Management by Walking About (MBWA) is a management practice first proposed by Peters and Waterman in their seminal book In Search of Excellence. As a technique, it aims to allow management to bypass the bureaucracy of the organisation and stay in contact with those that do the actual work. It is communication at its best.
The Harvard Business School Working Knowledge discusses some research that shows that management visibility on its own is no guarantee of success. Unless managers understand that MBWA is more than just walking about, they can cause more harm than good. The research looked at a number of hospitals that engaged with front line workers on process improvements. The result showed that improvements were achieved in most instances, leading to not just improvements in processes but in the overall organisation climate.
However, it is also possible to damage that climate. The researchers found that it is not just important to engage with front line staff. It is how you engage that will make the difference. It is too easy for MBWA to be viewed as an audit that is trying to find errors or an attempt to catch employees making mistakes. If this is the perception of MBWA, trust will be quickly eroded, increasing hostility and suspicion – the exact opposite of what MBWA is attempting to achieve.
Some simple steps that managers can follow to ensure that MBWA is effective include:
o Do it solo – senior managers should MBWA alone and not hunt in packs
o Ask questions
o If you give a commitment to act on something, follow up
o Don’t undermine your supervisors – this is not an opportunity to whinge
o Do it often – it is not a fad and repetition will make it seem the norm