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MBWA: Management by Walking Around

MBWA - Management by Walking Around

MBWA - Management by Walking AroundWhen I was an active Project Leader, I practised Management by Walking Around, long before I knew it was a thing. Then, when I learned about it, I was fascinated to learn that, if this idea has any formal origin, it was in a company I much admired.

But can something millions of people have done over many centuries by instinct, truly be a Big Idea?
Well, maybe I could argue that such a powerfully intuitive approach cannot be anything but a Big Idea.

So let’s dissect the idea of Management by Walking Around.

What is Management by Walking Around?

Management by Walking Around is exactly what it sounds like. The term originates with Bill Hewlett and David Packard, founders of Hewlett Packard (HP).  They would wander around their business, talking to their staff, listening to them, showing them respect, and empowering them to do their best work.

Although Dave Packard often said he attributed the early success of HP to Management by Objectives, they valued both the informality and the egalitarianism of spending time with their people. Remember, this was a time (the 1950s) when the senior management of big US corporations usually ate in a management dining room, and staff had their own canteen.

Management by Walking Around became part of ‘The HP Way’ – for a while, as influential as Toyota in the evolution of modern industrial management thinking. Their idea got a bit of a boost when Tom Peters and Robert Waterman wrote ‘In Search of Excellence‘. They highlighted MBWA as a common practice in the ‘excellent’ companies they identified. Later, Tom Peters argued that ‘managing by wandering about’ is the basis of both leadership and excellence, describing it as ‘the technology of the obvious’.

Management by Wandering Around?
Management by Walking About?

You’ll find all variants in use, and I have no idea if one is any more ‘right’ than the others. I certainly don’t feel inclined to research this particular point. I do, however, have a clear preference of my own: Management by Walking Around.

First, I can’t get excited about the difference between around and about. I suppose ‘around’ feels more formal and ‘about’ more folksy American. But either will do for me.

But I do see wandering as implying something more aimless and self-indulgent. Your role is to be deliberate in how you engage, so I prefer ‘walking around’ to ‘wandering about’.

Why Would we Use Management by Walking Around?

Managing by Walking Around is a brilliant add-on to any set of management and leadership approaches. It combines well with just about every useful model, and has the added bonus of giving you some much-needed exercise during a day that may otherwise be highly sedentary. Here are my  personal favourite benefits of MBWA.

  • Allows you to take the temperature of your team’s mood, and become aware of front-line issues
  • Demonstrates your approachability
  • Keeps you in touch with people and their concerns – work and otherwise
  • Creates opportunities for informal communication
  • And also opportunities for informal training, coaching, mentoring and other forms of workplace development
  • Helps you to boost motivation and morale
  • Network building, team recognition, and breaking barriers to increase approachability
  • A great chance for rapid, on-the-spot problem-solving. Links nicely to the idea of going to the Gemba

How to do Management by Walking Around Well

So, beyond ‘walking around’, just how do you do Management by Walking Around? And how do you do it well?

Here are ten tips. Don’t:

  1. be formal, rely on protocol, and enforce hierarchical divisions – talk to anyone in a friendly, open, and honest way
  2. take a gaggle of your next tier managers – make it about you meeting the people you need to hear from
  3. make it an occasional visit from on high – make it a regular routine that you and your people can start to relax into
  4. just walk around – engage people
  5. just engage – follow-up on things they raise or you promise
  6. see it as a chance to talk – use it as a chance to listen
  7. reject any implied criticism – take whatever feedback you get, thank the person, and reflect on it carefully. Ideally get back to them personally when you have considered it. Feedback is a gift. It shows both that your people care about you getting things right and that they feel they can speak openly. It’s a good thing.
  8. use it as a chance to find fault – ask open questions, and inquire rather than interrogate
  9. miss out any one group – ensure you meet everyone – if not in each walkabout, over a cycle
  10. miss the chance to tackle small, annoying problems – but take big problems back, and assign them to someone suitable

But, above all, don’t see it as a chore – it’s a privilege to be able to get out and meet the people who spend their day working for you.

What is Your experience of Management by Walking Around?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.


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