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The Front Line

After the Superbowl I spent an hour watching the new CBS program Undercover Boss.  The show featured the CEO of the company Waste Management posing as a new hire for the company in numerous front line service jobs.  He picked up litter on a hillside, helped manage traffic at a landfill, cleaned portable toilets, and rode on a trash collection route – learning about his company and his people all along the way.

The show reminded me of my first “real job” after college, which was with the Cintas corporation.  Cintas, among other things, rents uniforms to customers and then once a week picks them up to be washed.  One of my many jobs there was to drive the big white truck, drop off clean uniforms, pick up some filthy garments, and take them back to be cleaned.   The work was hard, but I learned a great deal about the things that make a business successful.  Cintas had a similar policy very similar to the premise Undercover Boss – one that I really liked.   It mandated that every full time employee of spend one day per year out on the front lines riding along on a uniform route.  Everyone truly meant everyone.  The CEO, accountants, administrative assistants, sales, and others showed up early, put on a uniform, and hit the road.

Why was this policy important?

First, it gave everyone an understanding of the business.  All too often leaders become removed from what is happening on the front lines.  They forget about the work being done and the great people doing it.  Getting everyone out of the office built real empathy and appreciation for the hard work going on every day.  This shared understanding permeated the decision process at every level of the company.  The route drivers at Cintas took great pride in the work they did.  They appreciated the opportunity to show off how difficult the work actually was and how easy they made it look.

Second it provided new insights.  Getting a fresh set of eyes inside the operations of clients provided a great source of innovation.  People riding along were prompted to think “why do we do things this way?”  “what other problems could we solve for customers?”  “where could our service improve?” We all think differently.  Involving new people in executing old processes brings invites new perspectives.  The result was a steady stream of new ideas, business concepts, and innovations.

Third it built camaraderie.  Spending several hours riding shotgun in a box truck gave people time to get to know each other better.  Sure some of the conversation was about work or clients, but often more of it was about family, interests, and being real people.  This built trust and friendship, both of which helped things to run more smoothly.  The job of route driver was sometimes lonely, and having a converstaion with a real sidekick was a great change from silently talking back to sports radio talk shows.

Getting everyone from top to bottom out in front, even just once a year, helped to strengthen the company culture, generate new ideas, and build relationships that transcended the org chart.  I don’t know whether the TV show Undercover Boss will go on to be a success, but I do know that having first hand knowledge of the business played a huge part in the success of Cintas.

Amazingly, social technology offers us many of these same benefits.  Certainly these materialize in different ways, but the similarities are obvious.  Whether it is riding shotgun in a box truck, cleaning portable toilets, writing a blog, or conversing on Facebook – the closer you can get to the front lines, the better.  I continue to believe that today distance matters more than ever.  What are you doing to get closer to those you serve?