Managing by Walking Around: What MBWA Is and How to Quickly Master It

How often do you get a chance to speak to your manager? If you’re a leader, how often do you talk to your employees? Weekly? Monthly? Less than that? This guide will show you how managing by wandering around can empower and develop your employees to success, whilst improving your management effectiveness, too.

What is managing by walking around? It is often called management by wandering around or MBWA for short, and was popularised by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their 1981 Book, “In Search For Excellence.”

Through their research of successful companies, they found that managers that walked around and engaged with their employees were far more effective than those that managed from their office. They labelled this MBWA.

It’s now one of a suite of management tools that allows management and their subordinates to discuss what’s working, what’s not, and what can be improved at the front line and where the work gets done.

Doing this regularly, allows the team to share ideas, develop good practice and eradicate sub-standard behaviours and processes, as well as improve communication, trust and rapport.

A Desk is a Dangerous Place From Which to Watch the World

The book, In Search of Excellence is an interesting read for any businessperson looking to improve their company’s bottom line or just make it more efficient.

The authors examined a range of successful companies, realising a common denominator between the most successful: management spent much of their time in the field instead of being confined to their office space.

This allowed these managers greater insight into operations as well as better ability to solve problems when they arise. 

Peters and Waterman found that this principle was a big factor in sustaining success.

This management by walking about approach seems obvious, right? After all, walking about is something we normally do as humans. But why does it warrant its own management style or a name or method stating the glaringly obvious of what managers should do? 

A part of this could be explained by a 2015 study by Gallup on management and how it affects employee engagement. They found that 85% of managers don’t know what to say when giving feedback to their team members.

If managers feel uncomfortable, then perhaps managing by walking around is the thing that gets put back, buried behind the list of other important tasks? Well, in an Interact Studio and Harris Poll, they hint that this may well be the case. 69% of managers are afraid to communicate with their teams, let alone provide feedback.

A good manager coaches.

They interact and lead.

They inspire and help others overcome challenges.

The majority of the time, this can’t be achieved by shutting the door on the world and engaging in active seat sitting, stuck behind a screen most of the day.

Leading means engaging and communicating. Author, John le Carré once said that, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.” It’s a fitting quote which represents Peters’ and Waterman’s Management by walking about paradigm.

Questions to Ask Employees When Managing By Walking Around?

The basic concept of MBWA is to walk around the workplace and check in with your employees. Some things to discuss are:

  • How are things going right now (are we performing to plan);
  • How are you getting on with that project I gave you;
  • Are all the critical team tasks completed;
  • Are there any potential problems I can see as I walk;
  • Is everything working to standard;
  • Are employees’ ideas being heard and acted on;
  • Is the workplace being managed visually? This is a lean manufacturing concept, whereby you can read more on this concept in our visual management guide; 
  • Coaching others on performance and process;
  • Discussing values;
  • Ideas for improvement.

In his blog, Dan Erwin identified the following questions to ask as you walk:

  •     “What’s keeping you up at night?” – What’s troubling them and currently their biggest problem;
  •     “What’s most exciting for you right now?” – What is currently energising them;
  •     “What are you working on?” – What is it they are currently doing (either an improvement idea, project or task);
  •     “Where do you see we can improve?” – Soliciting ideas to improve their processes or working environment by discussing the issues they have.

These are great starters and definitely guide you in the right direction.

Another approach is to use the coaching habit question format. Michael Bungay Stanier wrote the book, The Coaching Habit. We’ve written a summary of the book for more information. Michael defines 7 coaching questions that management should use when managing by walking about.

This allows them to help coach ideas and actions, and to provide support where needed. In summary, these questions are:

  • What’s on your mind? – Talk about what is at the forefront of their mind;
  • And what else? – Carry on by asking this question and drilling down, and expanding why;
  • What’s the real challenge here for you? – Drilling down to identify the root causes;
  • What do you want? – Getting clear what that person expects;
  • How can I help? – Creating clarity as to what you must do as a manager to support them;
  • If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to? – Helping them decide the next action;
  • What was most useful for you in this discussion? – Helps them agree the key takeaways from the chat.

Do you have to follow the same script every time? No, but the above helps create a framework to ask the right questions to help make MBWA a structured and important element of coaching.

Another simple approach is one taken from Lean Kata and continuous process improvement coaching. We’ve written an article to help you drill down deeper, but essentially, management by walking around consists asking questions around the following key areas:

  • What is happening here? – This allows you to define what you want to observe;
  • What is the target for this process? – Understanding what success looks like, which the team or individual is working towards;
  • How are we currently performing against that target? – This question relates to whether what you are observing is working to plan. For instance, is the process currently meeting targets;
  • What’s stopping you from achieving this target? – Discussing issues that the operator can see is affecting them;
  • What is your next step and what do you expect? – This asks the person to pick an idea that will help make progress;
  • When can we go and see it working? – Agree when to review the improvement idea to see if it worked.

Hopefully you can see that the questions you ask can be quite fluid and flexible. The key thing is to make it structured, so you walk the workplace and coach improvement, whilst supporting team members when they need it.

It’s not a “what did you do at the weekend” type of chat.

3 Components to The Management by Walking Around Method

To help improve your management approach, Peters identified three essential ingredients to conducting MBWA effectively:

  1. The manager must take time to walk around their teams / the organisation;
  2. The manager must strike up conversations;
  3. The manager must build networks across the business.

Take Time to Talk

A manager’s time is of a premium. There are many distractions. Emails need to be answered; their team’s needs met; problems overcome. It’s easy to put that good old walkabout off until you have the time.

The reality is that communicating with your employees is one…if not, the most important thing you can do in your business.

  • A study by Gartner, highlights that more informed employees outperform their colleagues by 77%;
  • Forbes identifies that employees who are listened to, are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best at work.

A simple way to do this is to structure your day so you know when you will conduct a walk. For instance, if you plan to conduct 3 walks a day, schedule them into specific time slots, so it becomes a habit.

Strike up Conversations With Your Employees

As we’ve highlighted above, MBWA doesn’t consist of aimlessly walking around and just saying “hello” to team members. Walks should be purpose driven.

The focus should always be on learning. They don’t have to be big learning points, but nevertheless, some form of reflection really helps the individual, team and the business in the long run.

These conversations can be small breakouts, coffee breaks, lunch discussions, on the job, at the coffee machine, or even in the corridor – They don’t always have to be totally formal, so try to ensure your goal is to communicate regularly in a structured way, possibly using the 3 different questioning techniques above.

The key is for you and your team members to learn more about the current situation, and for you the manager, to get an insight as to their views and ideas.

Building Networks 

By making this process the management norm, you’ll build a habit. And the more you use it to coach and discuss things that are pertinent to each person, the more you build deeper relationships and trust.

And it deepens further as you continue to develop your management style and MBWA questioning. You engage in openness, which helps build networks and relationships.

3 Factors to Get MBWA Right

Waterman and Peters highlight 3 key factors to get management by walking about right. They share the following:

 – Management listens Intently – An effective manager must practice and master the art of active listening. That means they listen intently and thoroughly. They understand the conversation without jumping in to dictate the conversation. They know what their employees are saying, as well as the subtle use of their body language, so they know what they really mean. Assuming that everyone is being honest is unfortunately misplaced optimism. Some people may feel nervous telling you what they really feel. Good managers know this and read body signs to get past the words to understand true meaning.

 – Management uses it as a platform to Ensure Values are Followed – This approach allows the manager to lead by example and to demonstrate the values of the business, as well as to see if people are working to these values themselves. It’s also a great opportunity to coach others to correct and improve behaviours and performance.

 – Management provides support when employees need it – If your team members need help, give it to them. This means acting there and then, not shying away from it, recording the action and then forgetting about it. This helps develop your transformation leadership skills, too. This method is largely seen as the most effective leadership style today. We’ve written a guide to help get to grips with this.

The Advantages and Disadvantages

MBWA has plenty of positives associated with its strategy. It’s a single direct way of leading your team, which maintains open dialogue and promotes honest discussions. Here are some key positives:

The Advantages

  • It engages management in the business – It’s a great way to reduce barriers between teams and management. By engaging in regular communication, employees tend to feel less intimidated by management;
  • Provides a fresh perspective on company problems and solutions – The successful Japanese companies that employ lean process techniques call this GEMBA, which means go to where the work is being done and see what actually happens. This means that it gives you an often unique perspective on real problems as you see, feel and hear them, often not seen if you were not to go to where the work is being done;
  • Allows for more natural, relaxed communication – This strategy forces management to improve the way it communicates with their employees. It highlights how important good communication is throughout an organisation, and teaches the importance of active listening techniques to everyone in the business;
  • Provides more information than simply sitting at a desk and reading reports – If you use the lean tools of visual management, to support this approach, it can be a very powerful problem solving tool. By walking about and challenging how things are actually working, allows managers to solve problems and develop a continuous improvement system;
  • Boosts creativity and Empowerment – The whole idea of managing by walking about is to discuss problems, challenges and ideas. The next requirement is to coach people through good questioning, to uncover ideas and actions. This means that you the manager, are not the person to take on the actions – you merely empower them to try things with your support. Job autonomy and empowerment are proven ways to increase engagement.

The Disadvantages

There are things to be mindful of, most of which are a result of a poor implementation of this program. They are:

Aimlessly Walking Around – If you don’t master this technique and use good questioning frameworks, then you are in danger of inefficiently walking around and engaging in poor dialogue that doesn’t support empowerment, problem solving, and coaching.

Can be Seen as Spying or Micro managing – Again, if implemented incorrectly and with the use of poor questioning, it can appear as though you are pointing the blame and exposing people for their errors. Checking in to see where someone is to plan and why they are not hitting their target as the only dialogue you make is risky.

Think about the human element of coaching and development.

Quick Steps for a Good MBWA Session

Step 1: Pick a topic to discuss with an individual. This could be one of the following examples:

  • Process improvement – look to coach an employee to make a small improvement in what they’re currently working on;
  • Challenges they face or any ideas they have;
  • Workplace standards – Are agreed standards working? Can they be improved? Is the person following the agreed methods?;
  • Personal development – Discuss ways to help the individual grow and develop in their roles.

Step 2: Use the MBWA method to walk around your team’s workplace and ask relevant questions (based on the 3 types of questions above). Remember, when you are operating in your MBWA time slot, don’t jump into director mode. This means that you shouldn’t identify solutions. Just observe and ask questions. Encourage them to identify issues and highlight the next thing to focus on and improve.

For instance, if something’s not working as it should, don’t jump in and say, “That’s not right…” This only leads to a one-sided dictatorial conversation. MBWA is more about coaching and helping

Instead, ask, “What’s happening here?” Or, “Is this working as planned?”

Step 3: Agree improvement ideas. Follow the discussion on, with questions like the following:

  • “What could be done differently?”
  • “What’s the next thing and how will you achieve it?”
  • “What help do you need from me?”
  • “When can we see your idea completed and working?”
  • “Notice that they are all ways to canvass feedback and empower your employee…”

Keep repeating the above steps to gain better relationships, and a more empowered and capable team – all by using the simple process of MBWA or managing by walking about.