Management by Walking Around (MBWA) – The Essential Guide

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We live in a world where communication is easier than ever, yet face-to-face conversations tend to be difficult to maintain. Interaction is becoming increasingly digitalized, with most of us rather sending an e-mail then arranging a meeting. But one management method challenges our communication strategies by calling for deeper integration of actual conversations in the workplace.

Management by walking around has been around for a while, but what is the strategy about? We’ll explore the history and the concept behind this management theory. Before providing you tips on how to best utilize the method, we’ll look into the strengths and weaknesses of it as well.

WHAT IS MANAGEMENT BY WALKING AROUND?

You’ve probably encountered plenty of management theories and you might have your own ideas about an effective management style. A key part of being a good manager is being in touch with your subordinates. In order for management to work, you need to be aware of what is going on around you and this is, essentially, what management by walking around is about.

The history of the method

Before we examine the definition of the theory, it’s auspicious to consider its history. After all, walking is part of the function of being a human, so how did it become a noticeable part of management? Although the concept of having management walk amongst subordinates and talk to them face-to-face, had been used by managers and organizations for decades, the term ‘Management by Walking Around’ was popularized in the 1980s.

In 1982, management consultants Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman proposed the concept in their book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies. In the book, Peters and Waterman examined the successful companies, realizing a common nominator between the most successful. According to them, the successful companies had CEOs and managers who spent much of their time in the field instead of being confined to their office. Peters and Waterman noticed these managers were more aware of the operations and in general, had better ability to solve problems. Peters went on to write a book A Passion for Excellence in which he continued to assert the style as the core element of excellent leadership.

The idea gained further attention when William Hewlett and David Packard, the founders of Hewlett Packard, mentioned the theory to be part of the “HP Way”. The lessons learned from the technology company were, in fact, examined and presented by Peters and Waterman.

The up-close-and-personal style of management became a popular option for organizations and other big companies soon followed the teachings of Peter and Waterman. Disney has implemented management by walking, having its managers work shifts along with subordinates. Apple’s Steve Jobs was another big believer in the style, putting himself in situations where he had to deal directly with the customers.

The definition

So, is management by walking around just about, well, walking? The theory is both simple, yet often misunderstood. Although the main core is to have the management moving about, you can’t just expect aimless walking around the company to solve problems. The method is essentially a management style in which the managers walk around in unstructured and unplanned manner amongst the employees.

The objective is to interact with the subordinates and supervise their work, while they are performing it. According to the proponents, this kind of interaction will allow the managers to better understand the issues, ideas and concerns of the subordinates. This in turn will ensure the management can act on the findings accordingly. The theory is also referred to as Management by Wandering Around or MBWA. You can watch the short introductory clip below for a quick definition of the method.

THE KEY COMPONENTS OF MBWA

So, the broad concept of the theory is about getting the management moving about. It’s about monitoring the subordinates in their work environment and creating a more meaningful relationship with them in order to boost the organization’s successes. But what are the key components of the management method? The so-called building blocks you must focus on to practice MBWA and not just end up randomly walking about.

There are three elements, which are essential for the style: walking around, striking up conversations, and creating networks. These are the key objectives the management must focus on in order to implement an MBWA strategy. First, the manager must take time to walk around the organization. While the method is based on spontaneous and non-planned interactions, the manager must consciously focus on getting up and away from the desk.

In a hectic work environment it can be too easy to sit down and think about doing the rounds later on, only to realize the day is over. The manager must create a system, where he or she is compelled to get up and talk to the employees on a regular basis. The manager must also ensure the walks are directed to areas directly under his or her command. You don’t need the manager to walk around parts that don’t involve him or her, but the manager must get walking amongst his or her subordinates.

Now, when you are walking around the organization as the manager, you shouldn’t just be aimlessly walking and saying ‘Hi’ to subordinates. The key element of MBWA states that the manager must strike up conversations. These conversations can be directly related to the work the subordinate or the business is doing, or the discussion can occasionally touch up on private issues. The focus, of course, should be on learning from these informal situations. The manager can utilize different situations from corridor discussions to lunch breaks. The objective is to gather information, which can be beneficial in making decisions and resolving problems.

Therefore, the idea is to learn more about the current situation of the subordinates, gain insight into his or her views, and stay on top of any problems they might encounter both at work and in private (private issues might directly influence the person’s ability to work).

The conversations are the foundation of the third key component of creating networks within the organization. The manager wants to encourage better relationships and open communication. Even when a single discussion doesn’t lead to direct, new information, the management might have strengthened the communication between him or her and the subordinate.

This can ensure that when problems arise, the person is immediately sharing the news with the management. The objective isn’t solely about the strengthened relationship between the management and the subordinates. MBWA can set an example for better communication throughout the organization.

In his book, Peters outlined three components behind successful MBWA. According to Peters, the method works when:

  • Managers listen to people – You can’t just walk around and talk, but you have to listen to what subordinates are telling you. As a manager, you have to become good at reading the subtle signs people are telling you. Your subordinates might not feel comfortable being very honest with you, especially right at the start of implementing the new method.
  • Managers use discussion as an opportunity to transmit the company’s values – The walks and discussions provide you the possibility to strengthen the subordinate’s understanding of the company’s values and vision.
  • Managers are willing to provide on-the-spot assistance and support – If your subordinates require help, you must be willing to lead by example and provide support on the spot. The method has a sense of urgency to it and it isn’t about “looking into it”, but getting problems fixed quickly.

THE STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF THE METHOD

How did management by walking around become such a popular technique? Much of its popularity is down to the positive benefits companies and management teams have experienced as a result of the strategy. While the benefits are numerous, the strategy doesn’t come without a few pitfalls.

The benefits of MBWA

There are three core benefits to using the method as a management strategy: improvements in communication and employee-superior relationships, effective operational focus, and enhanced efficiency. The table below outlines the benefits in more detail.

Creating stronger communication channels and improving employee-superior relationships
  • The strategy forces the management to improve the way it communicates with the subordinates. It emphasizes the importance of good communication throughout the organization. The managers teach the practice of listening effectively and talking efficiently to the subordinates.
  • The enhanced level of communication helps create an environment of openness. The discussions are based on positive exchange of ideas and not enforcement. The managers are not enforcing communication, but make it part of the fabric of the organization.
  • The relaxed and regular communication has been shown to improve relationships and make subordinates feel more motivated about their work.
  • The above breeds understanding within the organization, as people feel listened to. Feeling like you are part of the organization and valued by your managers can help boost employee motivation and loyalty. If you are treated well by your organization, you most likely won’t want to leave elsewhere in the immediate future.
Helping everyone focus on the correct operational aspects with work
  • The manager meets subordinates in the actual work situation and environment and therefore, gets a first-hand experience of what is going on. This allows him or her to have a better sense of the things that are happening around him and it will result it enhanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the organization.
  • MBWA strengthens an environment of feedback, in which the subordinates can provide the manager with ideas, tips and suggestions to act upon.
  • The ‘management bubble’ is removed and managers don’t just see what they want to see or what the employees want to present them, but get a realistic idea of what is going on.
Improving the organization’s efficiency
  • Both of the above points can lead to enhancing operational efficiency. The positive work environment increases work motivation and the managers have a better understanding of the correct operations decisions that must be made.
  • The management will be able to clear problems quicker by meeting people face-to-face, rather than relying on writing a string of e-mails. Instead of waiting for a reply, a manager can simply go and ask about the situation.
  • This also means the feedback on problems and ideas is instant, resulting in faster actions. The subordinate or the manager doesn’t have to wait for the ‘right’ moment, but can make adjustments immediately when things arise and are solved. If clarification is required, it can be dealt with on the spot.

The dangers of MBWA

What about the dangers of MBWA? Like any other management theory, the strategy can have its pitfalls. The three problems managers need to keep in mind revolve around the time-consuming nature of the strategy, its emphasis on subordinate opinion, and the difficulties organizations might have implementing the strategy.

Time-consuming strategy
  • MBWA can take a lot of time from the manager’s diary. The actual act of walking from your office to be among the employees can be a timely affair, which can hinder your ability to work on other issues. Even when the discussion results in a benefit, you are still taking time away from other tasks.
  • The time-consuming element can be especially detrimental when you consider the fact that not every conversation is going to lead to an immediate benefit. The unstructured nature means you will talk to subordinates without gaining any new insight into the organization’s operations. Insights are rather random in terms of the immediate benefit.
Emphasizing the importance of employee opinion
  • The focus of the strategy is to listen to subordinates and use their insights into the business as a way to improve operations. Although this can be highly beneficial, as subordinates always have the closest view on day-to-day operations, the emphasis can be overemphasized. By focusing on the insights and opinions of the subordinate, the management won’t pay as much attention to other insights, such as those by the customers or other stakeholders.
Implementing can be difficult
  • Getting the strategy right can be difficult. As mentioned previously, some managers might treat the method simply as a strategy to ‘wander around’. If enough emphasis is not placed on the value of the conversation and communication, the manager will simply spend time talking to people. The strategy is not just about being physically present amongst the subordinates, but gaining information from these real situations and conversations.
  • If you simply walk around and engage in conversation, you are forgetting the key takeaway of the strategy: information. You can’t just sit on the information and insights you gain, you need to be able to use the information as part of your overall management strategy.

HOW TO BEST USE THE MANAGEMENT STYLE

How can you best avoid the pitfalls of management by walking around? To ensure you don’t end up walking aimlessly or find yourself in a situation where “I’ll do it later” becomes the catchphrase. If you want to make the most out of the management method, you need to focus on the following key points.

Strike a balance

The most important, and perhaps the most difficult, thing to get right with MBWA is striking a balance. The method requires systematic use and it has to be made part of the manager’s routine. The system doesn’t work appropriately if you just do it when you have time, as this can easily lead down the route of inaction. The method should become a thing you take time to do instead of considering it of a second importance.

But at the same time, you can’t start scheduling your walks or you’ll end up creating a system the subordinates can expect. Management by walking around must be regular (in that it happens frequently), but also irregular (no specific time for the ‘walks’). A good idea is to ensure you get around every day or every other day, and instead of doing it on the same days or at the same time of day, swap your routine. Instead of always walking around the cafeteria, occasionally strike up conversations at the parking lot and so on.

The other key point to balance is the conversations around work and private life. Although the focus should be on using the style to learn more about the organization and how the projects are going, for example, it shouldn’t be the only part of the story. You also want to use the style to strengthen the work atmosphere and employee motivation and big part of this can be caring more about the subordinates’ personal lives.

Big life events (marriage, birth of a child, divorce, etc.) can influence how the person works and staying on top of this can ensure you limit the damage of these personal issues. So, don’t just focus on chatting about work, but ask the occasional question about non-work related topics. The important thing is to keep it casual and avoid becoming noisy. You don’t want to force anyone into a situation where they feel they need to talk about their private lives, even if they don’t want to.

Overall, you need to create a situation where MBWA is an effective method and part of an overall management strategy and not a distraction. The nature of the style can cause disturbance, as you are effectively stepping in on someone’s scheduled workday to take time to talk about things in an unorganized manner. If you do it too often, the subordinates’ ability to perform work might suffer.

Maintain a positive body language

MBWA is built around communication. As a manager, you need to focus on improving your communication skills – to become better at getting your message across and to hear what the other person has to say. You should definitely check out the tips by Julian Treasure for effective communication from the TedTalk.

But communication isn’t just about how good you are at talking or listening to other people; you also need to be mindful about the body language. We don’t just speak with our words and the tone, our bodies are also telling a story. Understanding body language is especially important for MBWA because you are putting yourself and other people in an unexpected situation – a situation, where reading between the lines can often be the key to improving.

How can you maintain positive body language? First, you need to relax. If you are casual about the situation and you treat it as an opportunity to have a chat and not a formal conversation, you can make the situation less daunting. Ensure the conversations take place in neutral spaces (outside of your office) and in a relaxed environment. Over lunch is a good example or while the other person is getting a cup of coffee.

Observe the other person and learn to read their body language. You don’t want to jump in on them when they seem clearly busy. Check first with questions like “How are you doing?” or “Oh, you are assembling the new product?” If the person becomes timid, try to diffuse the situation with something casual (perhaps they like football or you just heard good news about a supplier). Don’t push the conversation forward if the person’s body language is negative. Move on and return later.

Focus on positive recognition

The final element to guarantee effective use of the method is about using it for positive recognition. You don’t want to come across as a manager who is like an inquisitor walking around interrogating people. MBWA is an approach to learning about the work environment and sharing positive feedback.

Use the conversations for sharing successes, not failures. Provide the subordinates with positive feedback and only critique when the situation calls for it. If you encourage people with positive feedback, give credit for the ideas you hear and share the success stories with everyone, you strengthen subordinates’ motivation to work hard and to share their concerns and ideas.

The other point about positive recognition deals with inclusion. It’s crucial to ensure the MBWA strategies include everyone within the organization and that you don’t have a situation where the management only talks to certain people. Some people will always be more talkative and open than others, but you can’t pick favorites as a manager, especially when it comes to a strategy of listening to opinions.

You need to ensure everyone’s voices are heard, even when they might not be openly sharing them. Furthermore, the inclusion aspect also means you need to provide positive feedback for everyone, not just a few people. It’s important to provide everyone with positive messages to maintain a positive work environment.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Management by walking around is another management method you should consider. It has been popular, with small and large companies vouching for the strategy. MBWA can help you better understand what is happening in the organization and to create an environment of authentic and open communication.

It can help create a more meaningful relationship between the management and the subordinates, which can lead to enhancing the organizational efficiency. But to fully benefit from the method, you must understand how to implement it correctly and to avoid the pitfalls of having the management just walk around without gaining relevant information or knowing how to use it.

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