Management by wandering around describes a style of business management where superiors wander about the workplace at random to check on employees and the status of ongoing work. Management by wandering around (MBWA) emphasizes the word wandering to describe the way managers move around the workplace in an unplanned or unpredictable fashion. This approach is in stark contrast to more structured management approaches, where managers visit employees at systematic, scheduled, or pre-approved times.
Understanding management by wandering around
Though the approach is frequently used by political or military leaders, Hewlett-Packard was the first company to implement MBWA as a formal management technique. In his 1995 book The HP Way, co-founder David Packard attributed the success of Hewlett-Packard to a culture where employees felt comfortable raising concerns to managers who listened attentively.
This culture is fundamental to management by wandering around because it promotes collaborative, two-way communication and problem-solving. In this way, MBWA is quite similar to the Gemba walks of the Toyota Production System – where managers visit work locations, observe processes, and liaise with employees to solve problems.
Whatever the moniker given, however, the strategy enables leaders to closely engage with their subordinates and model acceptable standards of behavior. For employees, the MBWA approach helps them view their superiors as real people and not distant authority figures.
Key characteristics of management by wandering around
There are three key characteristics of the MBDA approach:
- Authenticity – like any action, management by wandering around is only effective if it is sincere. Managers will not be able to foster relationships if their visit to a worksite is forced, hurried, or half-hearted. The same can be said for managers who travel with an entourage, which only seeks to alienate or intimidate workers. Employees who have become accustomed to mistreatment from management are highly adept at recognizing insincerity.
- Engagement – as we noted earlier, engagement of the employees is also key. While small talk serves a purpose, the manager must use their time wisely by actively observing their workers in action and asking important follow-up questions. They must also actively listen to employee concerns and express appreciation for the meaningful contributions they make to the company.
- Inclusiveness – this means the manager makes an effort to communicate with all employees, regardless of department or whether they report to a different superior. Inclusiveness is also linked with consistency. For example, a regional manufacturing manager should make the effort to visit every factory under their jurisdiction and not just those that are nearby.
Strengths and weaknesses of management by wandering around
- Approachability – through fear or a general belief their concerns won’t be addressed, most employees are reluctant to speak to management directly. However, the MBWA approach creates leaders who are open, honest, and approachable.
- Increased cohesiveness – over time, two-way communication can be infectious and encourage people to work cohesively as a team. This has significant positive implications for problem detection or avoidance and company culture.
- Holistic knowledge – hierarchical managers are often disconnected from the very people and processes that power the company. Managers who regularly liaise with frontline workers improve their own working knowledge and understanding of the business.
- Geographical constraints – managers tasked with overseeing large geographic areas may find the logistics of working with frontline employees difficult. Time and financial constraints may also exacerbate this issue and lead to the manager neglecting other facets of their role.
- Lack of insight – some believe employees expecting a visit from management will not provide an accurate representation of reality. While management by wandering around does facilitate meaningful conversations, the reality is many employees will refrain from providing honest feedback if it may be construed as criticizing the boss.
- Reliance on subordinates – while low-level employees are the most qualified to comment on daily operations, the MBWA approach can cause some businesses to place too much importance on their input. In the process, equally valuable customer or other stakeholder input is not taken into account.
- Management by wandering around is a business management approach where superiors wander about the workplace at random to check on employees and the status of ongoing work
- Management by wandering around is underpinned by three key characteristics: authenticity, engagement, and inclusiveness.
- Management by wandering around increases team cohesiveness, company culture, and broadens manager knowledge. However, its effectiveness may be limited by geographical constraints and an overreliance on the opinion of low-level employees.
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