Management by wandering (or walking) around – Part I

Wikipedia tells me that management by wandering (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, equipment, or on the status of ongoing work.” I saw the beauty of this management style when I ran a small printing press in the port city of Douala in Cameroon.

I took over from a French man. When I met with him a few days before the handing-over ceremony, he told me in no uncertain terms that everything around the company should revolve around the general manager, who alone decides what has to be done, how it should be done and when it should be done. When I asked him what role employees played in the decision-making in the company, his response was swift and categorical: “Rien du tout, Monsieur! Ils ne font que t’écouter et c’est toi, le patron, qui décides tout!” (Nothing at all, Sir! All they do is listen to you, you’re the boss, and you decide everything). When I told him I was going to involve the employees as much as possible in the running of their company, he threw up his arms in the air, in a manner typical of people from the Mediterranean region (he was from the French island of Corsica), and loudly predicted that the company was heading for a collapse. “Cette affaire-là va tomber dans l’eau! C’est regrettable! Est-ce que c’est vraiment la bonne personne qui a été choisie pour me remplacer?”  A look of intense frustration was written all over his face as he wondered out loud if the right person had really been chosen to replace.  I later heard that he had confronted the owner of the company, wondering if he thought he had chosen the right person to take over from him.  The answer being affirmative, he left our country a sad man.

I was, however, determined that the company would not only thrive, but was going to bloom and to blossom; not because of some form of magic wand that I would wield around, but because of my conviction that I would only succeed if I involved employees intimately in the running of their own company, a company whose technical details they mastered better than me.

The first thing I did was to start the process of wandering around the company and meeting employees at their work places. They had never seen that happen before and you could literally touch the misgivings in everyone’s eyes. In the past, the general manager was a distant figure hidden away in his office and the only time he ever met an employee was to berate or threaten them because he had heard something wrong they might have done. And here was a new comer, claiming to be a general manager, but coming towards them. “What does he have up his sleeves?” I could hear whispers behind my back. “Is he trying to catch someone doing something wrong and fire them?”  Doubts were floating in the air and I had to reassure them that I was not out to trick and catch anyone doing something wrong.  In fact, I could have been more than happy to catch someone doing something right and compliment them, as the management of the American company I worked in for over twenty years used to say. I told them to relax for I was there just to meet each of them at their desk and find out and understand what each one of them was doing.

I remember one employee, in particular; a young lady whom everyone seemed to shun for she was said to have a bad temper. Everyone seemed to think that she was just downright obnoxious. In fact, the man from whom I took over the company talked to me about her, saying how sullen she always was but that she was very good at what she did, which was accounting. When I stopped by her desk one morning, I saw that she was deliberately avoiding to look at me. I greeted her and asked how she was doing. “Oh, ça va,” she shot back still without looking at me. I noticed that she was sitting at the edge of the chair, which seemed to be dancing under her. I asked what was wrong with her chair and she fired back: “ça fait longtemps que je demande une nouvelle chaise, mais est-ce qu’on m’écoute? Personne ne m’écoute dans cette maison.” [I’ve been asking for a new chair for such a long time now, but does anyone ever listen to me in this house? No one does].Then she turned her head away.

It was then that I understood that the chair on which she was sitting was bad, and had been so for a long time. So I told her I was going to take care of it for her. I don’t think she believed me until a few days later when a carpenter came around and took out onto the company courtyard all broken chairs and tables employees were using, and had them repaired. Some of the repairs were minor, some not so minor, leading to the wholesome replacement of the broken furniture.

The next time I came wandering around, which was often, I saw a smile on her lips for the first time since I joined the company. She literally brightened up when I saw a picture of her family on a stand beside her computer and said what beautiful children I thought she had.  She lit up, sat upright on her chair and said how proud she was of her son who had just succeeded in a recently released Baccalaureate examination, and how proud the whole family was of him. From that day, I had an employee who seemed happy to come to work and contribute her share to the success of our company. All because I left my desk from time to time to saunter around, and inquire about work and other matters my employees held firm to their hearts.






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