Now Reading: Punching-In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee, by Alex Frankel

This book was tailor made for the experience I am having now. It’s the travelogue of a man who goes undercover as an employee in some of our most iconic organizations: UPS, The Container Store (not quite, he didn’t pass the interview), Enterprise Rent a Car, Gap, Starbucks, and The Apple Store. This is a true trip to the Gemba, in that Mr. Frankel actually goes to work for the companies discussed as an employee. I am doing a similar thing, but I am not undercover, and I am not actually practicing medicine in the organizations I am spending time with (I suppose I could do something similar as a health professional, but at a huge cost to the organizations and patients they serve). I am, however, putting myself at the interface between the customer and the organization, and I, too, am thinking a lot about culture and about how people and organizations work. It’s an awesome experience, as I’m sure Alex’s was.

Throughout my journey, I have resisted using the term “front line” because the war analogy doesn’t make sense to me in health care. However, I liked the way that Alex described the “front line”:

In the military, the front line is the border between two opposing armies; in retail and service companies it is the invisible divide between customers and employees

This definition frames the experience well in terms of how organizations fixated on “brand” see themselves, and the author stimulates thinking on this, in my opinion.

No one is selling what we think they are selling

The thing we think these companies are here to do doesn’t seem to be the thing they are actually doing. An Enterprise employee is really selling insurance in the form of collision damage waivers. A Gap employee is selling lines of credit. An Apple Store employee is selling add ons (warrantees, etc) onto the main products. Starbucks is selling the “third space” that is not our homes or our work.

There is a secret expressed at one point in the book by an executive at Muzak – that people have run out of things to buy – “what we buy anymore is not based on needs, but on how we want to portray ourselves in the world.” This helps to understand how companies have to work to provide value for their shareholders in ways that seem strange. It’s all they can do.

This is confusing for staff (and one could argue, customers). At one point, Alex refers to the Gap as 2 companies, one the place of ideas, the other the place of folding (referring to Gap’s merchandising methodology of leaving clothes off of hangers and in constant need of refolding). The company that seems to escape this treatment is UPS, which even though it is referred to as a technology company with trucks as opposed to a trucking company with technology, sticks to delivering packages as its core activity. However, it could be argued that it is a secondary player in the market for creating demand for world portrayals (It was “Amazon all the time” during the holiday season).

What about health care?

Our customer, the patient, is often an unwilling purchaser of what we have to provide. What we are really hoping to provide is what everyone needs, the achievement of life goals through optimal health, but in many cases we aren’t paid to provide this. It’s as if we are also working to sell collision damage waivers instead of a rental car. We are confused too, and I think it’s reflected in the voices of patients, physicians, and all health care workers, who lament that they are not doing in medicine what they hoped to do when they made their commitments.

This is where my interest in patient empowerment comes in. By bringing their lives and life goals into the care experience (as opposed to just their biology) and in the process asking for what they really want, we can sell patients “the thing they came for” – the information and ability to make the best health decisions – as opposed to a medicine, a procedure, a diagnostic test. In systems where incentives are aligned, this happens – luckily we have examples to work off of.

The customer interface is where everything comes together

As I have said in health care, “the exam room conversation is the most important one.” The stories here about the customer interface bear similar witness to the impact of each organization’s focus and priorities. There is a fondness expressed for UPS in the book, described as a significant amount of humanity injected into the company’s technological prowess. This mirrors what has been said about the company in the global, in books like “The New American Workplace,” which refers to UPS in the category of “high involvement company,” (one of three categories that includes Low Cost and Global Competitor). The same seems to be reflected in the Apple Store experience, where the author is asked to shadow members of his team, consistent with the known emphasis on customer experience.

This book resonates with me as a student of organizational behavior with an emphasis on LEAN/Toyota Management System (of course) as opposed to a person looking for gossip or secrets about the organizations studied.

And this is why I like the book, because I think “close to the customer” is the place to start learning about how to help people. I think every leader should write a book like this for themselves. This blog is mine.

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