Management by Walk About BY KERRY GLEESON One of the most important tools a manager can use to get things done effectively and efficiently is a technique I call Management by Walk About (MBWA), or as some call it, visible management or management by wandering around. Business guru Edward Deming known for his pioneering work in the quality movement has said, "If you wait for people to come to you, you'll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don't realize they have one in the first place." Years ago, I worked as a manager in a business where the employees were under tremendous pressure to supply services, produce products, and get them out the door. I was responsible for some 200 people. A typical day consisted of meeting with the management team to discuss internal issues and meeting with customers. Then, there was a lot of paperwork. My job was a study in crisis management, and I seldom, if ever, was able to leave the office. But two things happened to help me change that. First, I got myself organized. I had help in establishing routines with my secretary and began to deal more effectively with the paperwork I was responsible for. Second, I used the time resulting from my reorganization to get out of my office and practice management by walk about. I spent nearly half the day every day getting out and about to visit with every single person I was responsible for. I would stop at their desk or work area and sit down and chat with them to find out how things were going. I soon realized that most of the people were working extremely hard, but they weren't being very efficient or effective in their work. The scene was one of general disorder. When I first started MBWA, people were suspicious. They wondered why I was there and what I was looking for. But this suspicion quickly went away when they found that I came back regularly and showed a genuine interest in what they were doing. Soon they began to open up and address long-term productivity issues. I listened intently to what they had to say and tried to respond to their expressed needs. If I didn't respond to a need, I felt uncomfortable facing the person again. MBWA forced me to be more effective in dealing with the issues that were brought up, especially those issues that I wholeheartedly agreed should be addressed. I discovered that most of the people I managed had no idea how to work effectively. It wasn't that they didn't work hard. In fact, they obviously worked much harder than they really needed to. That's when I discovered that if I could help them improve how they did their work, I would get the most results from my efforts as a manager. This was MBWA with a twist. Yes, I listened. Yes, I responded. But I also coached them on how best to organize themselves and get on top of what they needed to do. I coached them on how to organize and improve their work processes. I helped them improve their organization skills and apply them to their work environment. This was not just lip service. I facilitated the process. I would not only listen, I would look. After noticing a disorganized condition, I would try to discover the underlying causes. What I often discovered was that people could no longer see their actual working conditions. For example, I might ask a man to clean out his desk. Once he had finished, I would look at the desk. And more often than not, I would find that he overlooked things or had not even seen the clutter and disorganization in the first place. Getting out and seeing how your employees work is the key to uncovering problems and solving them. I have come to believe in black holes, or at least in the "black hole" phenomenon in organizations. Often you send something out, and it seems to get lost, never to be seen again. Those black holes are usually in people's desk drawers and files. Things simply get shoved away without being dealt with. Important things don't get dealt with because of bad working habits, procrastination, not knowing exactly what to do, poor planning, poor organization, crisis management, and so on. Rarely do I find that bad intentions or lack of effort are the cause of productivity difficulties. Often, people don't have the authority to handle the problems they raise, or they don't know how to address them. Or they feel that no matter what approach they take, they run into a wall, so they give up trying. Arbitrary rules, poor policies, and inefficient work processes create negative feelings among employees. Eliminating these rules and creating new standards almost always improve employee morale and productivity. What seem like insurmountable problems to employees are, in most cases, within the supervisor's ability to handle. For example, if an employee needs a computer to process his or her work better and faster, the supervisor can authorize the purchase immediately and provide the resources the employee needs. Bearing out my experiences in this area is an article in Business Horizons magazine that took issue with the so-called disappearance of the American work ethic. What people hate, the article said, is often not the job itself, but being ignored and not being told why certain aspects of their job are necessary. The article cited Pizza Hut's efforts to improve working conditions by asking employees to suggest ways to redesign their work. Many believe this strategy, known as work elimination, was responsible for a 40 percent sales growth among Pizza Hut's stores. Through MBWA, I discovered an extremely effective way to coach people in their jobs. We would go through their pending files, through each piece of work, one by one, and process it then and there. Here one can immediately discover the procrastination, misunderstanding, and arbitrary rules that prevent people from getting things done quickly in the first place. I would never have found these problems simply by asking because if people had known what the problem was, they would have resolved it. I had to see the process-how they did their work to see what was making the work difficult to do. You don't have to be an expert...... Kerry Gleeson insists that you don't have to be an organizational or efficiency guru to get real mileage out of the Management by Walk About technique. Gleeson himself was a novice when he began practicing it. Common sense, he says, is the launching pad. "Organization problems are normally so obvious--like you walk into someone's office, and you ask them for something, and they can't find it," he says. How do you make MBWA work? The managers need only be able to use their eyes, ask questions, and communicate "The most important element is that you actually look and make a suggestion," he says. "Quite often, your suggestion won't work as it's given, but it will eventually work as it's massaged into the actual circumstances." Managers can improve at MBWA by reading books on getting organized or even hiring on expert, but most important, they'll improve by practice, says Gleeson. "As you run across more circumstances, you get better at doing it." And you'll learn, he adds, from the good and bad examples you see around you. "You'll start seeing people who have good practices, and you'll share those ideas with others." Will employees really respond positively to the scrutiny? Usually, says Gleeson. "I can honestly say that there's only a handful of people who ever had their bosses come into their office. Seventy-five percent of the problems could be solved if they did." What people hate is often not the job, but being ignored. Kerry Gleeson is the founder of the Institute for Business Technology a consulting firm specializing in productivity improvement. This article is based on a chapter of his book "The Personal Efficiency Program," published in 1994 by John Wiley and Sons, New York, N.Y.; (212) 850-6000.