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Please, Not Another Argument for MBWA

Unscheduled wandering isn’t good for you or your company.

Theodore Kinni argues in Strategy + Business that leaders must practice management by walking around (MBWA), a concept popularized by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in their seminal book, In Search of Excellence. That’s the best way for them to stay connected to their businesses and understand what’s really happening with their customers. As Peters puts it, “The real meaning [of MBWA] was that you can’t lead from your office/cubicle.”

I’ve got no problem with the concept—after all, it’s similar to the lean precept of genchi gembutsu, or going to the gemba.

But here’s the problem with MBWA: it’s essentially unstructured. In fact, Peters and Waterman specifically advise managers to make their walks unpredictable, both in terms of where they go and when they go. The CEO is supposed to just wander around and, without notice, randomly pop into people’s workspace like some sort of benign animatronic ghost from a Disney World ride. Peters and Waterman believe that if front-line workers are expecting your visit, you won’t see what’s really happening on a regular basis. They argue that front-line staff will work differently; they’ll clean up their work area; they’ll cover up small problems. As a result, leaders won’t get an accurate picture of how the processes are operating.

This is a fundamentally different perspective from the one held by the leaders at organizations embracing lean. James Hereford, CEO of Fairview Health Services in Minnesota, schedules his gemba visit to each medical service every morning—and everyone knows which department he’ll be visiting that day.

Varsity Facility Services, a national provider of janitorial services to corporations, actually posts managers’ schedules in the open, visible to the entire company. When a manager completes her front-line visit, her team checks the box or flips a card from red to green to show that she did, in fact, fulfill her commitment to the team.

Jim Lancaster, president of Lantech, does his “walk-around review” (WAR walk) with his leadership team from 9-9:50 a.m. on Mondays and Fridays. They visit each department in the company in a standard sequence.

Imagine what would happen if your physical trainer followed the MBWA playbook, and he came by unannounced to ensure that you’re following your training program. In the best case, you’d be confused (Why is my trainer at my front door at 6 a.m. while I’m still in my underwear?), and in the worst case, you’d feel disrespected (What—he doesn’t trust me to do my workout?).

Conversely, imagine that you have regularly scheduled training sessions with your coach and that you know precisely what issues you’re going to address during each visit. Will that make it difficult to assess progress or diagnose problems? Probably not. In fact, it would probably make you more attentive to what you’ve been doing, or to the minor twinges that might indicate the onset of an injury, so that you can discuss them in full.

Kinni knows that MBWA might seem like too much of a luxury for time-pressed executives whose schedules are booked months in advance. But he doubles down on his belief that unscheduled MBWA is the way to go, following Peters’ suggestion that leaders keep 50% of their time unscheduled.

Good luck with that. It’s hard enough to get leaders to do MBWA in the first place, let alone asking them to keep half their days free.

I’d argue that because executives’ schedules are so heavily booked, that’s all the more reason to commit time to go to the gemba by visibly booking it in your calendar. After all, the calendar is essentially a temporal bankbook, showing you what’s sufficiently important that you’re willing to carve out time for it. As Peters succinctly says in a video, “You are your calendar,” and if you’re not willing to put it in in your calendar, it’s probably not that important to you.

So please, let’s dispense with the fantasy that unstructured time for meandering through the company will keep you “grounded.” It’s not good for the worker, and it’s unlikely to actually get done.

Commit to visiting the gemba. Let people know when you’re coming. And put it in your schedule. Then you really will stay connected to the business. 

Dan Markovitz is a Shingo prize-winning author, speaker, and consultant who helps companies accelerate their lean journeys. You can reach him at www.markovitzconsulting.com or @danmarkovitz.

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