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Old Concept Still Works: Try Management by Walking Around

3/28/16

In 1982, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman published an acclaimed business book called In Search of Excellence. They espoused a practice of “management by walking around” as a way to achieve excellence. They were on to something then, and the lesson still applies today. We’ve all heard comments about the “ivory tower” in business. Employees complain about decisions that come from the top, when the “real work” goes on at the bottom. While this may not be entirely true, there are many times when top management is too far removed from the front lines to understand the problems and develop good solutions.

The world of construction is no different.

Walking around a job site can tell you a lot about the status of the project, the practices of the project and site managers, communication among team members and compliance with company standards. In fact, no other activity can tell you more about these things. And the larger the company gets, the more truth there is in that statement.

If you’re going to practice “management by walking around,” here are a few tips you might want to keep in mind

Make this a regular activity. You should schedule time to walk the job sites and the corporate offices so that you get an ongoing picture of life in the trenches. The occasional walk-through may give you a distorted view. You might catch employees on a really good day or a really bad day. Regular walk -arounds will help you gauge the true climate of the department or job site. You don’t want to make rash judgments based on anomalies.

Don’t become the police. When you’re walking around, you aren’t looking for trouble – you’re just looking. If the troops receive only corrective feedback when you come around, they’ll dread seeing you, and you’ll miss out on a big benefit of being present. Look for examples of good behavior and speak to it. Ask questions of the team to see what they struggle with and what they are proud of.

Don’t over-react to situations. Just because you’re on site doesn’t mean the chain of command goes out the window. If you notice issues that need to be addressed, talk with the appropriate manager about addressing them. You’re not there to undermine someone else’s authority or to be the “heavy.” Help your managers learn to manage better, and reinforce to the team that the manager is in charge of the site. The exception, of course, is a safety hazard that you may need to address on the spot. Be sure to debrief the manager on your conversation with any employee on any safety-related issue.

Don’t spend too much time with the site managers. You probably have opportunities to talk to your site and project managers more often than you do to those who work under them. Use the site visit as an opportunity to get closer to the front. Walk around by yourself while you’re talking with workers and asking for their input. You don’t want to put them in an awkward position in front of their supervisor, and you may find that you’ll get more honest feedback if you’re alone.

Reinforce the guiding principles of the company.It’s easy for front-liners to get so involved with the work that they fail to see the connection to the company’s vision or mission. As you talk with employees while you’re walking around, reinforce how they contribute to the fulfillment of the company’s mission. People want to feel that their work matters – you can help them make the connection by talking with them.

Running a successful construction company is a big job. Important work does go on in the proverbial ivory tower, but nothing can take the place of seeing for yourself what goes on at the project sites on a regular basis. Make it a priority. Learn from it. It can be an important part of your quest for excellence.