MBWA After All These Years

I was cleaning out some of my Mom's stuff, and came across a picture of me wearing a red (what else?) hat with, in big/bold letters ... MBWA. It did more than "bring back memories."

In 1980, while doing some generic "excellence" research that later became In Search of Excellence, Bob Waterman and I interviewed then HP president John Young. (HP was a $1B company at the time, with marginal interest in computers). John explained that HP's hallmark "MBWA" was "more important than ever as we experience explosive growth." Well, Bob & I had no idea what "MBWA" was—though we'd both had a belly-full of strained acronyms.

MBWA ... Managing By Wandering Around ... quickly became our favorite "excellence" idea! Technically, it meant staying in direct touch (damn the bureaucracy!) with the folks who do the work. Metaphorically, it stood for all/much of what was wrong with American management—McKinsey & Harvard Business School-style—as we confronted the Japanese challenge in areas such as product quality. That is, "big business" had become an abstraction. It was a "by the numbers" affair, where front-line "personnel" were pretty much interchangeable parts in a well-oiled "machine" and where "strategy" was considered far more important than primitive ideas such as quality and service and turned-on folks. Of course by then the bearings had lost most of their oil and seized up!

Now, it's 25 years later ... and, frankly, not as much has changed as we had hoped. To this day! A lot of the problem in New Orleans was the absence of MBWA. The fool (perhaps too kind a description) who heads FEMA gave new meaning to "out of touch." But that's only part of my rant here. More generally I hope to quash terms swiped from the military such as "on the ground" (not all bad—though it gives me the impression of leaders playing at soldier) and resurrect Managing By Wandering Around.

Leaders, from FEMA and the White House to GM (!) and Wal*Mart will only thrive, even in the age of the Internet and "virtual organizations," if they somehow stay in touch. (In fact, one of Wal*Mart's secrets of continued excellent performance—with 1.5 million people on the payroll—is an uncanny ability to stay in touch with the front line.)

Bottom line: I think I'll dust off my quarter-century old MBWA hat—and maybe I'll send it to the President!