The shop floor is a repository of invisible wastes

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REY ELBO

READING and analyzing management reports from an executive chair is more often disastrous. The higher you go up the corporate totem pole, the farther you get away from what’s happening on the ground, or the shop floor, or the back room. Revenues may be trending toward their peak with no signs of slowing down, and your top managers are feeling very comfortable.

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Still, you may not even know what’s missing. It could already be more than a lot and you don’t know what and how much you’re losing while your managers are beaming with pride.

That’s the trouble when management abhors doing or does not know how to do the American style of MBWA (management by walking around), or the Japanese gemba (workplace) walk.

The idea of MBWA came from the American genius W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993), who said: “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realize they have one in the first place.”

This was echoed by Taiichi Ohno, (1912-1900), a co-inventor of the Toyota Production System who harassed his junior engineers to actively look for problems to solve as soon as they discovered them. In so many words, Ohno said: “If you’re not looking for problems to solve, then you’re part of the problem.”

MBWA offers a tremendous amount of advantages to management. The whole idea is to “force” managers to get out of their comfort zones and leave their executive desks and make themselves actively available for consultation with their workers at the shop or the back room.

There’s no better way but to get all the issues and ideas direct from the horse’s mouth.

This is the antidote to the passive suggestion boxes that we see around us everyday, into which no one really cares or bothers dropping any suggestion.

Managers leaving their desks to talk to people make for the best management strategy of all time. If done every day or on a regular basis, there’s no reason for workers to suspect the boss is spying on them or trying to catch people in the act of committing mistakes.

It’s not a new concept with Deming as its first and influential proponent. The idea became popular in the 1980s when management guru Tom Peters wrote several books and articles about MBWA and called it the “technology of the obvious.” Among others, MBWA became fashionable for American companies, such as Hewlett-Packard, which calls MBWA part of “The HP Way,” or its corporate culture that extols the virtue of an open-book style of management.

If the MBWA has three elements, they may be summarized as follows: One, management must listen to what their employees are saying or not saying. If a manager always sits comfortably behind his desk, never leaving it the whole working time, how does he then expect to understand what’s happening outside of his air-conditioned room?

Two, corporate vision, mission, and values must be transmitted to people face-to-face. There’s no better way than that, even with the advent and allure of high technology that makes it easy and convenient for people to communicate with one another.

Lastly, managers must be able to provide instant help and guidance to employees. The teka-teka (wait-a-minute) mentality is disappointing to many workers as that can convey the message that the manager they’re talking to lacks the mental agility and capacity to govern, if not possessing only limited authority, or is simply a glorified closet clerk.

Just like other management approaches, the MBWA has its own disadvantages, for the managers. Obviously, it is time-consuming for managers to talk to people and spend several hours with them. Not only for the managers, but it is also time-consuming for the workers who should be doing their regular tasks. However, this can be overcome in due time, or as soon as the MBWA becomes a habit for everyone.

If you’re ready to do MBWA, then the best way to proceed with it is to ask a lot of questions. French philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) once said: “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers. He is one who asks the right questions.”

Coralie Young, writing for The Guardian says: “Asking the right questions is the essence of good science. Insightful questions can challenge accepted models, and turn the way we think about a concept on its head. Of course, you still need a curious, inquiring mind to come up with the right answers – but some of the most exciting science discoveries would never have happened without that initial spark of inspiration from someone asking a really good question – the sort of question that makes everyone stop, and think “wow, that’s a really good point!”

My corporate experience gave me a lot of insights on the two-way, proactive communication process between and among managers and their workers. If you really want the workers to do their homework, give them interesting assignments. Otherwise, they will treat every task as a mechanical, painful thing to do. Really, MBWA can help everyone remove his blinders to see what is known in the lean management context as invisible wastes.

There are wastes everywhere. The trouble is you can’t see them because you’re not actively seeking them.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random thoughts on Elbonomics.

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