In Search of #CustServ Excellence: Management by Walking Around

January 7, 2013

Management by wandering around is a concept that supposedly derives from the management culture at Hewlett-Packard back in the Seventies. It was later popularized by business authors Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their bestselling book, In Search of Excellence.*

The concept is also known as management by walking around, the term I prefer.

Management by walking around (MBWA) is based on the concept that unscheduled “walks” around a business allows managers to see operations as they truly are and to communicate with employees on a more informal and, often, more open level.

Coming from retail, I believe heavily in MBWA and encourage managers to practice it often. I do the same when I am onsite.

The details you will see as you walk around your business can be illuminating. From a light bulb being out to a team member sprinting around the cash wrap to open the door for an elderly client, you will see your business in its semi-raw form (it’s only truly raw when management is out of the building) and notice details that you would not be exposed to any other way.

Management by walking around works.

Management by Walking Around: Customer Service Style

Management by Walking Around | Black Shoes

I also believe that management by walking around is a key component of visualizing the customer experience and optimizing service delivery — call it customer service by walking around if you will.

When you incorporate a customer service focus into MBWA, you will see aspects of your customer experience that you would never have seen otherwise.

Focusing on customer service and the customer experience while walking around can enable you to see strengths and weaknesses that are not necessarily reflected in your customers’ surveys.

Let’s take a hypothetical example to see how MBWA can produce results.

Management by Walking Around Is Like a Fresh Lens

Let’s say you own or manage a mid-sized advertising agency. You decide to walk the floor about 3-5 times a day. Sometimes you are purposeful in your walking; you want to see if Mike from the art department is still at his desk at 4pm.

Other times, you walk with half-purpose, focusing on a general area of the business such as the customer experience or the physical plant.

And sometimes, you walk with no purpose at all, just to see what you can see.

A week of MBWA could produce results like this:

  • After overhearing a call with a client, you realize that there is more friction between the account managers and the creative team than you had been led to believe, and it is hurting clients.
  • You notice that the sign in the lobby has probably not been dusted since the Carter administration. It’s funny how you never notice it as you rush to your desk every morning.
  • You were able to connect in the break room with the new hire in the accounting department, and it turns out she worked for your primary competitor prior to coming to your shop. You get some good nuggets of information, establish a relationship, and start to question why the team leader that hired her did not share that intel with you.
  • You see one of your designers showing a project manager why they have missed deadline, again. You jump into the conversation and discover that the costly software upgrade you were avoiding is not the luxury you thought it was. Time to make a decision.
  • And unfortunately, you discover that Mike is never at his desk at 4pm. And that will be a discussion for next week.

Management by walking around is not about policing. Sure, on occasion, you will have specific items you are looking to prove or disprove. In fact, I use the term walking instead of wandering because I believe it is important to walk with purpose sometimes.

However, wandering about without a purpose is just as important. At the heart of the MBWA concept is walking with an open mind. You are not asking The Business questions and hoping it provides you answers. You are opening yourself up and letting The Business tell you what it thinks is important.

So, if you have not practiced MBWA before, give it a try for a few weeks.

On a few of your walks, try to focus your lens just on the customer experience. You will be amazed at what you see.

Have you ever tried management by walking around? Or worked for someone who used it?

* Note: In Search of Excellence has its share of controversy surrounding it. If you are interested in the debate, start here and here.

15 thoughts on “In Search of #CustServ Excellence: Management by Walking Around”

  1. Adam,

    Are those your shoes?

    You know, that technique has always worked for me too. It is really the only way to know what’s going on and why would you sit at a desk all day anyway? My team is spread all over two floors so I am forced to walk just to keep up with some of the part-timers. Sure, I can IM, email or call but nothing beats a little face to face on occasion.

    Thanks for the Monday motivation too. Great tip.

    1. I can never keep my shoes that clean — Central Florida weather and all. 🙂

      Thanks for the feedback Ralph. MBWA is great, and it’s a good reminder for less socially inclined managers to get out there. It’s so easy to hunker down in our silos with our never-finished to do lists. Like you said, that face-to-face cannot be replicated through other means.

  2. Good Monday morning to you my mind-meld buddy. What are the chances that we’d both be talking about management by walking around on exactly the same day?! I’m a firm believer that, by walking/wandering through our place of business, seeing it through the eyes of customer and employee alike, we engage our senses fully to full experience the “experience”.

    I’ll always remember a saying by a leader of a community in a very depressed economic region, who said, when asked why his community was so vibrant…what did he do to make it so…he said: “I use my eyes and ears: what do I see and what do I hear?”…and make changes accordingly. Wise words. Cheers! Kaarina

    1. I know… we had some ESP going today!

      Quite the wise man there. I like that quote — and philosophy. I like what you said about seeing the business through the eyes of employees and customers alike. Getting out from behind the desk is a great way to try on the perspectives of others for a moment, and to learn from it.

    1. I think it depends on the situation — but point taken, when not connecting with people on a walk, the the idea is to observe operations not impede them.

  3. My favorite employment experiences were under or with managers who walked around in “observation mode,” Adam. Then again, I was one of those employees who always ended up managing eventually, so I welcomed the observation and connection.

    Interestingly, I hated managing employees. I wanted too much control and had super-high standards, while wanting everyone to be happy. That personality mix was a mess for a management role! Can you imagine? That just doesn’t work.

    1. That’s an interesting point Michelle. You know, everyone is different, but in my experience, most employees who are earnestly focused on doing a good job welcome the interaction. Not micro-management, but occasional and constructive engagement.

      As for your management dilemma… ouch, that’s a hard one! One of my favorite quotes is from comedian Bill Cosby: “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” Think that sums up the challenge you described! 🙂

  4. I love this piece, Adam! Well done. I do think I’ll walk around my office and see what I’m doing that can shed light on what I ought to be doing! Heh.

    Seriously though; what a great practice for managers. Kinda like secret shopping.

  5. Abraham Lincoln was famous for his MBWA leadership style (check out “Lincoln on Leadership” by Donald Phillips). Not only did it help him see what was really going on, he made people feel more comfortable by interacting with them in their environment.

    You asked for examples – I used this technique a lot when I was the Director of Training for a parking management firm. The payoff was huge. I knew our operations’ strengths, challenges, and opportunities inside and out. I was also able to build trust with our managers so they would turn to me for help, which in turn made my department much more relevant and useful.

    1. It’s great you mention Pres. Lincoln Jeff; he even made the Wikipedia entry on MBWA, which, despite being a bit of a history buff, surprised me.

      Thanks for sharing an example from the real world of how MBWA can make a difference. To me, it seems to be a tremendously underused technique; in a lot of cases, I think that is because it requires manager/trainers/owners to get out of their comfort zone.

      1. I think you are right about comfort zones. Another excuse I consistently hear for avoiding MBWA is manager’s have too many tasks piled on their plate. The average manager seems to sprint from pointless meeting to pointless meeting while desperately trying to keep up on emails, reports, and PowerPoint deck making in between, most of which is in preparation for the next meeting. I’ve observed that people under stress revert to their instincts, so if they aren’t comfortable with MBWA, they really won’t be comfortable doing it if they feel they are too busy.

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