Seeing is Believing

Tom Peters

I was lucky to trip over the term “managing by wandering around” (MBWA) about seven years ago at the Hewlett-Packard Company. In its most elementary form, it means that managers should get out of the office and go down to the factory floor or service dispatch center, to find out first hand what’s up.

Critics take issue with the central place we’ve given MBWA. They correctly point out that it can cause managers to revert to peer-over-the-shoulder, kick’em-in-the-“backside” (KITA), management of bygone decades.

We attempted to address this criticism in a chapter about techniques for MBWA in A Passion for Excellence. We explained that there is a wrong way to do it (KITA) and a right way, which stresses listening and facilitating.

Despite any caveats, I have become increasingly convinced that the essence of MBWA is far more powerful than I suspected. MBWA has become for me shorthand for any activity that short circuits the potent forces of information distortion that distance decision-makers from raw data—even in small firms.

The essence of MBWA is seeing and processing live data. Close up. Real time. To watch a Super Bowl on TV is not the same as being there, as I learned when the game was in my town last year, in Palo Alto, California. The Super Bowl is as much—or more—the 30,000 or so non-ticket holders and game groupies who somewhat aimlessly wander the streets outside the stadium for days before the contest, as it is the 60 minutes of play. The game is almost incidental to the larger phenomenon.

On a graver note, I recently visited for the first time the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C. If you have not been there, please go—and horse-collar your congressman and 17-year-old son, if you have one. Seeing the memorial on TV dozens of times just isn’t the same. My wife and I went at sunset on a humid June evening. Not ten minutes passed before I dissolved into uncontrollable tears.

I am a two-tour Vietnam vet. I did not suffer any postwar trauma. As a Navy Seabee, I was near, but not routinely in the heart of the action. So my reaction at the memorial was not because of memories of long nights on patrol. It was to seeing and feeling, close up, the individual 58,000 young people’s names, carved one after another into imposing black granite and half buried in a cut of earth within eyeshot of Mr. Lincoln’s stately monument. It was watching a woman climb up a step ladder to do a rubbing of a name, perhaps of a relative, and wiping away tears as she did so. It was reading a letter from a close friend to a deceased Army major, left in tribute. The souls of those unsung boys and men loomed closer even than they did in unmarked, almost formless body bags that I saw from time to time during the real thing. I am not especially dovish, but I fervently wish that every congressman and senior federal official could be forced to slowly troop that memorial once a month, near dawn or dusk, in rain or sun, in humid heat or biting cold. The odds of taking precipitous action would be reduced, I feel.

Closer to home, I walk the corridors of corporate America, preaching the gospel of unswerving customer satisfaction. I urge leaders to get in palpable touch with their customers, to see and touch the real thing—the raw complaint letters, for instance.

Some say I sell that message quite effectively. But I never realized how correct I was until I experienced it myself. In my small firm, we attempt to live the values we write, and speak about. But boy, did we mess one up! God bless the customer who took the time—who cared enough—to write a blow-by-blow, multi-page letter outlining our many sins in a recent transaction. Above all, God bless the system that allowed me, as boss, to see the material in its unedited form, and early.

The impact from reading the letter first hand let me feel the sting of “you have disappointed me,” the tangibility of the letterhead, the gory details piled one upon another.

The key to successful businesses, churches, hospitals, schools, and battalions is people successfully dealing with people. Yet at tiny organizations or large, whether they make pizza or war, leaders tend to become hopelessly isolated from the people who work for them and from their customers. We must work diligently and without respite to reverse this almost irresistible tide.

We have a long way to go. I was distressed to learn that Richard Feynman’s blunt contribution to the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger disaster had been watered down, and that even the diluted version would be delayed for publication for a month. Physics Nobel Laureate Feynman had bluntly concluded that NASA’s culpability rested on either “stupidity or the habits of dissembling.” Is that a fair statement? Who knows? It may not be the consensus view, but it is plausible.

More important, the President needs to read that intemperate language in its untampered form. So do the public, and especially NASA—just as I needed to read the frustrated, words of my angry, and might-have-been customer. A “summary of correspondence” would not have let me feel the customer’s venom, frustration, and disappointment at my hypocrisy of preaching excellence and not living it.

What ten specific actions will you commit to in the next two weeks to get closer to raw information? What first step will you take before the sun sets today?

(c) 1986 TPG Communications

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