Rethinking MBWA: Find the magic by walking around

Tim Brown, CEO, Nestle Waters North America

Rethinking MBWA: Find the magic by walking around

Most of my peers and I know about MBWA (management by walking around) from Tom Peters’ and Robert Waterman’s classic 1982 book, In Search of Excellence. Not too long ago, I learned the term originated at Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s, when Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard (who were insatiably curious, by the way) made it a practice to drop by employees’ workspaces to see what they were working on. Historian Stephen B. Oates claims it was actually Abraham Lincoln who invented this management style by informally inspecting the Union Army troops in the early part of the American Civil War. Who knew?

Obviously, leaders getting to the front lines and interacting with their people isn’t a new concept. It’s also not that unusual. Steve Jobs (another curiosity junkie) did it at Apple. Anne Mulcahy did it at Xerox. Disney leaders do it routinely, working frontline shifts in theme parks and resorts. I do it too, but I think the world is telling us it’s time to shake “management by walking around” up a bit.

The truth is, employees today don’t want to be “managed,” especially by executives who don’t know what frontline jobs really entail. People on the front lines want to be heard, involved and respected. They want to know their ideas and opinions count. Employees want their leaders to be genuinely curious about what they’re working on and why, not just go through the motions of shaking hands and asking about the kids.

The original MBWA had its time and place. Now I want to propose a new definition. Instead of “management” by walking around, let’s try to find the “magic” by walking around.

In most companies, the moment of truth is on the front line: the job site, the factory floor, the sales floor, the store, the call center, the account services office. Employees in these jobs feel the impact of the decisions we make every day. They pass their reactions on to customers in the form of excellent or mediocre products, stellar or so-so service and enthusiastic or indifferent attitudes. Our jobs as leaders are to inspire them to be excellent, stellar and enthusiastic. All true, but there’s more – much more.

People on the front lines see and hear things we do not. They feel the business shift and know challenges are coming long before we do. They see competition and market opportunities from completely different vantage points from executives. Since they’re usually focused on a few key tasks, frontline employees develop incredibly granular and potentially groundbreaking insights that, if we discover them, can save money, fuel productivity and elevate quality. We need that value, that magic. And the only way to find it is by getting out there (the “walking around” part) and connecting with employees who create the magic every day.

Connecting means respecting employees and their jobs, being curious about what they do and how they do it, and showing genuine interest in what they care about. As leaders, we don’t go to the front line to audit or inspect. We go to listen, absorb and learn. There’s magic in the way each employee sees the company, customers, competition, processes and problems – but we’ll find it only if we put ourselves out there and get them to talk. We must make it safe and comfortable for them to speak their minds, and not be put off if they challenge or disagree with our thinking.

We also can’t expect them to have all the answers. Sometimes the magic comes from the questions they ask. Sometimes it comes from the questions we ask that stimulate their curiosity and new thinking.

Once I started thinking about magic instead of management as I visited with my frontline employees, everything changed. People became more open, energized and eager to tell me what’s on their minds – and so did I.

Now when I go to a factory or a store, I find myself asking “why” and “how” a lot. I really want to know what’s happening and how we can improve and find that edge. My curiosity encourages people to step forward with what they see and think, and off we go. We’ve solved a lot of problems and come up with a lot of great ideas this way and it’s just the beginning. I believe this is how we break through and find the magic we need to change and grow as a company. I’m convinced that redefining MBWA will gradually redefine all business culture and make getting out there and finding “magic” on the front lines a valuable leadership quality.