The Value of Insult

Sometimes organizations need tough love to transform

by Henry J. Lindborg

Some advice I received when working with failing organizations was, “Present quality as a lifeline for survival.” My response: “Good idea, but the organization must know it’s drowning.”

Jon Taffer leaves no doubt about the condition of the establishments he assists on the popular reality TV show “Bar Rescue.” He helps bars that are run by clueless managers and owners, have accumulated significant debt and find themselves out of sync with employees and customers. Often, burdened by a neglected facility layered with filth, they present health and safety hazards.

Taffer brings significant resources for a turnaround: strategic intelligence about location and demographics, bar science to teach industry best practices, and financing for rebranding, remodeling and technology updates. Most important is his larger-than-life personality as he guides clients through the show’s standard formula: a revelation about the present state of the business and its management, some urgent improvements and training, a stress test of operations, review and redesign, and a presentation of the transformed business—all in a few days. (Sounds like an accelerated plan-do-study-act cycle.)

More modest and personal than private equity applying strategic intelligence and quality to rapidly retool a vulnerable corporation (though with the same aim and better profits), the show reflects some of what happens in that arena as well as in any organization struggling to stay afloat.

Each episode begins with Taffer and associates in his vehicle watching a streaming video of the client’s customer service toward Taffer’s secret shoppers. When he can no longer contain his disgust at the unhealthy conditions, incompetence and outrageous behavior, Taffer enters the bar for a profanity-laced confrontation with the owner, manager or both. They signed on for this consult but usually are unprepared for the insults. Among the mildest is “loser.”

Although Taffer explains that his intervention style is designed to disarm excuses and, in part, is determined by his limited time to effect change, he displays a uniformly positive attitude toward individual owners, managers and employees later in the broadcast and in his writing. At the same time, viewers may enjoy seeing negligent bosses facing a formidable, outspoken adversary.1 (Think also of CEOs in congressional hearings.) However, Taffer isn’t the first to recognize the value of insult.

In analyzing organizations that have become inflexible and detached from the environment, Ichak Adizes defines the role Taffer assumes as an “insultant”:

“Consultants who won’t risk losing a client are the wrong remedy for an aging organization. The best they can do is to relieve some symptoms. An aging organization needs someone who will work to change the power structure. I call such people insultants: They are consultants who can afford to give pain and risk losing the account.

“It is very difficult for internal agents of change to be insultants. They cannot step knee-deep into organizational politics and preserve any career life expectancy. Being too low on the totem pole, they will be rejected, that is, fired. Outside insultants are best suited to the job.”2

Also, as one might expect, “Bar Rescue’s” clients frequently exhibit addictive behavior, and their businesses do, too. Our best guide to such businesses remains The Addictive Organization: Why We Overwork, Cover Up, Pick Up the Pieces, Please the Boss, and Perpetuate Sick Organizations.3 Characterized by an illusion of control—in which management is replaced by manipulation, there is ethical deterioration and the mission is a future promise rather than a purpose—such organizations leave employees feeling isolated. Management seals their own fate by forgetting rather than learning, and it invalidates information coming from the outside.

Taffer counteracts this. He effectively reduces risk by waking up the addicts at the top, introducing reaction management—the philosophy that customer reactions define the brand and create the bottom line—by providing practices rooted in research, engaging employees and managing processes. It sounds a lot like the customer-driven quality advocated by the Baldrige criteria.

This is good to see, but what can we learn from bars?

First, bars represent highly competitive small businesses. According to the Small Business Administration, “United States small businesses employed 58.9 million people, or 47.5% of the private workforce, in 2015.”4 Our economy depends on creating, sustaining and improving small businesses—especially in light of technology reducing the size of the workforce in many enterprises.

Second, like larger organizations, bars must transform in turbulent times—usually without the benefit of insultant benefactors such as Taffer, but with the quality principles he espouses. We sometimes assume that small organizations are nimble and that agility is their hallmark. My lengthy experience with small for-profits and nonprofits has taught me otherwise. Too many reside with quiet desperation, unable to initiate change.

Right now, for organizations of any size, whether they’re for-profit or nonprofit, the message is clear: In disruption, we must transform. The term has supplanted “adapt” in management rhetoric. It’s about enacting deep change that affects every part of the entity. Given the now-pervasive effects of technology, the concept—though not new—makes sense.

On the other hand, it might prompt the same anxious response total quality once did. But as Scott D. Anthony cautions, “Often, the word confuses three fundamentally different categories of effort”:

  1. Improving operations.
  2. Changing approaches to operations.
  3. Implementing radically new strategies.5

Quality professionals can assist with tools and techniques that sort out these categories, assess their importance to an organization’s present state and define improvement strategies. “Bar Rescue” provides a model of passionate quality engagement that ought to be emulated—but maybe without some of the harsher insults. It’s safer to hire an outside consultant.

Note and References

  1. Jon Taffer expounds his philosopher of improvement in Raise the Bar: An Action-Based Method for Maximum Customer Reactions, Houghton Mifflin, 2013. He focuses on overcoming excuses in Don’t Bullsh*t Yourself! Crush the Excuses That Are Holding You Back, Random House, 2018.
  2. Ichak Adizes, Managing Corporate Lifecycles: Complete Edition, Adizes Institute Publications, 2017.
  3. Anne Wilson Schaef and Dian Fassel, The Addictive Organization: Why We Overwork, Cover Up, Pick Up the Pieces, Please the Boss, and Perpetuate Sick Organizations, HarperOne, 1990.
  4. “2018 Small Business Profile,” U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/small-business-profile.
  5. Scott D. Anthony, “What Do You Really Mean by Business ‘Transformation’?” Harvard Business Review, Feb. 29, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/what-transformation-means.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement in Fond du Lac, WI. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He is a past chair and current member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Career Workforce Policy committee.

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