Common Mistakes of Top Executives – A look at “Undercover Boss”

Undercover BossI occasionally watch the reality show Undercover Boss, where top executives work undercover in their own companies. Over and over again I see these managers making the same mistake: They have no understanding whatsoever of what is really happening on the front lines. It is a typical case of not going to the shop floor often enough, or in lean speak, no genchi genbutsu (Japanese for “go and see”).  So, <dramatic voice> Why do bosses all make the same mistake? Will they ever learn? Will you enjoy this post? See for yourself in the post below! </dramatic voice>.

Undercover Boss

Boss with umbrellaUndercover Boss is a TV reality show that started in the UK in 2009 and now has successful spin-offs in USA, Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, and Spain, with more countries in the pipeline. In each episode, a top executive works for five to ten days undercover in his or her own company, each day at a different job. The tasks are usually manual labor or customer handling, occasionally with a bit of data entry added.

The employees the boss works with think he or she is a contestant on a reality show trying to start his or her own business, or is part of a documentary. In any case, the boss has a cover story explaining the cameras. Afterward, the employees the boss worked with come together, believing that they have to judge the “contestant.” Instead, the boss reveals his or her true identity, and hands out rewards for good employees or punishments for the not-so-good ones.

Naturally, as in most reality shows, there is some control over the situations. For example, the positions they work in and the employees they work with are selected beforehand. Some bosses opt to go to the best-performing sites/employees to see what they are doing right (a good approach). Other bosses also opt to go to the worst-performing sites to see what is going wrong, or to the oldest or newest location (also valid approaches in my opinion). And, in other cases, the reasons for selection are not known.

I also believe that some of the worst scenes that could seriously damage the brand, the company, or the boss are cut out, but there are still enough meaty situations left. In any case, it is a nice opportunity to watch top management in action from the comfort of your own living room. <dramatic voice> But who are these bosses? Let’s meet ’em up close and personal!</dramatic voice>.

The Bosses

Little birds and big bird on wire
Who’s the boss?

The bosses, of course, know that they are on camera and probably behave differently than in real life. For example, I have not yet seen a choleric boss, but they surely must be out there. Nevertheless, through body language and behavior their character shows through. Contrary to the “All Top Executives are Evil” attitude sometimes found in the media, many of them are actually trying to do good within their means.

Some have the look of a rabbit staring at the snake, although a well-kept secret of managers is that most of them feel overwhelmed with the decisions they have to make, and they try hard not to show their fear. But, of course, there are also bosses who think that the sun shines out of their every orifice, and that that they know everything and can do everything. If I would have to choose, I’d rather take a manager that knows his limits. By the way, a good test is to look at the size of the CEO photo in the annual report. If it is passport size, then the company is more important than the manager, whereas the full-page images clearly state that the company is only second to the CEO.

The Companies

The companies featured on Undercover Boss come from all parts of industry, although the service industry is more often featured than others. Hotels, restaurants, fitness centers, etc. may see this as a way for additional publicity, but there is also other industries like food processing and waste management. There are even two automotive companies (Hyundai and Isuzu, UK season 5 episode 3 and season 4 episode 4), although they unfortunately do not look at the manufacturing.

The Jobs

Man working on wallThe jobs are usually frontline jobs far away from management. Processing food, serving food, cleaning rooms, fixing cars, selling products, typing data, etc.  I was particularly impressed, for example, with the CEO of Synagro, a waste management company, who had to enter a half-filled sewage tank to swish the sh*t  into the drain (US Season 2 Episode 28). However, in other jobs, they also get down and dirty.

These are the jobs that the CEOs have to manage, but it usually turns out that they have little knowledge of the actual tasks. Most of the time they slow down the processes considerably, and quite a number of bosses undercover have been fired for failing to perform.

The Common Mistakes

Almost all bosses make the same mistakes. However, before I get to the mistakes, let me emphasize that not performing well on your first day is not a mistake! Everybody has a learning curve. As for manual work, most CEOs have little recent experience in manual work, hence it is even more difficult for them. If you remember your first day on the job,  you were probably a stumbling mess too.

Having said that, let’s go in more detail about the mistakes that they as leaders should have known about but still failed.

Lack of Gemba

Process workers at work at the Golden Circle cannery in Northgate, Australia.
Here is the action!

Bosses have lost touch with the shop floor (in lean terminology from Japanese, Gemba). Most of the bosses are surprised by the situations they find in their businesses. From a desk, everything looks nice. Handling only the numbers, people can’t image how many things go wrong in reality. This includes bad and broken machines, counterproductive standards, unrealistic demands, dirty and dangerous work, and often a general lack of respect for the common worker.

They do not know the real situation on the shop floor, and hence make decisions that are difficult or impossible to implement and may hurt the business. In short, management has often lost touch with the actual value-adding work. The steering wheel has lost its connection to the tires.

I have seen this in my work too. I have seen a lot of plant managers who spend only around one hour per week on the shop floor. Some did not have the time, others thought it was too dirty, some only went there if they had to show a visitor around, and again others were just worried about an employee asking them a question they couldn’t answer.


How can you make decisions if you don’t know the real situation? One of the important principles of the Toyota production system is to go where the real action is (in Japanese, genchi genbutsu for “go and see,” and gemba for the “real place”).  A manager needs to understand the abilities and flaws of the system. Granted, usually the system is too big for managers to understand in its entirety. However, that must not stop them for doing some sampling of the real situation.

Most CEOs on Undercover Boss saw this value. Many of them called it the most insightful week in their career, and some even announced that they want to repeat it regularly. There is hope!

Deciding for the Employees

The CEOs during their undercover stint saw lots of problems that they never knew existed. Of course they wanted to fix it. That’s where they usually made their second mistake. They thought about a solution and told their people to implement it. After all, that is what managers do—make decisions, and the more the better, right?


The value-adding systems are usually quite complex. Changing one part even with the best intentions may have lots of unintended consequences. These are usually difficult to predict, most of all for the CEO that has only a limited understanding of the details of this particular system.

Factory Workers
Ask us!

In lean manufacturing, it is important to consult the involved parties. Ask the workers and foremen. Or, if there are too many, ask the worker or foreman with the most experience. Depending on the problem, it may also be beneficial to involve someone from engineering, logistics, possibly also the unions, sales, and so on. Have the group find a solution, in the hope that there are less unintended consequences.

On Undercover Boss, most managers do not ask the employees about a possible solution; instead, they merely decide what the solution should be. Of course, the episode then ends and we don’t know much about the aftermath. However, based on my experiences, I suspect that in many cases the executive decision was not ideal, sometimes even wrong. The impact could have been much better if the manager would have asked the employees for their opinions.

Besides, there is also a theory that the number of decisions someone can make is limited per day (the so called “decision fatigue,” also known as “ego depletion”). The more decisions you have to make, the worse your decisions get. Your rationality suffers, impulsive behavior increases, and overall your decisions are no longer as good.

When I go shopping, I usually reach for the brands I always buy. Of course, there may be better yogurt or bread, but I just don’t want to make a decision. I have enough decisions to make otherwise. The term here is decision avoidance. It is fine in the supermarket, but it is a problem if you avoid decisions in industry.

All this can be avoided by making less decisions and empowering your employees to decide for themselves. Luckily, some of the CEOs did ask the employees, and I suspect the results were better, cheaper, and the workers were definitely happier.

Overall, Undercover Boss is sometimes for me quite interesting. Hence, if you happen to have time to waste on your hands, why not pick an episode from Undercover Boss to watch (Excerpts of the US episodes are officially available on YouTube, and some full episodes can be found there, too). Granted, it is not fine art, but they did win an Emmy in 2012 and 2013. Maybe you’ll even learn from others’ mistakes, or even others’ successes. And now <dramatic voice> Go out and organize your industry!</dramatic voice>.


4 thoughts on “Common Mistakes of Top Executives – A look at “Undercover Boss”

  1. Hi Rob,
    thanks for pointing out your article. It also reads very nice. I especially liked the “Fairy Godmother with good intentions” analogy.
    Also many thanks for the kind words and compliments 🙂


  2. One could also question the rewards given after the Undercover Bosses went back to their suits and neckties. Often these are given without any respect for equal treatment or the person herself in the first place.

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