Management by Wandering Around
Several years ago I assumed responsibility for a large in-plant — right at 100 FTEs, as I recall — at a public university in the Midwest. I had 10 to 12 years of experience with some pretty large public sector shops, but none as large as this one. I also had a brand new MBA in public administration. I was ready for the -challenge.
New managers have a lot to learn, and often not much time to do so. They need to identify organizational strengths — things done well; weaknesses — areas needing improvement; and profiles of key customers. They need to understand the culture of the new parent organization and recognize that there are most likely huge differences between the way things were done in the old organization and the new one.
In my case, I was moving from public sector organizations to higher-ed; and while one might argue that there are many similarities between these two types of organizations, there are big differences as well. Ask anyone who has ever crossed paths with a tenured member of the faculty or the coach of a major sport.
There are many ways to get up to speed in the new organization. Meeting with customers and staff, reviewing financial and operational reports, and reviewing equipment records are a few. But are these enough? Will you gain in the in-depth knowledge of your new responsibility by reviewing records?
Enter Management by Wandering Around (MBWA)
The concept of MBWA — unstructured visits to the shop floor to listen to staff — is attributed to Bill Hewlett and David Packard, founders of HP, in the 1970s, but the acronym comes from Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in their 1982 book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies. Steve Jobs took the practice past organizational boundaries to include customers. Peters and Waterman observed that organizations in which top management made unstructured, random visits to the shop floor and actually listened to what their staff had to say tended to be more efficient and enjoy greater morale.
It turns out that staff actually do know a great deal about the processes they work with, and that includes knowing what works well and what doesn’t. Moreover, staff may actually do some things that they know to be inefficient, or wasteful, or just dumb because . . . well, because they’ve been told to. If you look, you might also find that staff often have ideas for improvement that no one will listen to.
But We’ve Always Done It This Way
This brings me to a conversation I had with a production person at the large university I mentioned earlier. I was wandering around the shop visiting with people, and I noticed something that I thought was not only unusual but also inefficient and maybe bordering on dangerous. So I engaged the operator in a conversation.
“What are you doing?” I asked. She replied with a description of the process she was working in.
“That seems a little unusual,” I replied. “Do you think that’s the best way to accomplish your objective”?
She replied “No.”
“Then why don’t you change?” I asked.
“I know you don’t want to hear this, but we’ve always done it this way.”
That took courage on her part, and it opened my eyes. Here was someone familiar with the workflow, someone with good ideas on how to make it better, but she worked in an environment where her ideas were unwelcome because “we’ve always done it this way.”
That was my MBWA breakout moment. That’s where I began to understand that people need to feel free to talk to management without fear of reprisal for bucking the system. That’s where I learned that the folks on the shop floor actually know a whole lot more about what they are doing than my leadership team or me.
Not Just for New Managers
New managers are not the only ones that stand to benefit from using MBWA, although it is a tool that can expedite a new manager’s understanding of the organization. Experienced managers can learn a lot from the folks that actually do the work as well.
The rules are pretty simple: First, be spontaneous. You don’t want people preparing for your visit like it was a planned meeting. You want to show up, observe, ask questions if appropriate, and answer questions the interviewee may have.
Next, listen. Don’t try to explain anything to the person you’re talking to unless they ask. Don’t argue, or correct, or even joke about what you’re hearing. Just listen. And don’t forget to ask the question, “How can I help you do a better job?”
Make sure that the person you’re listening to feels safe and understands that anything he or she tells you stays between the two of you, unless, of course, the conversation leads to positive change, in which case recognition might be in order.
Empower the staff member to try new things. Let them put their ideas to work and reward their successes, even if the reward is as simple as an “atta boy.”
Don’t leave anyone out. Everyone has ideas.
And above all, listen, listen, listen!
I began this piece by telling you that this is a true story about one of the stops on my in-plant journey, and it is. “We’ve always done it this way” was a management awakening for me. It helped me break through years of management disinterest and open the door for all of the creativity that staff had been holding back for years.
Moreover, I found that practicing MBWA made me a better manager. It helped me be more visible and connect with the folks I was privileged to work with, and it reinforced the notion that the folks doing the work really are the best ones to improve it.
Related story: The Anatomy of an In-plant Closing
Ray Chambers, CGCM, MBA, has invested over 30 years managing and directing printing plants, copy centers, mail centers and award-winning document management facilities in higher education and government.
Most recently, Chambers served as vice president and chief information officer at Juniata College. Chambers is currently a doctoral candidate studying Higher Education Administration at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU). His research interests include outsourcing in higher education and its impact on support services in higher education and managing support services. He also consults (Chambers Management Group) with leaders in both the public and private sectors to help them understand and improve in-plant printing and document services operations.