Rick Arquilla, president and chief operating officer of the plumbing and drain service Roto-Rooter Services Co., stood in front of a call center in Chicago and told America he was going to test the dispatch system he helped design.
He traded in his suit, tie and title for jeans, a blue flannel shirt and a camouflage hat and entered the center using the persona Hank Denman. After all, this was the TV show “Undercover Boss.”
His first assignment was learning the system. The camera zoomed in on Arquilla. Pen and paper in hand, he scrambled to take notes as the operator taught him dispatch’s color-coding system.
“So orange is before green?” he says.
“Yes,” says Candace, the operator. “Am I confusing you?”
“Yeah,” Arquilla says. “See, I’m color blind.”
Arquilla found it somewhat humorous that a color-blind man would develop a model based on colors. Then again, he never intended on using it.
How often are decisions made at the top of your organization without really understanding what it means for the people who do the work? Perhaps you’ve gathered your direct reports in a room to piece together a plan without employee input.
“It caused me to pause and say, ‘Wait a minute,’” says Arquilla, who oversees 3,500 employees. “There are a lot of decisions that we make here, at the home office, and implement from conceptual stage to actually rolling it out nationwide. Maybe no one who has to do the work ever got a chance to try it to see if it works or not or give us feedback and say, ‘Most of it’s right, but some of it doesn’t make any sense.’”
If you want a truly effective organization, you have to constantly engage the people in your company who are closest to the customer and who are actually doing the work.
“It’s slowing down for a second and asking do we have enough checks and balances along the way to make sure that we don’t have unintended consequences from being too quick to want to implement a general policy, a new procedure, a new way of running our business. And we haven’t spent enough time getting people on the front lines to give us open, honest feedback.”
Test your decisions
It’s not like Roto-Rooter makes absurd decisions that don’t account for how it will affect customers and employees. In truth, many decisions are tested on a smaller scale before nationwide implementation. But Arquilla says that’s not enough.
It’s not enough to run a trial and take the answer of the person in charge at face value. You need to trust that management is telling you the truth, but you need to reinforce the information with feedback from people doing the job.
“We all tend to love what we invent or what we work on, so I don’t think you can be entirely objective about something that you want so badly to work well,” Arquilla says. “You have to get past the person who created the concept and get some totally unbiased feedback.”
How do you gather that feedback? You talk to the front-line employees.
The first thing you need to determine is to what questions are you trying to find answers. To use your time wisely, you must have a focused reason for asking for feedback, whether it’s about a new system or a key issue that holds your company’s attention.
“When I go out in the field, we know what we’re looking for because we know what the priorities are,” Arquilla says. “You have to have discipline to look past the little, ankle-biter problems that get in your way. You have to stay focused on the stuff that really matters because there’s always going to be, pick a number, 50, 70, 100 things you could be working on.”
Once you’ve determined your reason for being in the field, you’ll have a better understanding of what employees you need to talk with and what you should be asking. Then, it’s time to work.
During his time disguised as Denman, Arquilla learned that the experience is completely different when you put on the uniform or, in Roto-Rooter lingo, wear the blues, and work side by side with the employees.
“I would suspect most senior-level folks pride themselves that they stay connected and they understand what’s important on the front line,” Arquilla says. “I’m not sure any of us are quite as connected as we think we are or we’re out there as much as we’d like to be. I don’t think it’s enough just to show up and shake hands and spend the day on your BlackBerry. It’s physically doing the work.”
Dressing the part, turning off your cell phone and being willing to learn, still isn’t going to be enough to buddy up to an employee and get them to openly talk with you.
“The first order of business is can you disarm this person and let them know you’re really there to learn,” Arquilla says. “You’re not there to put (on) a senior-level hat and start lecturing and pontificating about the way the world ought to be. If you want the real deal and you want to really, really know what’s going on, you have to be there to learn, not to judge.”
There isn’t a three-step process that immediately disarms employees to get them to relax. But word travels fast among staff. If you can convey that you’re there to learn in order to better the company’s processes and you hold true to that promise, you’ll build a reputation that employees can openly and honestly communicate with you.
Arquilla is so used to trying to make employees feel comfortable that during the “Undercover Boss” taping, he was lectured by the production company to go easy on the charm. After all, he was introduced as a new employee, not the president.
“If the word is out on the street, ‘Don’t tell this person anything because they’ll beat the crap out of you,’ I know there isn’t anything that person can say when they go in that is going to force anything from (their employees),” Arquilla says. “If the flipside is, ‘Hey, we’ve heard pretty good things about this person. They’re pretty willing to listen. You can tell them the truth even if it’s not good, they’ll still listen and they’ll try to take that information and do some good with it.’ Then, I think you’ll hear the truth.”
Once employees have warmed up to the idea of you working alongside them, make sure you help, observe and ask on-point questions. Staying committed to the task at hand will reinforce that you’re only there to learn.
For “Undercover Boss,” Arquilla unclogged a tub, cleared sewer drains and welded. For a company based on quickly meeting the customers’ needs and matching the right skill set with the job in the field, going in, Arquilla didn’t realize what each job involved. Doing the job gave him a new perspective. It also taught him not to assume anything while learning from front-line employees how the process you’re trying to understand works.
“Don’t be too assumptive on how long a job takes or how difficult it is,” Arquilla says.
Being on the front line also means talking with customers and understanding how the decision you’ve made affects them. If Arquilla is in the field, he sees himself as a front-line employee, not the president. When you’re in front of customers, ask about the service and the way it is delivered. They’ll tell you.
“I love it when they go, ‘It&#
x2019;s not my business, but I don’t know why you guys do fill in the blank,’” Arquilla says. “Sometimes when they tell me what fill in the blank is and they’re not happy about it, it stings a little bit. But it probably wouldn’t hit home if I was reading it in a survey form.”
Throughout the process, remind yourself why you’re in the field to begin with and what you need to know to make an informed decision on whether changes need to be made.
“At some point, the burden falls on you or any other senior-level person to take away what you’ve learned, and somebody has to be held accountable to make a decision,” Arquilla says. “But if you don’t (get) the truth while you’re out there, then your decisions are only as good as the information the front line’s willing to give you.”
Make necessary changes
If the feedback you’ve gathered suggests employees are unhappy or the customers are unhappy or both are unhappy, that’s your cue that changes need to be made.
“The best decision we make is when the customer says, ‘This is pretty cool,’ and the employee says, ‘I like it as well,’” Arquilla says. “If one or both think it’s a bad idea, then it might be a classic case of making a decision behind closed doors that doesn’t fly very well when reality sets in.”
In that case, you have to be humble enough to admit your decision was flawed.
“Culturally you’ve got to have a company that says, ‘There’s a lot of good ideas out there, but you can’t always be right,’” he says. “God knows, I have a long list of things that haven’t worked well for me and as well for the rest of the senior management team, so I’ve got to be willing to accept defeat every once in awhile because then our employees will view it a lot more real, having (admitted) mistakes along the way.”
Your employees aren’t going to believe that their opinion is valued if you ask for their input and do nothing to better the situation. Along that same line, you have to acknowledge a bad decision was made and show employees you’re willing to make changes. If change isn’t seen, employees will shut down and be reluctant to share future information.
“It’s your behavior; it’s what you do,” Arquilla says about acknowledging bad decisions. “You change a policy, you say, ‘Hey, we thought this would work and it didn’t. Effective today we’re not going to do it anymore. Based on what we’ve learned, we’re switching gears.’ It’s more not what you say; it’s what you do. Talk is kind of cheap, and I think the front line is somewhat guarded and skeptical of talk, talk, talk because that’s easy and that doesn’t require much.”
If in gathering feedback you’ve determined a policy or a procedure needs changed, sit down with the necessary decision-makers and your employee and customer input and make adjustments. In the end, the questions are the same: “Do the customers feel good about it? Do our employees feel good about it, and can they live with it?”
When a solution is made, again, go back to employees and communicate.
“Ultimately, our bias at Roto-Rooter is we think your immediate supervisor is the person that most people want to hear the change from or want the interpretation of what this change means,” Arquilla says.
Say, for instance, the change was made in the way Roto-Rooter operationally deals with residential plumbing; Arquilla makes sure the information is passed through the proper chain of command. It starts with a conference call with him to his direct reports. Then they’re asked to communicate the changes to their direct reports, so on and so on until it reaches the front line.
The important element is that it’s communicated to front-line employees in a way that opens a discussion and dialogue that explains why the change was made. Arquilla doesn’t find sending an e-mail or a written mandate effective from a buy-in standpoint. After all, the follow-up communication is a way to put a personal touch on the fact that you’ve listened to employees.
Arquilla thinks the new commitment will better position the company for growth and employee and customer satisfaction. Roto-Rooter’s North America annual revenue is around $700 million, $370 million of which comes from Roto-Rooter Services Co. and Roto-Rooter Corp., which make up Roto-Rooter Group Inc. The remaining revenue comes from independent franchises.
“It would be an awful feeling to say, ‘What you think and the questions you have don’t really matter to people higher up in the organization who made the decisions, so just deal with it and live with it,’” Arquilla says. “That’s why we feel we have the need to explain why.”
HOW TO REACH: Roto-Rooter Services Co., (513) 762-6690 or www.rotorooter.com