Management by Walking Around – MBWA

January 19, 2013 | By

Original Article from The Economist Intelligence Unit.

In this article, Stephen Lynch, Chief Operating Officer at business coaching consultancy RESULTS.com, argues that senior managers should make personal visits to shop floor staff and customers; and that these visits become standard, measurable practice.

Management By Walking Around (MBWA) was a term coined by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in their 1982 book In Search Of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies. Despite being more than 27 years old, this practice remains as relevant now as it was then; however MBWA is generally done haphazardly with little or no attention paid to quantifying the measurable benefits.

The practice of MBWA was encouraged to address the issue that as companies grow in size and scope, senior managers can become out of touch with staff and customers – who may (perhaps understandably) see their bosses as uncaring or disconnected with the real business. 

Information is usually filtered by the time it reaches senior management. So if you really want to make better decisions as a leader, the onus is on you to visit the front lines and see the raw unvarnished truth for yourself.

As W. Edwards Deming, the quality management guru, said: “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realize they have one in the first place.” In essence MBWA means tearing yourself away from the meetings, e-mails and spreadsheets, and getting out of your office. 

Similarly, “Genchi Genbutsu” the Japanese term meaning “go and see for yourself” is a concept endorsed by Toyota. The term implies that rather than simply hearing or reading about problems and making suggestions for improvement from the boardroom, one should actually go and experience the situation first hand.

Much thinking about MBWA focuses on walking the halls and holding informal meetings with internal staff.   But this should also include regular meetings with your customers as part of your MBWA practice. 

As an example, Procter & Gamble (P&G) CEO, A.G. Lafley includes regular in-home visits with consumers or in-store retailer visits as a key part of his role.   Likewise, P&G staff spend days with consumers in their homes and working in neighborhood stores to get a full appreciation of how products are used and how the company is perceived in the marketplace.

The major benefits of MBWA are two-fold: firstly, the motivational boost it gives to your employees when they see you showing an interest in them and what they do; and secondly, what you learn is likely to be very different from what you get told by your direct reports.

Lessons for managers

So don’t just conduct MBWA with your direct reports. You may work so closely with these people that MBWA is redundant with them. Instead, go and meet with staff who actually work at the coalface of creating your product or delivering your service.

Go by yourself. Meet with staff and customers alone, and speak with them one-on-one. It encourages more honest dialogue and shows your personal commitment to them.

Walk a mile in their shoes. Experience what they do. Roll your sleeves up to show your interest in what they do and that you are not above performing any task. Ask them about their passions – whether family, hobbies, vacations, or sports and take a real interest in them as a person.

Beware of countermanding your supervisors. Some employees may take the opportunity to complain about a supervisor or seek your permission to authorize some new action. Suggest, they raise issues with their supervisor first.  If you see an issue that requires your personal intervention, follow up privately with the supervisor later.

Have a dream. Use every opportunity to paint a vivid picture of what your organization will be like in the future, and constantly remind people of the top three action priorities the company is working on this quarter. Let them know how their role fits in with the big picture. Praise people for their contribution. Share company success stories that they may not be aware of.

Catch them doing something right. Look for opportunities to publicly recognize staff who live the company values or who meet company standards.  Don’t be critical.  Convey the image of a coach – not an inspector.  Wait to speak to their supervisor about any corrective actions you deem necessary.

1.    Everyday:   Speak with or phone one customer and ask:

  • What is happening in your world right now?
  • What do you hear about our competitors out there?
  • What is the most important improvement to make our company better from your perspective?

2.    Every week: Take one staff member for coffee or lunch and ask:

  • What are your top three priorities this quarter?   (If they don’t know – be afraid – but that’s a topic for another article)
  • What’s going well in your area? 
  • What frustrates you?
  • What is the most important improvement to make our company better from your perspective?

It sounds so simple doesn’t it?   Like many success factors, it is deceptively simple, but not necessarily easy. It takes real discipline and accountability to continually do these “little things” that cumulatively can create big improvements in your business over time.  MBWA is not about aimlessly wandering the halls; it is about performing it diligently and collecting meaningful information.

Measuring Results

The discipline involved in practicing MBWA doesn’t come naturally. MBWA is a habit that needs to be learned and measured.   What gets measured gets done.

Make MBWA one of your key performance indicator measures, and hold your senior managers accountable for implementing MBWA every week.   Resolve to implement it for at least one quarter.

By the end of the quarter each manager will have obtained meaningful insights from 60 customers, and 12 staff.

Document the outcomes of each interview in a central location, and by the end of the quarter your leadership team will have collected a valuable reservoir of information with which to make effective strategic decisions to address recurring themes.

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