She described how Lincoln is credited with using this technique during the Civil War. How Hewlett-Packard executives practiced it in the 1970s and Tom Peters and others wrote about it in the 1980s.
Now, modern managers will nod their head knowingly when you mention this useful practice. But an incredibly small number of managers are taking advantage of an improvement to the technique that’s available today – one that Lincoln could have only dreamed about.
It’s the unplanned, unfiltered nature of MBWA that results in the manager receiving useful information. Here’s a helpful definition from Wikipedia:
“The term management by wandering around (MBWA), also management by walking around, refers to a style of business management which involves managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, or equipment, about the status of ongoing work. The emphasis is on the word wandering as an impromptu movement within a workplace, rather than a plan where employees expect a visit from managers at more systematic, pre-approved or scheduled times. The expected benefit is that a manager, by random sampling of events or employee discussions, is more likely to facilitate the productivity and total quality management of the organization, as compared to remaining in a specific office area and waiting for employees, or the delivery of status reports, to arrive there, as events warrant in the workplace.”
Lincoln in the 1860s
In the Lincoln biography, “With Malice Toward None”, Prof. Stephen Oates asserts that Lincoln invented MBWA. And Moyra writes about why he did it:
“During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln would surprise his generals and their men with impromptu troop inspections. By seeking out and listening to ordinary soldiers and observing what was happening, his habit of unannounced visits allowed him to get an unfiltered view on which to base future decisions.”
Instead of waiting for information to come to him, perhaps tainted by the interests of generals, Lincoln went and got it himself. (Over a hundred years later, Deming noted “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them.”)
In addition to this valuable feedback leading to better decisions, Moyra describes how Lincoln’s direct interactions with troops could also “kickstart a two way process of communication and learning”.
MBWA, when done well, does indeed have these benefits. But even for Lincoln it was incredibly limited: the time required to travel to meet troops in the field; the very small number of people he could interact with; the difficulty of getting honest feedback from a private to the President. It was easy for MBWA to devolve into just speeches to large crowds or staged tours to meet a few pre-selected soldiers.
If Lincoln had a social network, he would complement his historic trips by virtually walking around his organization. From the White House, he would see what soldiers across the country were saying when they didn’t think he was listening. He would provide feedback and encouragement that everyone could see. Inspiration that everyone could read and share. Lessons and directions that everyone could learn from.
He would still go to the field. But he would augment the practice he invented with modern techniques that would make him even more effective and help his troops be even more engaged in their mission.
Modern managers, more pressed for time than ever before, could learn a lot from what Lincoln did – and would do.