Back in 1982, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman Jr. co-authored a business book titled, “In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies.” Among many topics popularized by this bestseller was a concept called “management by walking around.” This wasn’t an entirely new idea. It was practiced in the 1970s at Hewlett-Packard and had roots in the U.S.-led post-World War II economic recovery in Japan as part of what famously became known as the Toyota Production System.
Fast-forward to today’s COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not uncommon to see neighbors walking down the street, AirPods in their ears, taking conference calls on their iPhones. This isn’t the kind of management by walking around that Peters and Waterman were talking about nearly 40 years ago.
The general idea is that problems happen on the factory floor. Whether that’s on an auto assembly line or in a circuit board production plant, being closer to the work makes problem solving easier, resulting in more efficiency, quicker innovation and greater resiliency. Getting managers out of the office and closer to the work helps them to be problem solvers, not just meeting-attending gatekeepers.
Over the course of my own career, I’ve come to increasingly appreciate just how helpful it can be to purposefully take a moment to get up from my desk and walk around the office. It’s more than just a problem-solving opportunity; it’s getting to know people better. It’s a chance to communicate values and build positive relationships with co-workers.
When the global pandemic first struck, an old friend said his millennial children jokingly referred to COVID as the “boomer virus,” meant to “cull the herd.” Maybe that sounds a bit harsh. And yet, millennials have seen many boomers lingering in the workplace past retirement age. In their view, boomers are taking space that they would like to occupy.
From the boomer perspective, the U.S. has an aging workforce problem. As boomers age out, we leave behind a skills gap, a knowledge gap and, arguably, a values gap.
This isn’t to say that boomers had all the values right. Much progress has been made in subsequent generations in the areas of equality, inclusion, diversity, equity, fair treatment and work-life balance. Still, enduring values remain — truisms like respect for others, patience being a virtue and paying one’s dues.
Another name for COVID times could easily be Zoom times. Despite being a necessity, working remotely is one of the things I least like about the pandemic. This too may be generational. The shortcomings of working remotely are undoubtedly less appreciated by those who are doing the work than by those charged with leading the work. This is what happens when managers get in the way as meeting-going gatekeepers instead of focusing on problem-solving empowerment.
Communicating values is the essential job of leadership. It can’t be done by appointment. Sure, it’s entirely possible to set up a virtual meeting to discuss the company’s mission and values. But teamwork really doesn’t happen on demand.
Teamwork starts with one-on-one conversations that spread from leaders to co-workers in more casual settings. The informality of this process is what builds trust. And trust is what builds a team.
Businesses that grow successfully do it by working through their people to communicate values that are then delivered through products and services to customers who are excited by the realization of those shared values. Businesses that are less certain of their values tend to fall back on safe territory, like trying to be all things to all people, which rarely turns out to be a formula for success.
True leaders are passionate about their ideas and values. They surround themselves with like-minded people, while encouraging inclusion and diversity as a means of sourcing new ideas and vetting existing blind spots.
One day soon, we might even be able to walk around and do these things again. It makes a difference. I can’t wait for that to happen.