In the CBS television show “Undercover Boss,” corporate heads work incognito in varied, entry-level jobs to see how things are actually being handled in the front line of their organization.

Get your nose out of the paperwork

Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

Although I usually don’t spend much time watching what I consider mental chewing gum, reality-TV programs, the concept of this show as a business exercise caught my attention.

The program reminds me a lot of the management style “Management By Walking Around,” a multiauthor topic in which top executives do likewise — venturing into operation facilities, warehouses and stores minus the usual entourages that often define executive visits — alone and unannounced.

It’s amazing what MBWA can reveal. An executive can talk with employees head on, ask questions and witness firsthand if the stores are following the latest guidelines, if they’re stocked up and ready for the Wednesday ad or if a store is lagging behind and still mopping up from the previous week.

Unannounced visits sometimes reveal pleasant surprises and benefits too. There’s nothing like putting the final touches on a display or seeing a task through and looking up to see the president of the company standing close by, seemingly out of nowhere and admiring a job well done.

For now, let’s take the example down a couple of notches.

Produce managers, especially those who oversee the larger operations, can be guilty of not spending enough time on the sales floor. Sure, away from the front line there’s lots of paperwork to keep up, orders and labor schedules to write, ads to plan or conference calls to join. The list goes on.

But in order for the produce manager to keep his finger on the pulse of the department, he must force himself away from the backroom or office and regularly walk the sales floor, cull some product, direct employees and talk to customers.

In contrast, if all a manager does is stock, they may get mired down in a single project and become unaware that other areas are being neglected. Thus, a “working” manager has to balance some stocking with administrative duties, while never losing track of the state of the entire department.

Which brings us back to point one: Pushing away from whatever is all-consuming — the office, a detailed project — and take an occasional, regular walk that includes a swift, close look around the department.

When doing this the manager can briefly help train or move people from one area to another to get things caught up. He can see if his people are at their posts or have tip-toed out the back door for the umpteenth cigarette break.

Better yet, he may even catch them doing things well.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail

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