Last week, the New York Times ran an interview with Brian Dunn, CEO of Best Buy, under the headline, “You Want Insights? Go to the Front Lines.” It’s that old MBWA song again.
The reason that “Management by Wandering Around” (MBWA) gets such good press is that it works when it’s done right. Sam Walton used to urge his corporate managers to hit the road by telling them that “Nothing important happens in Bentonville.”
It seems so simple. You just head out to the field. There you have an opportunity to share your vision of the company and listen to real people to find out what life is really like on the front lines. Well, maybe.
The fact is that MBWA is about as easy to mess up as it is to do well. Here are some guidelines for effective management wandering.
Wander habitually. The only way to make your arrival a non-event is to make it a frequent event.
Go alone. Unless you’re really, really bad you don’t need a body guard. And you can probably buy your own lunch. Better yet, bring lunch for everyone.
Don’t play “Gotcha!” You’re not there to catch folks doing something wrong. If you do they’ll remember and it will influence the way they act when you show up again. You’re not there to embarrass the facility manager or team leader, either.
Listen more than you talk. Yes, two ears and one mouth. The fact is that you can’t learn anything while you’re talking.
Ask questions, but not too many. Ask simple, open-ended questions. Then shut up and listen. Do not conduct an interrogation.
Take notes. Notes are a sign that you value what you’re being told and serious about doing something with it.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Promise to follow up and get back with people. Beyond that, investigate before you act.
Say, “Thank you.” Your mother told you it was important. It is. Besides people are sharing valuable information and perspective with you.
Follow up. If action is needed, take it. Whatever you do or don’t do be sure to let people know what you did.
Boss’s Bottom Line
The best bosses show up a lot. When you do that you make conversation possible. You make learning more likely. And you catch problems while they’re still small enough to solve easily.
Remember this. The higher up the org chart you go, the more you need to get out and cultivate your own view of reality.