HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

Undercover Boss

Reprinted from “Productive Workplaces” (May, 2011), the HR Group newsletter.

No matter how much we believe in and promote a participative workplace culture, it is the manager who is still in charge and ultimately responsible. But how can managers say that they are  ultimately responsible and hold staff accountable, if they do not know what is actually going on in the organization? The larger the organization, the harder this becomes, but it is still possible.

You can’t find out, however, by sitting behind a desk and staring at the latest corporate performance data on a computer screen. As we have stated earlier, “Effective managers spend a great deal of their time out of their offices and practice MBWA or Management by Walking Around. There is no better way of keeping your finger on the pulse of the organization than by roaming around, talking to people, and observing what goes on.” Yes the performance data is important, but far more important is the actual human performance that drives this data. Do you know how your staff are actually performing? Do you know how good the service is that they provide? Do you know whether or not they actually like working for the organization and show the resultant initiative, productivity, and service? Do you know the most important question – how does the customer feel about your goods and services and how are they treated? Most of these questions are, of course, highly interrelated and interdependent. Most managers, however, do not have the answers and the corporate data does not always reflect the truth or predict future issues.

Utility companies, for example, do not have much competition in many cases, so volume of sales and market share may not reflect the typically arrogant attitude towards customers and the generally poor customer service that pervades so many of these organizations. Do you know how the customer is received when they call your company for information or service? Can they even get a human to respond? And if so, after how many minutes on hold and after how many different choices have to be entered for service, none of which really address your specific issue?

Can you actually understand the customer representative that is all too often located in another country and does not understand you or your concern? We noted at a recent trade show that the Alberta Government had a booth showcasing their “Utilities Consumer Advocate” program. I had just finished trying to get a utility account established for a newly purchased property. This had to be done through someone in a call centre in another country who did not understand my needs and I also could not understand a lot of what they were saying. I vented all my frustrations to the staff representing this fairly recent Consumer Advocacy program. Sad to say, they were already quite well aware of these issues.

Do you know how easy or difficult it is to return a defective product to your company? Are you aware of the quality of your product or service? Do you even personally use them? Do you know firsthand how and under what conditions the product is made or is it made overseas in a plant that you have never visited? Do you know what impediments there are to productivity, quality, and service?

Are you also aware of what your staff have to go through every day in the performance of their duties? Are you aware of their working conditions, their total compensation package, and the daily pressures and difficulties that they face? Are you aware of how much impact staff have on overall productivity and customer service and the quality of your goods and services?

The answers to many of the above questions reflect the basis on which your customers view your products, your service, and your overall organization. They do not rate you on the basis of your corporate statistics or even your market performance. But it is the actions of staff and those of your customers that can dramatically change those statistics as well as market performance. It is critical, therefore, that you know how your staff are performing, whether or not they have the appropriate incentives, and what road blocks stand in the way of how your customers are treated.

It is not a question of trust, but rather common sense. The people that report to you may not even be aware of potential issues or, if they are, they may very well be reluctant to share them with you. You cannot totally rely on others to give you an accurate picture and you certainly cannot rely on anyone to give you what is even more important – a “feel” for the organization. Even in a fully participative workplace, that feel is critical, and you can only obtain that through first hand experience. All too often, when we are called in to review the effectiveness and efficiency of an organization, we find that through our own first hand experience we obtain a better feel for the organization than the chief executive officer, and that the CEO is unaware of many issues that he or she is ultimately responsible for.

The manager must develop this first hand knowledge and understanding of the organization. You can only do that by personally visiting all areas of the organization, by informally talking to staff at all levels, and by seeing for yourself what exactly takes place on an ongoing basis. You need to call your own organization and ask a variety of typical questions to see what response and service you get. You need to ghost shop if you are running a retail enterprise. You need to visit your own website and see if the information or service that you require is available online. You need to call your own organization to see if you can actually contact someone in charge of a specific issue.  It took me two years of continuing complaints regarding the delivery of my newspaper, and a letter to the Publisher, for me to finally receive a phone call from the delivery manager. I now have the manager’s phone number and I do not have to deal with a call centre in another province. And, yes, you need to use your own products and services.

You have the responsibility as a manager, let alone as the CEO, to know how your company is performing and you cannot do that by sitting in front of the computer and analyzing various statistics. This applies to all managers regardless of whether it is the private sector, the public sector, or a not for profit organization. You will be a far more effective manager if you go see for yourself how things are running every now and then.