More than Meaningless Meanderings
The friend of the metal fabrication shop manager laughed. “That’s a good joke, ‘management by wandering around.’ Seriously, though, I’m curious how you run your shop so well. What’s your secret?”
The fab shop manager responded with a straight face, “I AM serious. That is an actual style of business management, called MBWA for short, and it’s something I practice here.”
After waiting a moment to see if a punchline was coming, the friend asked, “How can roaming aimlessly about your shop be considered good management?”
The manager replied, “It isn’t aimless. Walking around the shop is great exercise, but it doesn’t help a business run better if a manager just wanders without listening to his people and making a real effort to learn about them, their projects, and any difficulties they are encountering.”
“Well, it sounds innovative,” the friend responded, “but I’m not sure a fad like that will ever catch on.”
“MBWA is far more than a fad,” the manager countered. “In fact, it is a strategy that has been around for quite a while. Abraham Lincoln is noted for going out and informally inspecting the Union troops during the Civil War. It officially became a business management technique in the 1970s when the term “Management by Wandering Around” was coined by executives at the Hewlett-Packard company and that style of leadership was practiced there. It’s all about getting ‘out in the trenches’ with your people and interacting with them in a more personal way than if you called them into a formal meeting.”
The friend nodded his head. “That does sound interesting. You’d really be able to put your finger on the pulse of your company that way. Can I come by your shop some morning next week and see how you do it? I might just give it a try in my business.”
“Sure, let’s plan something,” the shop manager agreed. “It really does help you get a whole new perspective on your team.”
How to Manage Through Wandering
The point of management by wandering around is to allow managers to understand their workforce better and see firsthand how individuals and groups function in the business. The fabrication shop owner or manager who adopts MBWA as a leadership technique has increased opportunities for interaction with shop—and office—employees, and a better chance of getting a more accurate feel for those day-to-day operations under their stewardship.
The boss who just waits around his office to receive sterile status reports can’t experience the nuances that are to be had by the hands-on manager who gets in the grind with the rest of the team, seeing directly the situations being faced by the workforce, along with their reactions to them. Feedback is essential for any type of group to operate smoothly, and managers will get immediate (and more honest) feedback if they are out at ground zero with their frontline workers.
Keys to successful MBWA include:
- Randomness. It’s in the name—wandering. Unlike a doctor who makes her rounds or a security guard who goes on patrol, MBWA needs to literally be wandering in an unplanned fashion. Just as statisticians get more accurate data by doing random samplings of people in a specific demographic, so the wandering fab shop manager gleans a more complete picture of the state of the shop by showing up at different locations in an unplanned fashion.
- Listening. MBWA isn’t a place for a manager to lecture employees from a soapbox, it’s an opportunity to engage with staff at every level in a personable way and get to know their concerns. Asking employees about their current projects and any problems they are having can help them to be more forthcoming if it is a friendly inquiry and not an interrogation. MBWA is also a good place to get input on ways that processes could be improved. When an issue is brought up, it’s a chance for a manager to ask, “How can I help?”
- Accepting Criticism. Managers shouldn’t react negatively to any harsh feedback they receive but instead thank the employee for speaking openly. Any such responses should be reflected on carefully and employees should be later apprised in person of any changes or decisions that stem from the encounter.
- Commitment. Managers need to be open and honest with employees during MBWA if they expect the same in return. Any issues raised or promises made need to be followed-up on by management.
- Consistency. While employees may initially question the motives of management and suspect that MBWA is just a way for leadership to spy on them, once it becomes a routine, they will relax into it and even look forward to it. Managers should ensure that every employee is met with regularly over the course of these sessions.
MBWA is not a situation for criticizing or punishing employees. It should be viewed by management and staff as a positive experience where staff can learn from management and be free to share their feelings and observations.
Benefits of Practicing MBWA in the Shop
The fab shop boss that manages through wandering can find it to be profitable in a variety of ways. Several advantages of MBWA include:
- Improving interpersonal communication between management and staff.
- Allowing managers to show their approachability.
- Getting a better gauge of employee morale.
- Giving leadership a chance to perform on-the-spot problem-solving.
- Observing interactions between employees.
- Helping uncover any issues that might not otherwise be brought promptly to a manager’s attention.
- Providing occasions for informal training and mentoring.
- Permitting a manager an opportunity to communicate corporate beliefs and values to employees in an informal manner.
- Potentially building staff loyalty.
In addition, the wandering manager can also observe firsthand the state of things on the shop floor such as safety concerns, the condition of equipment, and general cleanliness. It also doesn’t have to be confined to the shop or offices but can be done in common areas like the breakroom or even the parking lot.
Management by wandering around should not be treated like a relaxed stroll, nor seen as a chore, but embraced as an opportunity for a metal fabrication shop manager to help craft the staff into a thriving organization that works together for the benefit of the company and each other.