NextGen Collective: How to MBWA Effectively

Tips for successfully using—and avoiding the pitfalls of—the management by walking around method

The popular management method known as management by walking around (MBWA) is simple enough: rather than confine yourself to your office, you wander among the desks of your team members, peers, and offices of senior management, checking in and having informal interactions.

Photo: Jonathan Borba/Unsplash

Humans are social animals, and impromptu conversations are opportunities for unplanned information sharing with people who have their guard down. As a result, you learn more about your team and the organization around you.

The method got its start at Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s as an evolution of the Japanese Gemba Walk method developed at Toyota. Gemba Walks are designed to allow managers to ask in-depth questions and learn about how planned work processes are carried out in the real world. MBWA is different, however, in that it involves unstructured walks where managers have more casual conversations with those they meet. Also, managers using MBWA subsequently absorb what goes on, notice when there is room for improvement, and offer ideas for change where needed (with Gemba Walks, it isn’t a part of the plan to offer ideas for change).

When MBWA is a part of your management routine, it can be a great way to keep on top of problems and build employee loyalty. Many creative business leaders have used it, including Steve Jobs and leaders at Disney.

The Wandering Process

To make MBWA a part of your normal management routine, you need to set aside at least half an hour a day, or a few hours every week, for the process. It’s important to take it seriously, but to act informally, noting problems and comments for further analysis when you get back to your office. People should feel at ease to discuss things they wouldn’t in a formal setting.

It makes sense to keep two fact-finding goals in mind while walking around: discovering and staying ahead of developing problems among team members, and deepening your understanding of the organization as a whole.

Humans are social animals, and impromptu conversations are opportunities for unplanned information sharing with people who have their guard down. As a result, you learn more about your team and the organization around you.

At times, managers mistake the walkarounds and the casual conversation to be the main features to focus on. They neglect to pay attention to the most important part of it all: uncovering issues to solve or opportunities to capitalize on and offering subsequent action plans. It’s important for managers to understand that it isn’t merely showing up that makes for effective MBWA; rather, managers must have a powerful capacity for observation and seeing solutions.

Avoiding Common MBWA Pitfalls

Researchers at Harvard have found that when used incorrectly, MBWA can decrease performance and employee morale. To avoid difficulties and to take full advantage of MBWA, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t take an assistant with you to take notes. This creates too formal of an environment for unplanned interactions and creative discussions.
  • Avoid becoming too friendly with employees. This can let business fall by the wayside.
  • Focus on listening. Often, managers make the mistake of assuming that it is what they say on their walkabouts that makes the most difference. Experts note, however, that while the occasional question does move conversations along in the right directions, it is focused listening that helps MBWAs truly achieve their goal of uncovering problems and solving them. The people that you listen to need to see that they have your undivided attention, that you’re interested in seeing how comfortable they are doing their jobs, that they see how their work contributes to the big picture, and that you’re there to help solve their problems.
  • Don’t talk to the same people every day. You’ll end up with a skewed view of the problems the business faces, and those people might feel that you are micromanaging their work, causing resentment. It’s a good idea to vary your wanderings with each outing.
  • Get outside your own purview to understand what’s happening elsewhere in the organization, such as new strategies and problems being pursued by other teams and departments. With an understanding of the organization as a whole, you can keep your own team ahead of the game by planning for incoming changes and offering solutions to senior management. This helps keep you and your team essential to the organization.

Responding to Issues

MBWA is a great way to discover small problems that might not have come to your attention until they festered, such as minor equipment problems, communication difficulties, and bubbling interpersonal conflicts. These issues might seem inconsequential at first; however, tackling easy-to-fix minor problems is an efficient way to build loyalty and trust with the team.

When you discover larger problems that cannot be solved quickly, don’t promise to fix anything without knowing you can, especially intra-organizational difficulties. Not delivering on promises is worse for employee morale than avoiding problems entirely. Your team members will begin to see your trips around the workplace as empty symbolism instead of a real effort to improve things.

MBWA efforts backfire when managers practice it without due empathy or sensitivity. When a manager performs walkarounds with the intention of catching team members making mistakes and pouncing on them, employees will fear these visits and become less willing to let their guards down. When mistakes are found, it’s best to be delicate about handling them, talking to the employee in private. The aim should be to improve morale, approachability, and trust.

Thanking the people who take time to talk to you, following up about problems that you discover, and being respectful of entering other people’s workspaces can also help make a success of the effort.

When done correctly, management by walking around helps you understand your team and your organization, while also increasing employee morale and community. However, to avoid resentment you must take the process seriously, tackle problems as you can, and set reasonable expectations.


Rafael Magaña_portrait_red duotoneRafael Magaña is the director of development and communications for two organizations: BREATHE California of Los Angeles County and the Emphysema Foundation of America. When he isn’t leading organizations at the forefront of lung health and clean air, he writes about topics related to management, leadership, and careers. Magaña is the founder of Latino Professionals and Latina Professionals and resides in Los Angeles.  

Connect with Rafael Magaña on LinkedIn.


Related Links

NextGen Collective: Migrate Into Discomfort

NextGen Collective: Eduardo Guerios

NextGen Collective: Sheena Morales Weinstein