In a recent post about seagull managers, we suggested those working for them might consider running away. Concerned as we are for the health of everyone at work, we have a gentler form of exercise for those managers who have avoided – or who perhaps are still looking to evolve out of – seagull management. Go for a walk. We’re thinking about more than your waistline: why not network with your own people for a change.

For something that involves so few wires (or wirelesses), bells or whistles – indeed, which focuses on making the people mobile rather than the communication (no wonder it hasn’t caught on) – the idea of Managing By Walking Around (MBWA) is credited by being popularised by Hewlett Packard and an open management style the company called “The HP Way”. Tom Peters subsequently described it as “the basis of leadership” and paraphrased it as “the technology of the obvious”.

Some of the upsides – apart from the aerobic aspect – are indeed probably obvious. Those of your staff with whom you don’t otherwise have regular contact may not see you as either a remote alien figure or some kind of managerial ogre: the rare invitation to come to you office may stop filling them with total dread. While a senior managers’ time should rightly be valuable, that doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to become totally inaccessible.

Less obviously, perhaps, consider the following quote from Colin Powell:

The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

It’s not the conventional way of looking at the world, but in one sense your staff are also a critical customer. As a senior manager, your role is to supply them with vision and appropriate – and effective – motivation. If staying close to your customers is a key aspect of meeting their needs (by developing a relationship that enables you to both understand and anticipate those needs), then surely you should see ‘getting to know your own staff’ as a valuable internal CRM activity?

Interestingly, it seems there are different Western and Eastern cultural interpretations of this idea. For Peters and many Westerners, MBWA is a ‘visiting’ activity – encouraging familiarisation that encourages people to communicate in a more relaxed way and enabling potential big future problems to be identified before they can grow. (This also seems old-fashioned. There is a faintly paternalism-era whiff to this of the avunucular boss who knew all the staff by name and took an active interest in their lives and development. This might be typically West European nostalgic whimsy on my part, but taking a caring interest in the details isn’t just an antiquated way of behaving, is it?) 

For Toyota – and the Japanese in general – the interpretation is different. The equivalent concept – genchi genbutsu, a key part of Toyota’s production philosophy – translates more like “go and see for yourself”, and is closely related to another term – gemba, or ‘the actual place’. (The Curious Cat website offers more detailed definitions.)

By walking around, the manager learns from the workers, from their actions, their inactions, their interactions: the understanding this generates is then to be used to improve and move forward. Consider the following extract from another blog posting The Gemba Walk:

During a trip to Japan, Dr. Ryuji Fukuda took me to a Meidensha Electric plant outside of Tokyo, and introduced me to the plant manager. At 11:00AM, the plant manager got up from behind his desk. He asked me to join him on his daily walk; in fact he told me that he walked the plant twice a day every day and that it was the most valuable part of his day.

The plant manager said, “Norman, I select a different theme for every walk and this morning I am going to look at the quality charts to see if they have a real purpose for the company and for the employees; if people are keeping them up to date; to see how they’re used; and to learn who looks at them and when they’re looked at. I want to find out what is the real value of those quality charts.”

While Tom Peters felt that wandering managers should ensure at least three things happened while this perambulation was going on, only one of these – “They should be listening to what people are saying” – seemed to concern the manager. His other two activities – delivering the vision face to face and offering on-the-spot help – are concerned with what the manager can give the organisation: a top down view. (And by implication, a view that those below management level can offer only their sweat – increasing to blood and/or tears in times of particular hardship).

For Dr Fukuda and his plant manager, the view of the benefits was different:

Instead of feeling that you must lead others, your real strength is bringing out the best from others, letting them develop their talents and letting them run the business for you. As you learn from the workers your job is to then disseminate your learning with everyone else – others in the plant and also sharing the power of this learning with your bosses. “

But considering the wandering manager from a different angle. If the people you manage are more than about 30 yards from your desk or you see them for less than about 30 minutes a week, you are effectively managing remotely even within the same building. In which case, we can offer only three little words as a rather perfunctory if well meant cliché: get out more.

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