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Monday, January 9, 2023

Management by Wandering Around is Not a Thing

Recently I was reviewing a management book by AMA that described many management practices to improve your ability. There was one that struck me as a bit outdated, Management by Wandering Around, also management by walking around (MBWA). 

In the early 1980’s, management gurus Tom Peters and Robert Waterman used the term ‘management by walking around’ (MBWA) to describe a style of business management which involves managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, equipment, or on the status of ongoing work. The emphasis is on the word wandering as an unplanned movement within a workplace, rather than a plan where employees expect a visit from managers at more systematic, pre-approved or scheduled times. 

The expected benefit is that a manager, by random sampling of events or employee discussions, is more likely to facilitate improvements to the morale, sense of organizational purpose, productivity and total quality management of the organization, as compared to remaining in a specific office area and waiting for employees, or the delivery of status reports, to arrive there, as events warrant in the workplace. 

Managers who did this received more information for problem-solving and got better results than those who stayed in their offices. In a way, MBWA is a variation on the system used in many organizations, where new managers rotate through each department to learn how things operate across the firm. Similarly, managers get a first-hand view of what is happening by walking around the organization. Doing so, they don’t have to wait for problems and challenges to be brought to them, nor do they have to depend on another’s perception of an issue. 

Don’t get me wrong managers should get out of their office and participate in the work affairs of employees. But MBWA has often devolved into walking around, saying hello, and slapping people on the back. That's not very helpful. 

Too many manager only come in long enough to make an appearance, but don’t spend time making any real connection. Such drive-byes feel like you’re checking off a to-do. Equally destructive is showing up, and heading to a nearby office to close the door and take calls.  

With the wrong tone and an imbalanced lens, all those “helpful pointers” feel more like “gotchas.” It’s great to point out what can be done better, along with stories and sharing of best practices, but be sure you’re also looking for the good news. I’ve seen many execs come through sweating all the small stuff that was “wrong” and completely overlooking the huge accomplishments of the team.  

Visiting the shopfloor (Gemba) is about listening and learning. Sure, it’s great to reinforce priorities, but be sure you’re really taking the time to listen to ideas and concerns and to ask what you can do to be most helpful. Listen well, take great notes, follow-up with the person who shared their idea. 

As you visit an area, ask earnest questions about how each team member’s work is going, improvements they’d like to see, and areas of concern. Get to know each of them on a personal level, too—nothing too intimate but enough to show you care about their well-being and appreciate them. 

While visiting the Gemba there are many people observing your moves, interpreting your words, and generally trying to understand your motives. It is here where you can build much needed trust, slowly removing the “us and them” culture. The Gemba is your audience so be prepared, each and every visit. Do not be naive to think you can get way with ad-libbing. 

In the next post I’ll talk about how you can go to the Gemba with a plan and purpose. 

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