Organisations embrace the notion of periodically getting back to basics. But do you ever really go back to the basics – the same place customers routinely experience? Most likely you don’t, probably because of lack of time. The ultimate retailing irony may be that although we all know where sales come from, we personally spend almost no time there to see the customer-employee exchange for ourselves.
In the ‘80s, a practice known as “Management by Walking Around” (MBWA) advocated a hands-on approach to managing a business. In an MBWA environment, managers would spend a lot of time informally visiting employees on the front lines. The idea was to learn firsthand what was actually going on by listening to complaints and Suggestions.
Genuine leaders must be aware of their operations’ intricacies to better assess their level of execution and decide what needs to be improved. The alternative is a risky reliance on others who may not know all that they do.
Early in my career, I began “working as a clerk” for four hours in a different department each month. Once I worked as a grocery clerk (my “day job” was company president). In two hours, I discovered a secret fort built out of product cases in a remote corner of the grocery warehouse by some creative grocery clerks with too much time on their hands. It held a small table, a radio, magazines and an ashtray, and amazingly had existed right under management’s nose for months.
In a typical “work-as-a-clerk” assignment, I’ve never failed to find one or two “A category” improvements (game changers), three “B category” improvements and three to five “C category” improvements – any one of which would adequately justify the time I committed to the Program.
When you work as a clerk, there are only a few simple rules:
First, the department manager you’re working for must treat you like an average employee, with no special considerations.
Secondly, be on the alert for things that don’t make sense and for ideas that could improve the overall company. For example, to emphasise the importance of frequent hand-washing, one of my restaurant managers affixed a simple bicycle bell to each hand-washing sink in the prep areas. After an employee washed his or her hands, he or she would ring the bell with a paper towel to remind everyone to do the same. This great idea wasn’t company policy at the time but became one shortly Thereafter.
Thirdly – and most importantly – don’t critique your operations during the experience. If you tell anyone what you think is right or wrong, your presence will send shock waves through the store. Finally, when you’re done, move to a quiet place and begin debriefing yourself. A day or two later, take another look at your notes and prioritise your observations. You’re the best one to decide how to share what you’ve learned during your “work-as-a-clerk” session with the appropriate people in your organisation.
Doing it in person is best, be it an operations meeting or one on one with your district managers, as it allows those responsible for implementing the recommended changes to ask clarifying questions so they can fix the problem.
Since the reality TV program “Undercover Boss” began, many friends and colleagues have remarked that it reminds them of the “workas- a-clerk” concept I’ve been teaching for almost 30 years. There’s one main difference, however: you don’t have be the CEO to step back into the operations of your organisation to see firsthand what’s really going On.
Working as a clerk works. Your associates will respect you more, your customers won’t believe their eyes and you’ll grow your company by making meaningful, tangible improvements in the business.