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Management by Walking Around: Monkeys, Moles, and All Kinds of Stumbling Blocks

Management by Walking Around (MBWA) refers to a style of business management that involves the boss leaving his/her customary habitat and embarking on the adventure of walking around the company and engaging directly with his/her employees.

And, as should be the case for a real adventure, this kind of expedition can involve lots of exciting moments but also dangerous encounters. And if, like Indiana Jones, you dive into the MBWA adventure unprepared you should not be surprised if you discover some exotic animals…

If the boss takes a relaxed morning walk around the production area, stopping occasionally to ask how things are going, he/she should not be surprised to find employees seizing the opportunity to offload a problem (the monkey) onto him/her. When an employee tells their boss about a problem, then one of the main reasons for doing so is the hope that the boss, as someone higher up the chain, can solve it. So the boss now has the monkey on his/her back.
After a few conversations, the boss will have the corresponding number of monkeys on his/her back and react by trying to offload them onto others. Why is it so untidy here? Do our quality control targets really specify this? Do the crates have to be here? Also, when he/she becomes aware of all these grievances, he/she will, of course, make sure that they are resolved. Immediately – without including the employee’s direct superior…

In such cases a good boss will generally want to know all the facts. Questions will be asked regarding the background to, and reasons for, the grievances. Culprits will be looked for. And at this point things become uncomfortable for the employee who brought the issue up. The information they give becomes vaguer – the individuals responsible are elsewhere; it’s all to do with “IT”, “processes”, “quality problems”. Whatever has happened or is said, “the others” are always to blame. The boss, however, wants to know the facts; pursues the issue inside the company;

searches for the source, maybe even the culprit. He/she digs and digs – a mole with a monkey on its back.
Seeing the boss in such a position is not good – either for him/her or for the employees. He/she is frustrated and, at the end of the day, also powerless. Employees experience a boss who kicks up a lot of dust without being able to solve the problem.

So there are some important rules to learn before you set off on your first expedition.

If You Ask, You Learn
Steer conversations by asking specific questions and without wanting to solve problems. Do not make assumptions; do not assign work tasks; do not make judgements.
On the one hand, this will allow you to gain a valuable, because differentiated, picture at grass roots and, on the other, to show others your interest and appreciation.

Go Through Official Channels
Has the employee already discussed the grievance with his/her direct superior? If not, then ask them to do so. If yes, then ask them to do so again or take action themselves by proposing a solution together with the co-worker. Do not try to solve the problem, but instead to initiate the process of finding a solution.
When walking around remember that what you see is only a snapshot. Before you react, look to see if the situation has changed when you take your next walk around. If not and if there is time, then let the direct superior know at your next regular meeting. Only if there is no other way to deal with the situation should you organize a special meeting to discuss the issue – and you should offer your support, not assign blame.

Coaching not Inspection
If the actual conditions that you experience during your walk-arounds begin to increasingly deviate from the descriptions of the relevant managers in charge, then the managers obviously do not have the confidence to tell you the truth. Creating the trust that this requires is one of the most important aspects of your leadership. Stop inspecting and start coaching. Make yourself part of the team instead of the referee.
“Based on our experience to date,” says the COO of a leather goods manufacturer, “we can wholeheartedly recommend the “Management by Walking Around” tool. Dr. Monika V. Kronbügel and the team of Global DiVision,” continues the COO “has taught us that it is important to make sure that we don’t collect or pass on “monkeys” during walk-arounds. During our brief conversations it is better to focus on asking questions, listening, and learning.”

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