Tom Peters coined the phrase “management by wandering around” in his 1982 landmark book, “In Search of Excellence.” The concept was already in common practice at Hewlett Packard for years before. Japanese managerial canon dating back to post-World War II also describes the “gemba walk” as a means of being out of an office and in the places where the real work of the business is done.
One of the main benefits of being out and about (without ceremony or entourage) is that a leader gets to see how things really get done. But if your physical presence is rare — or occasioned only for passing out praise or corrective actions — you are likely training your employees unintentionally.
I recently returned from two weeks in the Galapagos Islands. The park and environmental agencies there work very hard to create access to the natural reserve, and to ensure that the impact is minimized. As a visitor, you may not go near the animals, pet them or feed them, or do anything else that might distract them from whatever they are doing. This creates an experience with them that struck me as remarkable.
We got to see them in their natural habitat, unchanged by our presence. We walked on trails through the nesting grounds of boobies that could have flown away but simply looked at us — or not. We walked around sea lions napping on the landing stone; they looked at us and went back to sleep. Birds involved in courtship rituals, iguanas sunning, tortoises lumbering about — all simply went about their business.
It was our naturalist guide who made it clear. The animals had not been trained to see humans as a source of food (either directly or through trash left behind). We are not natural predators. Because small groups of people show up regularly but never attempted to force themselves on the animals, they simply went about their business. So we got to see them doing what they do, without either putting on a show of it or running away.
It is the least common behavior I see from employees when walking a business with top leaders.
Some business leaders are willing to go on “Undercover Boss” to learn what really goes on in their company, despite knowing that they or their companies will not come out looking all that great. Even Shakespeare’s Henry V had to disguise himself as a common soldier to learn the real heart of his army on the eve of the battle with the French at Agincourt.
The simplest way to understand what is truly happening in your organization is to be visible often enough to be part of the routine. I recently got to take the tour at one of my Vistage member companies (along with the rest of the CEO group that was meeting there that day). It was evident that the boss was there on a regular basis from the way he and employees greeted each other. While workers on the factory floor were clearly curious about our presence, it was not a detriment to productivity.
That CEO has a clear picture of what is happening on the shop floor. His employees have come to expect his insistence on quality of production, but have not been conditioned to either hide or expect to be lavished with praise. His presence is regular: engaged and yet benign enough to only subtlety impact the environment.
On the flip side, I once met a CEO of an organization with more than 4,500 employees who literally pointed at the small conference room table in his office and said, “I run the business from here. Employees do not even know what I look like.” But they clearly did! When we walked the floor for the first time you would have thought we were wearing clown suits based on the loss of productivity we caused.
So, what have you trained your organization to do when you show up? In his classic spy thriller “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” even John le Carre opined that “a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”