Going old-school: The case for Managing By Walking Around (MBWA)

While connecting digitally to employee audiences is an essential component of how to communicate with today’s workforce, there’s an “old-school” management concept that should also be considered as part of an integrated, multi-channel approach with an objective to engage and activate employees.

It is known as MBWA, or Managing By Walking Around, and it’s one of the most enduring techniques that leaders have been using even before it was “named” and embraced by management gurus and business schools alike. 

Despite that validation, many managers don’t take advantage of potentially useful techniques like MBWA because we either don’t know about them or don’t believe in them. Before you dismiss MBWA as just another revival of a trendy management style, read on – and get ready to discover (or re-discover) a great way to connect to your people!

Definition

MBWA refers to an unstructured, hands-on way for managers to interact with their people by taking the time to make informal (and unannounced) visits to work areas. It’s a way to get out in the “real” world and stay in direct touch with the people who do the work. If done right, this kind of face-to-face contact can help achieve a deeper connection between management and employees. 

This method is as applicable in a research environment as it is on a factory floor, in an office environment or with a geographical disbursed team. Some prefer to call it “wandering” instead of “walking,” as that connotes a sense of purposeful randomness and the possibility of an unexpected and rewarding chance encounter. 

But whether you walk or wander, by listening to employees’ suggestions, concerns and complaints, you can collect unfiltered information, keep your finger on the pulse of your organization, and find out what’s really going on in various work settings.

History

MBWA was not “invented” by any one company or individual. Management guru Peter Drucker is said to have coined the term in the 1960s and its earliest documented appearance may have been during that decade at NASA. It bears similarities to Japanese management methods such as Genchi Genbutsu (meaning “Go and See”). Historian Stephen B. Coates traces its origins to Abraham Lincoln, contending that the 16th U.S. president used it when informally inspecting the Union Army troops in the early part of the American Civil War.

In the U.S., MBWA was popularized as an important part of “The HP Way,” the open management style pioneered by HP founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard as a means of boosting morale within their company.

The approach gained prominence in the early 1980s when management consultant Tom Peters wrote about it in his first book, In Search of Excellence, sharing examples from such notable organizations as Hewlett-Packard, GE, PepsiCo, Lucasfilm, 3M and Disney. In his second book, A Passion for Excellence, Peters said he saw MBWA as the basis for leadership and excellence and called it the “technology of the obvious.”

MBWA today

Over the years, MBWA has evolved from being a simple morale booster to being an indispensable compound in a manager’s apothecary. It’s an impromptu way to check in with teams about the status of work in progress. 

By randomly visiting different parts of your organization (and ensuring that your listening to talking ratio is properly balanced!), you can discover and fix problems earlier and more efficiently. American professor, author and consultant W. Edwards Deming pinpointed why that’s so important when he wrote: “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.” 

Making MWBA work in a global company 

Of course, it’s easier to practice MBWA when you are physically co-located with your people and you can actually visit them in person. This is not always possible in highly-complex and global organizations spread around multiple sites from one of the world to another. 

But there are some workarounds. First and foremost, courtesy of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, one can always pick up the phone and spontaneously and informally do some “Management by Calling Around.” Also worth considering are collaborative tools like TouchPoint and Google Drive (or whatever software your organization uses) which allow you to produce and work on documents with a team, making comments and synchronizing interactions across time zones. At the end of the day we have no excuse for not connecting – real time or virtually – to our colleagues. 

You can also practice MBWA when you travel and visit your geographical disbursed teams. Don’t just meet with your senior direct reports. Tenaciously build some time into your schedule so you can take an unguided (and unannounced) walk through the work areas to meet and talk with the people deeper down into the organization. You can also choose to eat in the company cafeterias when traveling, sitting with individuals or small groups that you don’t already know. They key is to reach out, connect and listen. Remember, if you can’t listen, you can’t hear!

MWBA takes work

Granted, MBWA requires a commitment and forces you to allocate one of your most precious and scarcest resources: time. But there are no shortcuts to building trust and relationships; it all comes down to treating employees with the appreciation and recognition they rightly deserve. And be assured, time spent this way is probably better invested than wading through dozens of e-mails.

Caveat: MWBA is not a cure-all or a magic pill. It must be augmented and complemented by a host of other proven techniques. But it can tell you things that you need to know and can’t get by reading reports or hibernating in your office.

By making it part of your overall management style, MBWA will soon become second nature and part of your personal leadership style…and it definitely beats the socks off formal, stuffy meetings!

Final thoughts

When I was a junior officer working in Washington, D.C., I recall one early evening when I was working on a speech for my then-boss, a four-star general (whose office was two floors away). All of a sudden the general wandered into my office, stood next to my desk and asked, “How are you doing?” I told him that the speech was on track. He said fine, and again asked, “How are you doing?” It suddenly dawned on me that he had come down to talk to me, about me. He was demonstrating a genuine interest in me and we proceeded to have a thoughtful 30-minute conversation. I did most of the talking and he – a busy general with accountability for more than 120,000 people, a budget of nearly 100 billion dollars and the R&D of every weapon system in the Air Force – listened. By the end of our chat, I was feeling so good about my role, my purpose and life that I knocked out that speech and the many to follow for the next year with a new passion and enthusiasm. My boss cared. It is a feeling today that still motivates me. 

Imagine the impact you can – and will – have on the people in your organization and on your teams by spending a few minutes with them. Listen. Hear. Management By Walking Around – it works.

If you want engagement, you need to engage.