Management by Wandering Around. Tom Peters has a blogpost up that revisits MBWA, 25 years after he wrote about this extensively in his book, In Search of Excellence.
In 1980, while doing some generic "excellence" research that later became In Search of Excellence, Bob Waterman and I interviewed then HP president John Young. (HP was a $1B company at the time, with marginal interest in computers). John explained that HP’s hallmark "MBWA" was "more important than ever as we experience explosive growth." Well, Bob & I had no idea what "MBWA" was—though we’d both had a belly-full of strained acronyms.
MBWA … Managing By Wandering Around … quickly became our favorite "excellence" idea! Technically, it meant staying in direct touch (damn the bureaucracy!) with the folks who do the work. Metaphorically, it stood for all/much of what was wrong with American management—McKinsey & Harvard Business School-style—as we confronted the Japanese challenge in areas such as product quality. That is, "big business" had become an abstraction. It was a "by the numbers" affair, where front-line "personnel" were pretty much interchangeable parts in a well-oiled "machine" and where "strategy" was considered far more important than primitive ideas such as quality and service and turned-on folks. Of course by then the bearings had lost most of their oil and seized up!
Now, it’s 25 years later … and, frankly, not as much has changed as we had hoped. To this day! A lot of the problem in New Orleans was the absence of MBWA. The fool (perhaps too kind a description) who heads FEMA gave new meaning to "out of touch."
How many leaders today practice what more accurately would be MBNBA – Management by Not Being Around? Primary communication is by email. Decisions are made with little “face time” – even with key individuals in the organization. The so-called leader is too busy to be in the midst of his or her people.
“When we were smaller I could still do that. But now that we’ve grown to this size, I’ve got too many things on my plate.” This is virtual boilerplate from leaders who feel they’ve grown beyond their organization. They no longer see the people in the organization as the living, breathing life-blood of that entity. Rather, as Tom Peters so aptly puts it, they are simply “interchangeable parts” – objects that can easily be discarded and replaced. How tragic – and ultimately, foolish!
UPDATE: TP turns a comment from Noel Guilane on his first post into a post of it’s own. From the end of that post:
I think the reason MBWA hasn’t caught on as much as it should is because it’s viewed as too much work to get off your backside and learn about what’s really going on in the business. There’s a certain appeal to playing mental gymnastics with your pals. I call it Theoretical Management. It’s management by theory, not practice. You see it everywhere—managers telling us what could be and should be, but unfortunately isn’t. (emphasis added)