I’m not sure when I was first introduced to the term “management by walking around” (or MBWA) but I experienced it in practice while working for Bob Bean at WebCT. It was hugely successful there and while appearing almost effortless, Bob managed to build a tight knit team out of a group of disparate IT workers.
The idea is in order to stay in touch with what the people who report directly to you simply walk around, talk to them, share with them, observe them, and don’t be critical. If you do this with all your employees on a regular basis, you will quickly identify where they are succeeding, where they are struggling, and where they need help.
As a natural byproduct of this technique a trust relationship builds up between employees and manager. The employees will feel like their manager knows what they’re doing and the manager will have a better rapport to address issues, both good and bad, with their employees.
While I could not find any clear origin for either the practice or the term of management by walking around, I did find some great information on it.
In this article from futurecents.com the author outlines 12 guidelines for MBWA:
- Do it to everyone.
You may remain in such close contact with your direct reports that MBWA is redundant with them. The real power of the technique lies in the time you spend with those in lower levels of your area of responsibility. Get around to see those who work for your direct reports and any others whose work is important to you.
- Do it as often as you can.
MBWA sends positive messages to employees. It reveals your interest in them and in their work, and it says you donâ€™t consider yourself “too good” to spend time with them. MBWA also enables you to stay in touch with what is going on in your department, section or unit. Put aside at least thirty minutes a week to spend with all employees. Aim for once a quarter to see those you must travel long distances to visit.
- Go by yourself.
MBWA is more meaningful when you visit with employees alone, and one-on-one. It encourages more honest dialogue and speaks loudly of your personal commitment to the idea.
- Donâ€™t circumvent subordinate managers.
Some employees may take advantage of your presence to complain about a supervisor who is your subordinate. Counsel them to discuss the issue fully with their supervisor first. If you have cause to question the supervisorâ€™s judgement, donâ€™t indicate so to the employee, but follow up privately with the supervisor.
- Ask questions.
MBWA is a great opportunity to observe those “moments of truth” when your employees interact with your clients. Ask them to tell you a little bit about the files, projects or duties they are working on. Take care to sound inquisitive rather than intrusive.
- Watch and listen.
Take in everything. Listen to the words and tone of employees as they speak to you and to each other. Youâ€™ll learn a lot about their motivation and their levels of satisfaction. In the words of Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
- Share your dreams with them.
As a Yukon Dog Team handler used to say, “The view only changes for the lead dog.” MBWA is a solid opportunity to make sure that when you lead the sled in a new direction, the employees behind you wonâ€™t trip over themselves trying to follow. Tell them about the organizationâ€™s vision for the future, and where your vision for the department / unit/ section fits in with the “big picture.” Reveal the goals and objectives that you want them to help you fulfill together as a team. Ask them for their vision, and hold an open discussion.
- Try out their work.
Plop down in front of the computer; get behind the wheel; pick up the telephone; review a project file. Experience what they endure. Sample their job just enough to show your interest in it, and to understand how it goes. Think of great ways to reconnect with your front line workers, and gain a current understanding of exactly what they are dealing with during a typical work day.
- Bring good news.
Walk around armed with information about recent successes or positive initiatives. Give them the good news. Increase their confidence and brighten their outlook. So often employees are fed only gloom and doom. Neutralize pessimism with your own optimism, without being non-credible.
- Have fun.
This is a chance to lighten up, joke around, and show your softer side without being disrespectful or clowning around. Show employees that work should be fun and that you enjoy it too.
- Catch them in the act of doing something right.
Look for victories rather than failures. When you find one, applaud it. When you run into one of the many unsung heroes in your job site, thank them on the spot, being careful not to embarrass them in front of peers or to leave out other deserving employees.
- Donâ€™t be critical.
When you witness a performance gone wrong, donâ€™t criticize the performer. Correct on the spot anything that must be redone, but wait to speak to the wrongdoerâ€™s supervisor to bring about corrective action.
I also turned up this testament to MBWA where a manager discusses his success with the technique.
If the twelve guidelines above seem overwhelming try these five:
Carla Emmons, who manages a successful IT team of 9 had this to say about MBWA:
I believe in team collaboration through walking around [...]. If the team doesn’t have unstructured time to shoot the shit, the team loses out on the brilliance that comes from random tangents, but it must be genuine. If someone is not humble when he or she takes the walk, the effort is just not going to work.