The Folly of MBWA

Paul Akers, the president of FastCap, commits to regularly visiting the front lines of his company as part of his leader standard work. But don't confuse this commitment for "management by walking around" (MBWA). Akers does it as much (or more) for his own edification than for the training of his employees. In his view, they know how to do their work, are familiar with the problems, and know how to solve them. Going to the shop floor enables him to see those problems firsthand, and then use his authority to help solve them. He explains that

The most important place for me is on the shop floor doing the work with my people, shoulder to shoulder. The more I do it, the better my company gets. . . . I find out the stupid work that I make my people do. I’m seeing all the things my people are struggling with that I have the power to change, but because I don’t know about it, I can’t change it. The more [I do it, the more] I find out that my people appreciate it when I’m coming there to help them. To learn. To empathize. And to improve processes. . . . At the end of the day, if you want to take your company to a whole different level, get on the shop floor. Deliberately. No differently than we “3S” everyday (sweep, sort, and standardize), and we have a meeting for a half hour or 45 minutes to teach and train our people for eight years that we never miss. Deliberately, in the same fashion. Get onto the shop floor on a regular basis and find out what’s really happening. And I’m not talking about with your clipboard, with your iPad, with your phone taking notes—I’m talking about doing the work. Doing the work that you’re requiring your people to do.

For Akers, seeing and doing the work first-hand—not hearing about it in a conference room—makes him a better leader. It brings him in closer contact with the work that’s being done and with the people who are doing the work. What could be more important?

But as I wrote earlier, these visits differ from MBWA, a concept popularized by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in their seminal book In Search of Excellence. Peters and Waterman also encouraged leaders to get out of their offices to randomly walk around the company and see first-hand what’s going on. However, they specifically advise managers to make their walks unpredictable, both in terms of where they go and when they go. 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. Managers and 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 companies like FastCap—and one that, I’d argue, is antithetical to building a truly fit organization. If you’ve been successful in driving out fear and in de-stigmatizing problems, people will have no difficulty showing you the reality of their situations.

In Building the Fit Organization, I use the metaphor of physical fitness to explore the core concepts of lean thinking. Using that metaphor, imagine that your coach only comes by unannounced to check up on you and 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 6am 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?). Any momentary surge of motivation would quickly evaporate when her lack of trust in your commitment hits home. Conversely, imagine that you have regularly scheduled sessions with your coach, and that you know precisely what issues you’re going to address during each visit. Would that make it difficult to assess progress or diagnose problems? I doubt it. In fact, it would probably make you more attentive to your recent workouts, or to the minor twinges that might indicate the onset of an injury, so that you can discuss them with him in full.

At its core, MBWA presumes an environment of suspicion, mistrust, and fear. Workers will hide problems, so we have to sneak up on them to see what's really going on. Leader standard work, as exemplified by Akers, presumes an environment of trust, humility, and cooperation. Which environment are you trying to build?