A “Go to Gemba” Show (of sorts) Premieres after the Super Bowl


Hat tips to the blogs Lean is Good and Curious Cat… tonight is the debut of the new CBS reality show “Undercover Boss” a show where CEOs go to the front lines to work as their employees do.

Will you be watching? Will America be watching? This doesn't seem like typical post-Super Bowl fare… but I'll probably watch (or DVR it for later).

Here is the preview video (no longer available).


Knowing they are on TV, I'm sure the CEOs will have the sense to demonstrate respect for the people and the work. Will this just be “say the right things” superficial respect or something more meaningful? Why can't the CEOs go see people work without a reality TV show?

But will they really listen and get the perspective of employees in a way that would allow the CEO to help improve the system? Will they see barriers that get in the way of people doing their work, inspiring them to lead change? Or, will they just go back to the board room after getting their free publicity for themselves and their companies?

The first CEO is Larry O'Donnell, of Wate Management. He used to be partner in a law firm, so he's hardly worked his way up the ladder. We'll see what happens… in the preview he is afraid he “messed something up” on a trash conveyor belt. Was he trained properly? Was he given a job that was realistically achievable?

In a second preview scene, O'Donnell is asking for what lean or “Training Within Industry”  practitioners  would call “key points” about how to do the job and the foreman says, “You're just picking up paper, Randy” (his fake name).

The fact that an employee time policy “doesn't seem very fair” to O'Donnell — will that lead to change? The preview implies that it will and that O'Donnell says he's “going to be a different manager” because of what he's seen. Should be interesting to watch and follow up on. What do you think in advance or after seeing the show?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I watched it last night and I’ll be setting my DVR to record the remainder of the episodes. I was impressed with the steps he took, but at the same time I think his visits were too brief and superficial to make a big enough impact across that company.

  2. I DVR’d this last night to watch when I get some time, but came across a review of the show today that turned me off a bit.


    In the 6th paragraph, the reviewer says that at a promotional event for the show, when asked what policies or actions the Waste Management CEO has changed since his experience, he couldn’t name one specifically. Now, maybe this is a bit of a PR move in that he did make changes, but was not interested in sharing those specifics for to protect his company’s reputation. It would be a shame, though, if this show was only used as a PR mechanisim and no real change was affected from it.

    I’m still planning on watching the show though, and I hope, for their employees sake, that the CEO’s did use these opportunities for continuous improvement.
    .-= Chris R ´s last blog ..Poka Yolk =-.

  3. I saw the show last night, and I have to say that the message was pretty powerful, but from a lean thinking perspective Larry missed the real opportunities. Larry did indeed make some changes, but predominant only to individuals’ relationships to the company. He did change a punitive timekeeping policy at one plant, and promised to change working conditions for women truck drivers, but other than that, he made changes that only affected the individuals he worked with – not the system. The system is no better today at finding the kind of bright spots and problems that he literally tripped over than it was before he did his “experiment”.

    The show did exhibit in spades the enormous power that going to the Gemba has, and also the immense effect that a “caring” leader can have on the morale and effectiveness of a company’s workers. I really liked the show – it is reality TV after all, so you have to take what you see with a grain of salt – and I plan on watching again. It is keenly interesting to watch from a lean perspective, as you eluded to Mark.

  4. I missed the show. How many visits did O’Donnell make to the front lines, over what time period, and how much time did he spend?
    Obviously it takes time to shift from observing symptoms to understanding root causes. Didn’t Alfred Sloan used to spend a day a month in GM dealerships?

  5. In my opinion, all the managers that were sitting in his board room should have done this. Yes the CEO is one thing, but all the managers should learn from this. As previously mentioned, no real change to the system, apart from the lady garbage truck driver. (Making the system work for lady truck drivers). I think the editing of this show really let this show down. Holds potential, I will be watching the next one too.

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