Management By Walking Around Explained By a CEO


Management by Walking Around is a very beneficial concept for leaders. I have used it to great effect during my CEO career, where it has contributed to driving employee engagement extraordinarily fast, as I will share with you in this article.

What is Management By Walking Around?

Management By Walking Around (MBWA) is a strategy where managers roam the workplace at random. Those applying the Management By Walking Around approach make unplanned visits to engage employees and learn about equipment, routines, customers, and other operational aspects. 

Keep on reading to learn more about management by walking around, how to do it, advantages and disadvantages, and some personal experiences from when I have applied MBWA with great success in my job as a CEO, resulting in a significant difference in organizational culture.

Management By Walking Around Explained

The concept of management by walking around emerged back in the early 80s, 1982 to be specific when Tom Peters and Robert Waterman introduced it in their book named “In Search of Excellence”. Peters and Waterman had followed successful leaders and concluded that they did not stay in their “ivory towers” but instead spent time out in the organization, walking around the area and interacting with employees.

Management by walking around, otherwise known as management by wandering around (MBWA), is a management style that involves strolling around the work area in a seemingly unstructured manner. Managers spontaneously stop for a conversation with employees, learning more about equipment, functions, and processes in the workplace. As a manager stops by for informal discussions, she also makes herself available for employees and any questions they might want to raise. This approach builds participation and is an example of the democratic leadership style and MBWA requires a lot of Emotional Intelligence on the leader’s part. (Read our free e-book on Emotional Intelligence.) The method of Management by walking around depends on each company’s layout and everyday routines; walking on a factory floor or in a department store is different, but in the end, it is meeting the team members that is the point.

What is the aim of Management By Walking Around?

Management by walking around intends to achieve higher productivity and efficiency through accurate representations of daily happenings and understanding the employees’ perspectives. The leader regularly feels “the pulse” of the organization, which provides crucial input for decision-making and communication.  

Is management by walking around effective?

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Management By Walking Around is incredibly effective in workplaces that involve teams, routines, tasks, production, and knowledge workers. The approach is far more effective than arranged visits, as managers gain truthful insight through dialogue and witnessing operations firsthand. 

Are there any dangers in the use of Management By Walking Around?

Management By Walking Around effectiveness is subject to each unique manager. Some managers walk around with the wrong attitude, leading to disgruntled, uncomfortable, and pressured employees who feel micromanaged. This behavior will hurt performance rather than strengthening it.

The Characteristics of Management By Walking Around

The Management By Walking Around (MBWA) approach to leadership involves the following elements and characteristics:

  1. Walking around the workplace
  2. Talking to employees
  3. Creating personal networks
  4. Unstructured Visits
  5. Engagement and Discussion Style
  6. Personal Interactions with a Supportive Attitude

The first three might seem rather self-evident, but there are still some important aspects to keep in mind. That is why we will go through each of the six elements in greater detail.

Walking Around the Workplace

By simply walking around, managers show presence, interest, and respect for the different parts of company operations. This stroll is an opportunity to “walk the talk” when it comes to wearing the proper personal protection equipment (PPE), following safety routines, walk the appropriate paths, and all the other rules and regulations others are expected to follow. Managers who do not follow their own rules stick out like sore thumbs. Furthermore, it is essential to cover the entire area, not staying in the warm inside offices while skipping the remote outdoors storage area in the wintertime and taking other comfortable shortcuts. After a while, people might emphasize where the manager isn’t going rather than the places that get the attention, resulting in a perceived bias, lack of interest, and respect felt by the ignored team members.

Talking to Employees

It sounds like an easy thing to “talk to employees”, but that can sometimes be far from the truth. As a manager, you need to ask the right questions, display the appropriate mood, and show the right level of interest. Make sure you lower the threshold for people to dare to engage in conversation with you. Use Emotional Intelligence to gauge the mood of people and start conversations in a non-threatening and informal manner. Ask open-ended questions and get them to do the talking. Tell people about yourself and your thoughts; otherwise, you can’t expect them to share anything with you, right? Note: This should NOT be questioning or interrogating them for status updates, which would be directive or autocratic leadership.

Creating Personal Networks

Managers who use management by walking around get an abundance of opportunities to form bonds and relationships with people they usually would not engage with regularly. Remember items from your previous visit and bring them up; you can even make short notes if necessary. Notice and learn what people do, how they work with, etc. This can increase your effectiveness as a manager since you can find talented people, know who to ask, where to get support on specific tasks, etc. By showing people that you care enough to create bonds with them, even if they are light ones, you will earn people’s respect and loyalty, and they are more likely to go the extra mile for you. If you do management by walking around appropriately, that is. (This is a good example of Affiliative Leadership.)

Unstructured Visits

The primary characteristic of management by walking around is the style and method of roaming, as it should be unplanned or spontaneous. Managers need to utilize random sampling of events, employee discussions, and unplanned stops. 

Management by walking around is far more impactful than planned appointments, timely status reports, and formal review meetings, often becoming a bit of a dog and pony show. By making unplanned visits, managers can see what goes on in the workplace and assess areas needing adaptions or intervention. At the same time, employees benefit from being listened to and understood in a more realistic and empathetic manner.

Just don’t interrupt people when they are busy. After all, this should not be about you, it should be about the team members.

Engagement and Discussion Style

When managers make their unplanned stops at various employees’ workstations or areas of processes, the atmosphere created is key to the strategy’s effectiveness. The visits should feel unforceful and purposeless, even if the manager intends to stop by a specific area on that particular day. If you fail to do this, team members will simply felt like they are being watched, monitored, and micro-managed, and all this will result in anxiety and stress building as the roaming manager shows up.

Personal Interactions with a Supportive Attitude

Although optimizing efficiency is the primary goal, the approach involves a far more personal and relatable approach to forming healthy professional relationships with employees. By affording managers the ability to see the environment from workers’ perspectives, it can drastically change morale and engagement over time. To understand the other perspective, leaders need to make sure they listen carefully and seize opportunities for coaching in the moment.

Healthy professional relationships are an essential aspect of the strategy. It’s much more straightforward for managers to gain truthful perspectives and accurate representations of events with informal, personal, or low-pressure interactions.

Observational Approaches

Management by walking around involves stopping at employees’ workstations to chat, encourage, or provide constructive feedback. But, a large portion of the approach’s effectiveness relies on the manager’s ability to listen selflessly and observe. Techniques such as Active Listening are precious for getting the most out of management by walking around.

A primary characteristic of the management by walking around strategy involves listening in on employee or team discussions and observing everyday interactions. This enables managers to gain insight into problems, ideas, and concerns, allowing them to theorize appropriate solutions.

Pros and Cons of Management By Walking Around

Management by walking around has become a trendy style for supervising processes in various workplaces. Management by walking around has numerous advantages and disadvantages, making it more or less applicable and appropriate for different organizations.

Advantages of Management By Walking Around

The advantages of management by walking around are:

  • Managers can provide constructive support, feedback, and assistance to employees swiftly and in casual settings
  • Very effective in building rapport and worker morale
  • Allows managers to witness everyday life in the workspace through truthful representations of events and interactions
  • Managers gain awareness of employee concerns, ideas, and thoughts in informal, low-pressure environments

Disadvantages of Management By Walking Around

The disadvantages of management by walking around are:

  • It is highly dependent on the leaders underlying engagement styles and interpersonal approaches
  • Can lead to overlooked areas of the workplace without a general plan for visits, which may cause inconsistencies or issues over time
  • Employees may feel pressured throughout daily work processes if the manager’s approach or natural leadership style is forceful, domineering, distracting, or anxiety-inducing, all of which indicate micro-management

How to Implement and Use Management By Walking Around

While the strategy primarily involves physically making rounds around the space, the effectiveness will fully rely on the manager’s approach and interactions. Implement all the characteristics of Management By Walking Around mentioned above, and ensure the following on top of that.

Spontaneous Visits

Although there should be a system for managers to decide when and how to check up on aspects and employees in the environment, the general idea is that the employees should never expect these checkups. This sort of approach is far more effective when assessing real happenings within the workplace. If people are ready and waiting, the manager will receive a prepared presentation rather than witness normal operations.

All employees should get similar visits at an equal interval to avoid creating a perceived preference or prejudice between employees. Managers should gain insight from all perspectives in the workspace and have all bases covered regularly.

Foster Networks With Employees

Conversations should be meaningful, relevant, and appropriate to each employee and within the work environment. The ambiance should be informal, interested, authentic, and relatable with each visit by discussing recent events in employees’ lives – such as recent leave for illness, hobbies, vacation, or family. (See additional tips on catching up with remote employees.)

Greetings are not enough for the method to be impactful in the environment. Interactions should be based on managers forming solid networks and connections with the team, as this greatly assists in building rapport and worker morale.

A CEO’s example of Management By Walking Around

Even though I still engage in MBWA from time to time in my current CEO role, I have had the most significant impact with it as a division head many years ago. At the time, I didn’t know that my predecessor spent most of the time in the Director’s office or meetings with the management team, resulting in my behavior being perceived as a very contrasting approach.

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As the head of this division, which was in a company that manufactured mining equipment, I realized that the team culture had to be improved. There were plenty of silo behaviors, and different departments hardly spoke with each other. The employees were not really engaged in the future, vision, and long-term strategy but rather focused on their daily tasks. These grand topics were for the management team, and the remaining employees were never asked, and to a certain degree, did not care that much. This low engagement meant less initiative, less creativity, and punching out when the shift is over, and not going the extra mile for the customers. It was apparent to me as a new arrival.

I realized I had to transform the culture, increase participation and empowerment to reach higher degrees of engagement and accountability. The management team was experienced but had been in their roles for a long time. Their opinions had already been heard many times over, but as it turns out, they also filtered deviating opinions among their reporting staff.

To get to know people from all levels, and perhaps more importantly, to have them get to know me and understand that I genuinely desired their engagement and participation in topics that were previously kept in the board room, I started using management by walking around. The organization, in this case, was about 50 white collars in two office buildings and a small blue-collar equipment assembly team located in a separate workshop building half a mile away.

I went for a walkabout three days a week and kept rotating where I would show up, ensuring that all departments got one visit per week. In the beginning, people were genuinely surprised to see me. I engaged in small talk, asked general questions about the business showing that I was curious, willing to learn, and understood that they were more knowledgeable about this business than I was. I stopped by different cubicles each time for a short chat, basically talking about the weather, recent events, asking questions, etc. The next time I went to that department, I’d stop at different cubicles. This created a great dialogue and opportunity for the team members to ask me questions, bring up ideas, etc., without having to do it in a town hall session where communication apprehension, or stage fright, so easily set in. After a while, my showing up resulted in groups of people standing up from their cubicles and coming over for a joint chat for five minutes. This enabled me to see how they treated each other, including the pecking order, who were the creative ones, etc.

In the end, this, coupled with other engagement activities such as strategy workshops, suggestion boxes, regular information sessions, visionary leadership, and many other things, resulted in a very tangible increase in employee engagement.

In the employee engagement survey ten months later, work satisfaction increased by more than 30%, collaboration indicators were up almost 50%, the confidence in the management team increased by close to 40%, and buy-in on strategy and vision more than doubled. That’s quite an achievement in one year, and management by walking around was a big part of that, so I recommend you use it, just as long as you combine it with a good portion of leadership styles based on Emotional Intelligence. I will expand on additional actions I deployed to create this speedy change in future articles.

Examples of Management By Walking Around Leaders

While the approach has been applied in countless companies and workplaces, a few examples of well-known leaders stick out.

MBWA Example: William Hewlett and David Packard

The founders of Hewlett Packard (HP), William Hewlett and David Packard, were famous for using the MBWA approach in everyday routines throughout the workplace. Senior executives at HP were actively encouraged to use the management by walking around practice to spend time with people far below them in the hierarchy and bypassing middle management in the process. This would create a crucial two-way dialogue rather than the traditional downward communication that many companies suffer.

MBWA Example: Toyota

Although Tom Peters coined the MBWA strategy, the concept was originally developed by Taiichi Ohno and applied in Toyota’s production system. However, Toyota referred to the approach as ‘Genchi genbutsu’, a technique based on analyzing problems in their natural environment to acquire a better understanding. This approach is most commonly referred to as Gemba Walk and is common in factories and operations as part of LEAN systems. It is very different to management by walking around in a few critical aspects. However, it is still similar when it comes to visiting the production floor and putting your ear to the ground as a manager.

The Management By Walking Around approach is straightforward to apply in the workplace and is incredibly effective in numerous ways. I suggest you give it a try in a structured and thought through way.

Further reading

If Management By Walking Around appeals to you, I suspect you would benefit from our articles on the following topics:

Sources

https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/87711
https://www.hbs.edu/ris/Publication%20Files/12-113_9a2bc5e8-2f70-4288-bb88-aeb2de49e955.pdf
https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/12534914
MBWA — Management by Walking About (jeffersonmaguire.co.uk)

Carl Lindberg

Carl is a global business leader that has led 1-2000 people and had financial responsibility of 200-500 MUSD. During his career, he has led employees in twenty different countries and has lived in three continents.

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