Undercover Embarrassing Bodies

A new series of Undercover Boss has started recently. I’d stopped watching it ages ago but thought I’d give the new series a go. It wasn’t disappointing in that it was at once utterly predictable, yet still surprising.

It was intriguing to follow Phil Couchman, the Chief Executive of DHL in the UK. It’s likely the show was deftly edited, and it’s difficult to tell how long Phil actually spent at the coalface with his employees, but it was clear that he saw at first hand problems that he may never have considered critical, or perhaps even knew about before.

The most strikingly obvious problem Phil faced was the lack of Sat Nav in delivery trucks that were being timed for each delivery, which he experienced costing him vital delivery time. I’m sure a lot of viewers found it to be a bizarre situation. My first thought upon seeing this problem was that if I were a DHL delivery driver I would have taken my own Sat Nav to work. But instead of pointing and laughing at DHL, we should consider that perhaps the majority of companies are afflicted with problems that to outsiders appear obvious, but which internally have been worked around or ignored because of some specific reason such as cost or time constraints, or lack of applicable skills to solve the problem.

Another issue was an unflinching reliance upon process by call centre staff. It would not be fair to characterise this as an issue with the staff themselves. They had been trained to do a certain thing in a certain way and so cannot be blamed when it is the procedure itself that is wrong. The opposite situation can also be a problematic – of process not clearly defined enough.

Whilst Undercover Boss can seem a little contrived, and in no small part a marketing excerise, it still highlights typical business issues. Over time inconsistencies and inefficiencies will insidiously creep, almost imperceptibly, into every organisation. The key is to recognise and rectify these inefficiencies and systemic inconsistencies.

Not every CEO will take part in Undercover Boss. Those that do can’t hope to personally see and deal with all the issues within the organisations under their stewardship. Most CEOs probably do not want to appear on a TV programme to discover their problems – it is almost like that other Channel 4 staple, Embarrassing Bodies, in which people reveal medical problems in glorious colour. But organisations do need people to, in effect, fulfill the role of an Undercover Boss.

Gathering up problems, as with DHL, is often a cathartic process, occasionally challenging, but always worthwhile. Finding the gaps between the way a company works, and how it could work best will at the very least highlight to C-Suite executives ways to enhance company performance. It’s then up to those executives to decide which gaps need to be filled in and which are acceptable trade-offs in the overall strategic direction of the company.

Being on Undercover Boss, I would imagine, is difficult. It’s likely that you just don’t know what is going to happen, or how it will turn out on TV. But, like the Embarrassing Bodies programme, the only thing worse than displaying all your problems on TV is systematically ignoring those problems in the hope they will go away. A head-in-the-sand attitude allows problems to grow and fester. Doctors and Business Analysts alike advise against this course of action.

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