When I was a boy I often used to go with my Dad to one of his two offices which were situated on Coronation Road in High Wycombe and, the Cowley Road in Oxford. Dad (who died from an excessive lifestyle – make of that what you will – in 1985, at the tragically young age of 47, I was 19) was a very successful entrepreneur and, as I found out many years after his death, a mathematical genius. I learnt a lot about my preferred way of managing, or leading if you prefer (I don’t) from my dad. But, here’s the nub: He didn’t appear to work very hard at all!
An average day would look something like this: Leave home at 7:30, get to the office and have a cup of coffee, then have another cup of coffee with his secretary (he thought P.A. was a sound system), often made by Dad, followed by a walk around the factory floor for an hour and a half, longer if necessary, before more coffee, this time with one or two of his executives. Lunchtime would see him either taking a salesperson out for lunch, or playing darts on the factory floor. In the afternoon he would again walk the floors, before going back to his office for a cup of tea with his secretary. He would, finally, make the one, two or three phone calls to suppliers, customers or financiers that only he, as the owner of the business, could make. At six o’clock he would leave the office, getting home at seven (via the pub), before supper and a snooze in his chair.
I once challenged Dad about his approach to work, for it all seemed a bit easy! He quietly told me that work in fact left him exhausted. How could this be?
Well, all the time he was doing his rounds he was listening and sharing stories. He was in reality constantly giving of himself. He was gathering, packaging and sharing information and, he was putting himself in a position where he could respond to a crisis.He told me that if he needed to be busy I could start worrying, because something would be very wrong in the business.
Dad put himself in a position, through his strategy of wandering around the factory floor, where he really knew what was going on in the business and, as importantly, in the lives of his employees. Through spending the majority of his day wandering about Dad was simultaneously strategic and, pastoral.
I remember a young woman bursting into tears as Dad approached her. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked. ‘My husband has thrown me and the kids out and we have nowhere to go.’ Well, for the next three weeks we had house guests and, every day the mother and her two children travelled with Dad (in his hazelnut brown Daimler) from Marlow to Oxford and back again, so the mother could go to work and, the kids to school.
Dad was practising a management technique called Management by Wandering Around, or MBWA.
MBWA was popularised by Hewlett Packard in the 1960’s and, in recent years, has disappeared off the radar somewhat. Why?
Perhaps because it is paradoxical (being both highly planned and highly informal), perhaps because it involves a giving away of control (you never quite know what you are going to encounter and asked to help resolve, as illustrated in the story above), or, perhaps, because it is a qualitative rather than quantitative approach to management.
I suspect that its qualitative orientation is the real reason for its demise. Approaches such as six sigma (yuk, yuk and yuk again) and ‘lean’ provide the reassurance of numbers (quantitative) based mananegement approaches. Also (Lord Green et al sit up and pay attention please) MBWA stands in opposition to the notion of ‘absolute performance’ metrics. The logic of MBWA is staying in touch with what is really taking place and then acting if necessary. It is a flexible bottom up approach, rather than an impersonal, planned, top down method. The difference between approach and method should not be underestimated.
The Gospels seem to indicate that wandering about is pretty important. The 70 (or 72) were sent out on a good wander, never quite knowing who or what they were going to encounter. Thank goodness that Philip was out and about on the Road to Emmaus. Jesus’ average working day seems a bit random, if you don’t mind me saying so.
If we look into history some of the real game changers seem to have been relentless wanderers; think of the Celtic Saints and, of Wesley. I am absolutely positive that the likes of Cuthbert, Hilda and Wesley were driven (compelled) to share the greatest of all love stories, but I am equally sure that they never really knew who they were going to encounter, or the stories of human need they were going to hear as they wandered the highways and byways, unencumbered by the need to achieve absolute performance standards.
As I have said before we need more Hilda’s and Cuthbert’s and fewer MBA’s leading the church. Bards not bureaucrats.
MBWA and not MBA should be our leadership mantra!