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I have been wanting to watch the show Undercover Boss on CBS, but have been too depressed from the Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl loss to watch.  I did finally get to it this morning.  I’m glad I did.

One thing we do in systems thinking is perform “check” to understand the what and why of current performance.  We always ask the CEO to get knowledge with us and with a new client starting next week this is a good reminder of why we start this way.  In this show, Larry O’Donnell President and COO of Waste Management does just this.

I was touched by the personal story of his daughter (Lindley) that suffered some brain damage from someone not following “proper procedure” (more on this later).  I encountered a similar experience when I lost my son to SIDS (at 3 months old).  These things stay with you and help shape your life.

Randy (Larry O’Donnell) went to the work and whether for show or not . . . he got knowledge of the work.  The telling statement of his introduction was that he wanted to see the effects of his “targets and cost-cutting” on the organization.  I knew then he was in for some big surprises.

Targets and the focus on costs always increase costs and focus the organization on the wrong things.  I am grateful for W. Edwards Deming pointing this out to me and John Seddon for advancing the conversation in this area.  Both men understood that such foolishness (focus on targets and costs) created a management paradox.

More importantly, Mr. O’Donnell began to understand the unintended consequences associated with corporate mandates void of knowledge.  In command and control fashion, policies were payed out and as usual  the mid-level manager got squeezed at the end (even though what was happening above the mid-level manager was responsible).  The culture was set to be a command and control one and the dysfunction and waste was soon to follow.

What resulted was a series of predictable events.  Here are a few:

  • A productivity focus led to the time clock debachle where the worker was docked 2 minutes for every minute late. Again, don’t blame the mid-level manager as Kevin (no doubt) believed he was doing what was expected from corporate.
  • A productivity focus on trash routes led to monitoring (always a waste), using a can for pee breaks, and not allowing the front-line worker to interact with customers.
  • Cutbacks that led Jaclyn to have to cover multiple jobs.

The interesting thing I have found working with the likes of front-line workers similar to Sandy, Fred, Janice, Walter and Jaclyn is that most workers are extraordinary and each has their own story.  The system they work in is broken.  Put a good person in a bad system and the system will win every time.

I was somewhat bothered by the call-out of Kevin the manager.  He most likely isn’t the problem it is the system the executives put in place.  Better questions may have led to why Kevin felt he needed a time rule for workers (we call these system conditions).

Recommendations for Mr. O’Donnell moving forward:

  • Put the decision-making back with the work and this will avoid managing from the financials and productivity numbers off of reports in command and control fashion.  Cuture will improve when the work AND worker become more relevant.
  • Forget the task forces and programs and take action based on what you find when getting knowledge. This goes back to Ross Perot’s “if you see a snake . . . kill it, don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”
  • His biggest problem is the command and control thinking that will overcome all the good that he may have learned.  Bottom-line is the thinking has to change about the design and management of work from command and control to systems thinking.
  • Dump the production numbers and targets in favor of customer measures derived from customer purpose.  These customer measures will lead to better productivity and greater profit.
  • Look for other system conditions that are preventing the organization from peak performance.
  • Understand that efficient is not the same as effective.

I don’t know about the circumstances surrounding Lindley and “proper procedure.”  But speaking to our tragedy, our babysitter understood that not allowing our son to sleep on his stomach was something we talked about and we could deem it not following “proper procedure.”  Mistakes happen, but I believe they happen for a reason and forgiveness becomes the really important part.

Leave me a comment. . . share your opinion!  Click on comments below.

Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Download free from “Understanding Your Organization as a System” and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about our intervention services at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at LinkedIn at