mack Trucks, working incognito on his company's assembly lines in an episode of the television program Undercover Boss.
Photo credit: Photo Courtesy of Mack Trucks
The other day I was watching the television program Undercover Boss. For those of you who have never seen the show, it features a CEO that goes undercover to work in his own company.
The CEO is always shocked by the effort his or her employees make and the difficulty of their jobs. Additionally, the undercover boss is always changed for the better from the experience.
What is interesting to me about the program is that even if the head of the company started the business, he/she forgets what it is like on the frontlines.
Similarly, workers tend to have their own views of their company management’s jobs.
This reminds me of a time I was at a mine in Canada. In meetings with the mine managers they complained about the limited impact they were having on the workers and how the same workers seemed to not “want to work” for their “huge” wages. The workers, meantime, smirked at the managers, saying that they worked in a country club environment, indoors in an office, compared to working in an underground mine.
Not every company’s management is so callous. At another company, one more than 100 years old, I meet with a Chief Financial Officer. The man was in agony, suffering loss of sleep and physical symptoms like high blood pressure, because of the layoffs he was planning. He did not want to let go part of his workforce, but his organization wasn’t presently profitable and if it didn’t turn things around it would run out of cash.
Point of View
I was reading some business articles from 25 years ago. The writer of several of these articles was an acolyte of W.E. Deming, the person who developed the philosophy of continual improvement of products.
This author said running a lean organization required several approaches to be successful. One was a top-down approach in order to get everyone aligned toward a single goal. Another was a bottom-up process, because there is waste that can only be seen from the perspective of each individual level of the company.
Regardless of which approach is taken, there is a specialized point of view for each job at the company. From each point of view unique issues, wastes and challenges can be discerned. Those points of view have knowledge associated with them that is only known to the people that have done that job or have been in close proximity with the people doing that job.
In short, it seems like everyone in a company suffers from ignorance about what is going on in other parts of their organization.
Ignorance of What Others Do
Have you ever wondered why we often dislike people with different positions than our own in the same company? It seems that we are wired to take a negative view of any other job. However, people who have recent direct knowledge about what others do in their company don’t jump to the same conclusions.
This shouldn’t be a surprise because the lack of respect is directly related to ignorance. We are willfully ignorant of what is going on, even a door away, at our own workplace.
Are we incapable of empathy? I’m not sure about that. Maybe we are all just so busy that to have any empathy would be a luxury. Everyone seems up against the wall, so “generosity of spirit” has gone on vacation.
One Possible Solution
I have a thought for fixing this situation and it is based on the premise of Undercover Boss.
I propose we have a swap jobs for a day event. Two people who do different jobs would “do” each other’s job for one shift - within reason, of course. You wouldn’t want someone from the purchasing department to breakdown a tire or drop a transmission. Nor would you want to have a technician do the payroll.
Every week, someone would visit someone else for a day and learn what they do and what their challenges and their frustrations are. I suggest you begin with your company’s biggest bellyachers, chosen by an impartial third party.
My idea is hardly original. Back when I was in middle school, a group of students were allowed to shadow jobs in the local township. While some kids were happy to be in the mayor’s office or hang out with the police or fire chief, I was thrilled to go to the township engineer’s office. There, I got to see and hear firsthand what they had to deal with, both good and bad.
To this day, I still have an appreciation of the challenges of that position. Think about the impact knowing about what others do and have to deal with can have on your own organization.
Joel Levitt has trained more than 6,000 maintenance leaders from more than 3,000 organizations. Since 1980, he has been the president of Springfield Resources, a management consulting firm that services a variety of clients on a wide range of maintenance issues. www.maintenancetraining.com.