Undercover Boss Review: Waste Management

M: Every year the network that airs the SuperBowl puts a show on after it to try to capture a big audience that the show would otherwise not get on it’s on.  I don’t know how this actually pans out in the ratings, as most people I know are either at a party, leaving a party, or wiped out at that point.  Personally, I almost never watch whatever it is.  I think the only time in recent years (recent being a relative term) that I watched the post-SuperBowl show was when ABC put a big episode of Alias on, and that was because I was already watching (and loving) the show.  This year CBS put on a new “reality” show (how a contrived situation created solely for TV counts as “reality” I’m not sure, but I digress) called Undercover Boss, where the boss of a large company goes undercover in his own company.  I thought it sounded like a good idea, so while we worked on the SB commercials post, I decided to check it out.

In the pilot, trash and recylcing giant Waste Management’s President and COO, Larry O’Donnell, went around the country doing odd jobs while pretending to be a newly hired entry level employee named Randy.  The guise for the camera crew was that they were doing a documentary on new employees in the field.  Seemed pretty weak to me, but it worked on the people at each of the stops.  If the show even gets a litle bit popular it I don’t think it’ll work for long, so the show probably has a short shelf life right there.

Anyway, the show starts with a brief introduction of both Waste Management, and of Larry.  After a brief (and fairly bland) bio, he goes on explains that he wants to get a better feel for the impact the decisions that he makes are having on the people in the company, and to get a better feel for the company he runs.  He lets us know to really have he impact he’s looking for, he’s going to be staying in cheap motels for the week, too.  Awww, the poor guy!

As his week starts, his first assignment is to work on the line in one of the recycling plants where he has to sort out recyclables from he trash as it flows down a conveyor belt.  He’s working with one of the supervisors on the line, who starts to teach him, letting him know missing things means the equipment will get jammed.  In an aside, he mentions that he knows how much the equipment costs, so he knows how big a deal it is if it gets jammed.  He then proceeds to, well, suck at it.  On their lunch break he is appalled when the supervisor has to run to clock back in at exactly 30 minutes so she doesn’t get docked pay.  He doesn’t seem appalled that she clocks back in, then goes right back to the lunch table, though.  Interesting.  He gets better at it as the day goes, and ends the day exhausted.

On Day two he has to pick up trash on the side of a windy hill at one of their landfills.  His boss this day is Walter, who is on dialysis for kidney problems, and has been for decades.  Wlater is tough on him, and ends up firing him (as Larry explained, the first time he’s been fired in his life) because he’s just too slow.  It was pretty funny to watch, actually.

The next stop was the most touching, and a true sign of the economic times we live in.  His boss for the day at a plant in upstate New York is Jaclyn, a hard working cancer survivor.  Because of layoffs and cutbacks (the reason he chose this site to work at), she is doing the work of four different positions.  She explains it all to him with a smile, and a great attitude.  After a long day where we don’t really see much of what he does, she finds out that he’s new in town, so she invites him to dinner at her home, where she houses her family, her parents, and some of her siblings and their families, who are out of work.  She’s worried about making the payments on the house (her dream house, she says), but willingly welcomes in and feeds a complete stranger.  It was touching, and when talking to the camera crew afterward Larry couldn’t hold back tears.  He immediately got the ball rolling with the manager of the plant to get her a raise and more staff.

The next stop took us from the emotional side to the humorous side, as he learns to clean out port-a-potties at an amusement park.  His boss for the day is a laugh a minute guy who’s been cleaning up people’s…  you know… for 10 years, but does it with a smile and as Larry observes, “makes an adventure out of it”.  In contrast with his failure at picking up trash, Larry does well here.  Not record pace, but for his first day on the job he is getting it done and done well.  This also provides a great visual for the show, as you have the President of the company cleaning out toilets, and doing it with a smile on his face.  Good stuff.

In the last stop he’s back in upstate New York, riding along with a garbage truck.  He finds some problem areas here.  One is that, due to productivity benchmarks that he himself was responsible for, the drivers often aren’t able to stop to go to the bathroom, as it takes the m off route.  The woman he rides with shows him the coffee can that she uses as an outhouse, which appalls him and makes him consider the policy unfriendly to women… because it’s fine for men to pee or take a dump in a can, apparently.  The other issue he finds is that the supervisors that are supposed to occasionally observe the drivers, another of his initiatives, really come off like they are spying on them.

On the heartwarming side, one of the “customers” along the route, as special needs woman who reminded Larry of his special needs daughter, and reminded me of our grandmother’s special needs friend Suzy, wrote a sweet poem to the driver thanking her for not just picking up the trash, but for being a friend.  It was a genuinely touching moment from a very unexpected source… trash collection.

In the end, he goes back to the board, tells them his findings, starts to implement some changes, and brings each of the people he worked for to the corporate office in Florida to let them in on it.  They were all shocked and surprised at the reveal, except Walter who just dryly quipped “You clean up nice”.  Pretty funny.  He made sure to take care of each of them, and tried to show that he learned lessons from each.  Who knows how long those lessons will last, how cost effective they’ll be for the company, and if they will truly change anything because of it, but the show definitely did what it intended to, showed the boss the real underbelly of the company.  And it was fairly entertaining in doing it.  Still, as I said above, I don’t think it’ll last that long.

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One comment on “Undercover Boss Review: Waste Management

  1. Matt H says:

    Right, the lessons will wear away, and some of the actions weren’t even that great – things like the dreadful “task forces.” Ugh. But, eh, if it gave him a little sense of what’s going on out there, and helped that one woman get her raise, promotion, staff, home saved, and world peace (wait, scratch that last one,) then that’s good. Oh, and exposure for a mindless CBS show, too.

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