January 3, 2017 Get More Out of Getting Out There – Four Steps in an MBWA Plan
I recently wrote an article for The CEO Magazine called, “Rethinking MBWA: Find the Magic by Walking Around.” I’ve gotten good feedback, but one CEO asked me a question I’m sure others are thinking about. He said, “Tim, I have no problem getting out there and listening to my people. But I can’t act on every suggestion, and it’s frustrating. What do I do with what I learn?”
His question made me consider how I’ve made MBWA work better for me. A few years ago, I knew my company was headed for some big changes. I had a vision of what we should do, but before I pulled the trigger, I wanted to get out across the company to learn more. I visited our plants, distribution facilities and sales offices, even retail stores, asking questions, testing my ideas and letting people talk. It took a few months, but it helped me shape my vision and prepare the company for change. I found the magic by walking around and I grew every step of the way. But it wasn’t an accident. I had a plan before I went.
In my article, I talked about how MBWA works only if you’re genuine and curious. Stay with me if you think those qualities conflict with planning. Having a plan can actually make you more genuine. It forces you to think through why you’re out there and what you want to learn. It forces you to take time and listen. A plan makes you think about how to set expectations for the people you see. That could be the most genuine part of your visits. Here are four of the steps I take.
Know why you’re walking around. I’m a big proponent of getting out there, but it isn’t right for everybody. Maybe finding magic on the front lines doesn’t fit your culture. Perhaps legal or regulatory restrictions make it impractical. Regardless, before you get out there, know what you want to accomplish, what problems you’re trying to solve and how these trips will work with the way you and your team operate. Knowing what you want to learn will help you ask the right questions and steer things in the right direction.
Commit the time. You may not want to commit to MBWA for life the way I have – but you do need to do it long enough to see results. It takes time for employees to trust the process and open up with the good stuff, to tell you the truth, warts and all, and give you their precious ideas. But there’s a high side to avoiding a strict schedule. Random visits can be more effective because people can’t prepare for them. You get a better look at how things really are, along with more genuine thoughts and suggestions.
Set expectations – and follow through. This gets to the CEO’s frustration, “What do I do with what I learn?” Well, obviously that depends on a thousand variables. Thankfully, most employees don’t expect a decision on the spot, but if you keep asking for input and nothing happens – doubt is sure to creep in. I try to tell employees the truth about what to expect. For example, if you like the idea for a new packaging machine but there’s no budget, say so and come up with alternatives. When a salesperson suggests a new product with good potential, promise to pass it on to the right person – and do it. Before asking how a piece of equipment works, be ready to respond to the operator’s request for upgrades to improve it. If you can act right away – all the better – but set realistic expectations.
Give them credit. If someone answers an important question, tell them they did. Tell them when they help you plan. If they open your eyes to something, tell them. You might have to say you don’t know what you’ll do with what you learned, but the point is you learned from them. That’s what you’d want to hear.
The overall point I’m making is, leaders need the value, the magic that comes from walking around. But I know firsthand you also need a careful plan for talking to people before you take the first step.