How do you know what is really going on in your organisation?

You get financial reports, you get absence stats, you know which targets are being hit and which are not. You know the areas of high staff turnover and you know the vacancy levels, but these reports just reduce everything to numbers. Your senior managers tell you what’s going on but how much do they really know and how selective are they being? There are the responses to your blog but the same names keep coming up and how representative are their views? You can visit workplaces and talk to staff and occasionally you do learn something, but these events are stage managed - you only see and hear what they want you to.

The answer is to go undercover. Show up in disguise, pretend to be someone in training or on a work placement and find out what people really think and what is really going on.

This is the idea behind Channel 4’s TV programme Undercover Boss.

Growing a beard, wearing glasses and dressing down may seem a rather elaborate way to find out more about your own organisation, but it makes for good TV. The cameras like to give a close-up of the facial expressions when staff are called in to see the chief executive and realise that it is the trainee that struggled to keep up and who kept saying “is it always this busy?”

I do not think it is necessary for every chief executive to don a disguise and go undercover; I do, however, think it would be a good idea if every senior management team viewed the videos of these programmes at their next senior management team meeting, because there is a remarkable consistency in the issues raised and the observations made by the chief executives, despite the vastly different business that took part.

Each programme has highlighted problems with communication - not just staff saying they don’t know what is going on, but frontline managers saying that issues they try to raise prompt a lack of response. There were a number of examples of false economies where basic maintenance had been ignored or broken equipment not repaired due to the need to cut costs. Often new staff did not have a proper induction and on-the-job training varied depending on the commitment and enthusiasm of the local manager. There were a number of examples of the over reliance on the use of casual staff causing problems with consistency and quality of service and a concern that experienced and competent staff risked being lost because of perceived limited promotion opportunities and a lack of flexibility in salary structures and rewards.

All of these issues were a surprise to the chief executives involved; they thought that policies and procedures were in place to address these concerns and that the managers already had the necessary power to deal with them.

Each programme finished with the chief executive explaining the changes they were going to make as a result of their placements and inviting those they had worked with to help lead on making and implementing these changes.