Management By Walking Around (MBWA)

“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 realise they have one in the first place.”–Edwards Deming

You can adopt two approaches when it comes to managing a team or an entire organization. You could either wait for people and problems to come walking right into your wood-paneled and leather-upholstered office or you can go looking for them in the trenches. The former is the time-honoured traditional way that most people get schooled in – the Harvard Business School & McKinsey-style. The latter is the recent, but not-too-recent, style of management called “Managing (or Management) by Wandering Around (MBWA)”.

MBWA has been around for quite a while now. As a matter of fact, as early as the 1950s, it was principally being followed at Hewlett-Packard, hence sometimes christened as “The HP Way”. But it came to the public notice and got popularized when the authors of the management classic “In Search of Excellence”, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, wrote about it in that book in the 1980s. They got wind of it when they interviewed the then HP president John Young, who explained to them about “HP’s hallmark” MBWA. So, what exactly is MBWA?

MBWA involves managers wandering around (or walking about, as it is sometimes called) in an unscheduled, random, relaxed and informal manner, through the workplace, to check equipment or chat with employees and assess the status of ongoing work. That way you get to listen to the staff, respond to their ideas and problems, and take timely and effective action about them. During MBWA time, ask for feedback and invite questions. Do not make snap judgments or offer hasty critique. Be generous with compliments for work being done well.

There are several benefits to MBWA. The staff gets to see the person behind the boss, so they are more open to sharing their thoughts with you freely. Trust and accountability increase. Morale and productivity go up. Your business knowledge increases several notches as you get to see things up close.

Traditional style of management is sort of keeping your subordinates and other stakeholders in the organization at an arm’s length. Such style is intimidating, making you unapproachable, distant and unconnected. Consequently, your employees will not feel free to air their views, suggestions, problems, and grievances. And when they do, they may do so cautiously, maybe even withholding some crucial information out of fear, and wait for the last minute in doing so. 

Peters calls MBWA the “technology of the obvious”. In a way, it is obvious and commonsensical. If you want to know what problems people are facing at work, go ask them, right? But the disarming simplicity of it is what disguises its astounding effectiveness and makes people discount its true value. But as Peters points out on his blog, “Leaders, from FEMA and the White House to GM and WalMart will only thrive, even in the age of the Internet and ‘virtual organizations,’ if they somehow stay in touch. (In fact, one of WalMart’s secrets of continued excellent performance—with 1.5 million people on the payroll—is an uncanny ability to stay in touch with the front line.)”

If you do decide to adopt MBWA as your management style, then you will be in good company. Some credit Abraham Lincoln with having practiced MBWA, inspecting as he did the troops of the Union Army in an informal way during the American Civil War. Sam Walton, founder of WalMart, was a great exponent of MBWA. He would visit as many WalMart stores as possible and spend time talking to his frontline staff. Steve Jobs extended the scope of MBWA by engaging in customer service and even responding to customer complaints with a personal phone call. So, join the bandwagon of those who swear by MBWA. You have nothing to lose but the musty smell of your stuffy office.

D. Samarender Reddy

Holds degrees in Medicine (MBBS) and Economics (MA, The Johns Hopkins University). Certified programmer. An avid reader. Worked in various capacities as a medical writer, copywriter, copyeditor, software programmer, newspaper columnist, and content writer.

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