What Managers Can Learn Walking Around

What can a manager learn by walking around, especially if wandering is generally considered an aimless activity?

Management by Walking Around (MBWA) is a term coined in a book that revived and redirected business literature in 1982, In Search of Excellence. Consultants Tom Peters and Bob Waterman researched excellent companies looking for best practices. MBWA was one of those practices.

The CBS network (www.cbs.com/primetime/undercover_boss/) has produced a series of shows called, "Undercover Boss." Call it MBWA in hyper drive.

Whether you like what the executives do as a result of their being undercover (it is, after all, part entertainment), the theme of MBWA from 30-years earlier rings true here: executives who put their boots on the ground where the employees work can learn something important about how things work.

Several years ago I was speaking to the CEO of a large credit union headquartered on the Florida east coast. We were talking about their growth strategies, technologies and branching. He related to me how startled he was on a visit to a branch. He found that a major growth initiative from the home office was virtually ignored in this particular branch.

By wandering around the branches over a short period of time, he discovered that in some branches, only the managers knew of the initiative, and in other branches, knowledge among the employees was skimpy as well as inconsistent.

Yes, he had well-paid and competent executives and they all had good management people on their teams. How did it happen that communication seemed to stop on its way into the branches? My conversation with that CEO was not long enough to reveal what causes existed, but it's not too hard for us to imagine what took place.

Branch managers have important jobs. They have unique branches and encounter unique pressures. We can imagine that an initiative from headquarters may have to take a back seat to an issue that could make or break a branch manager's career (if ignoring the initiative does not also threaten it). "Let's see, I have a choice to make; fix this member's account, and then that other thing, or tell branch staff about the initiative. I'll get the urgent things done first." That's one example of how the initiative does not get the attention top management expected.

As a new board member of a CU, I took the initiative to spend a morning in the credit union's office. The board and the office manager knew I planned to do it as a part of my own new director orientation. I knew that I was there to learn by observing and interacting. The effort proved valuable to me as a new director and it turned out very valuable for the credit union and its small staff.

This credit union had a single office within am office building housing its field of membership here in Tallahassee. During my morning's observation of office operations, I greeted many members who were impressed that a director was there. That was a side benefit.

The real benefit was my observation of how busy the office could get. I observed the office manager and three other employees in a ballet, using one terminal and one printer to serve all the members on a typical day. I'm quite sure the board's intent was to be frugal, or, in the final throws of the prior office manager's tenure, to be uncooperative. I never pursued the board's motivation.

Member wait-time was much longer than it needed to be. On my recommendation, the board authorized the installation of more terminals and printers. The results were very positive. My intent was new director orientation. The result was well beyond that.

Typical wanderings will not produce that much benefit every time. Done well, management by walking around can prevent-or at least catch earlier-the kinds of things being uncovered by undercover bosses on television.

For instance, the CEO of 1-800-Flowers met an employee whose creativity was unrewarded and ignored. And that was in spite of the fact that the company has ways of putting that talent to work both as job enrichment and as a benefit to the company.

Five Guides To Walking

Here are five guides for making management by walking around a sound investment of time, energy and travel cost:

1. Make a commitment to reach all departments and facilities in a balanced way. For example, hit every facility at least once in a five-year cycle: frequency will be a function of the number of managers and locations. Shorter cycles can be accomplished with facilities closer together, and especially if all the departments are in only one facility.

2. Let all top managers participate in the process. As a CU CEO with three locations within 20 miles, I generally visited the branches monthly. It wasn't a schedule as much an awareness and looking for an opportunity to pop in when I could be "in the neighborhood." Larger credit unions with many departments and facilities can assign C-level executives in rotation.

3. Know what you're there for and be sure all personnel understand it that it's: to touch base with the manager; be visible to staff (such that you could not succeed at being "undercover"); and confirm that all employees understand the company's strategies, personnel policies and marketing plans. Make the reasons uniquely yours.

4. Train managers how to manage by walking around. Make all employees aware of what it's about so they can act appropriately. Full disclosure should eliminate inevitable angst.

5. Avoid micromanaging anything. Although a manager makes the visit, the purpose is not to manage anything except the relationship of home office staff to facility staff; branch personnel-even those close to the home office-often feel isolated and forgotten.

Each organization will need to discuss and decide how the "walking manager" will deal with serious issues discovered, complaints leveled by employees and other choice discoveries that appear to need a quick on-the-spot response.

Effective MBWA efforts have the capacity to make any organization more efficient and more human. As an integral part of the overall governance structure, it improves the communication process and makes the organization more adaptable.

Dan Clark is a management consultant based in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at www.danclark.comdan@danclark.com or 850-559-7094.