Looking to improve? Try a little MBWA*

*Management By Wandering Around. Workers know that much of the plant manager’s workday is spent trying to correct the past and fix the future, but they appreciate managers taking time to see what’s happening now.
By Bob Vavra, Plant Engineering Content Manager April 8, 2015

If there’s one constant in manufacturing, it’s the quest for continuous improvement. Even at a time when manufacturing is showing its strength as an economic force, no one is suggesting all the work is done. Manufacturers constantly look for all the small things that can take just a few cents or a few minutes out of the process.

To help us on that quest, there are dozens of different systems and strategies and processes and procedures designed to take us down the Yellow Brick Road to greater productivity. Whether you lean toward Lean or believe in the Toyota Way, or whether you like one of the various (Insert Name Here) manufacturing systems currently in vogue, everyone, it seems, has a solution.

One of the more famous of these was Management By Objectives, or MBO. It was popularized by management consultancy guru Peter Drucker in the 1950s, and it is built around the idea of giving employees a clear understanding of their jobs, and how those jobs fit in with the rest of the company structure.

If it doesn’t sound too complicated a concept, well, you’re just wrong, because everyone who has a concept like this also has a book to accompany it. I think there must be some sort of federal law that all management strategists must have a book or their strategy will not be taken seriously. After all, if there were no management books, the few bookstores still left in existence would have one fewer set of shelves and aisles.

A former editor of mine used another management system: MBWA, or Management By Wandering Around. It turns out MBWA has its own Wikipedia page and other Web references, although, as yet, there is no book on the topic.

Even so, it’s a management style that has its appeal for workers and managers alike. Catching manufacturing workers in the act of working can give a manager greater insight into what’s actually happening on the plant floor. It can provide workers with a one-on-one chance to show the manager a specific issue or showcase a specific way a worker is getting around a process bottleneck.

I don’t think MBWA replaces Lean or Six Sigma or any of the other management systems. As we’ve added to our digital factory and gained a greater insight into our equipment, we’ve also created a system where we can better analyze operational output and act decisively before issues arise. These are all huge steps forward that people like Drucker and Edward Deming couldn’t imagine 50 years ago. While their principles are in place in much of the technology we use today, the speed at which we identify issues and solve problems has made manufacturing better. And yet I think there’s still room for a slower, more deliberate analysis of our operations. It’s good to get out on the plant floor and see and listen and observe. I think workers know that much of the plant manager’s workday is spent trying to correct the past and fix the future, but they appreciate managers taking time to see what’s happening now.

There’s one often untapped opportunity for plant managers to expand on the benefits of MBWA. It’s called MBWAWNOIA: Management By Wandering Around When No One Is Around. Mib-Waw-Noia. Kinda rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Even if the acronym never catches on, the concept is a good one. Find a quiet Sunday morning and just walk through your plant. Listen for the sounds of the escaping compressed air. Get up close to your machines. Put yourself in the place of your workers, even if just for a little while, to see how to see how the work cell is set up.

We’ve created a world of dashboards and sensors, or HMIs and apps, and they’re all designed to give us all the knowledge we could need about all the inanimate objects in our plant. MBWA is designed to bring us a little closer to the humans who act and react to all that data. A little human-human interface always is a good thing.

While we have come to depend on this rush of data—even trust this data—it shouldn’t be our only source of knowledge. A little MBWA, whether anyone is around or not, is a fine tool that should be in every manager’s arsenal.