Once upon a time, two business authors named Peters and Waterman wrote a blockbuster best-seller called In Search of Excellence. This management classic was known for many great improvements in modern management, and most companies sent their executives to seminars on the book in the 1980's. I don't think it an exaggeration to say that company management was never the same after the book.
Perhaps the best known practice that came of the book was one labeled "Management By Walking Around", or MBWA. The late eighties and early nineties saw a proliferation of bosses roaming the halls and making frequent trips through the shop or plant, making themselves available to employees, shaking hands, asking questions, and showing concern, in an effort to get a better grip on the business and break through traditional communication barriers that were recognized as a source of passive confusion at best, and active employee resistance at worst.
Well, sometimes it worked. More often, it was counterproductive...employees hopes were raised by being able to sound off personally to the top dog, and to be crushed again when their issue was ultimately ignored or rejected, and their immediate supervisor glared at them every time the issue was raised. MBWA came to be recognized by many as MBMW, or management by muddying the waters.
And in the mid-90's, modern technology began to change the playing field upon which Peters and Waterman trod. Email became an easier, more efficient, and safer way for managers to play the communication game, and the top folks began to insulate themselves from the dirty details that occurred daily out on the floor. Much to the approval of front-line supervisors, who once again had freedom to intimidate the folks under them without management interference.
While this was going on, I had the great fortune to be learning from a wide range of managers with varying styles. On reflection, I think I learned the best lessons on running an organization from a modest, low-profile plant manager named Jim in West Memphis, Arkansas.
As a grad student, I had a great opportunity to spend a summer in Temple-Inland's West Memphis gypsum operation. The plant manufactured gypsum wallboard, commonly known by USG's tradename "sheetrock". I was there to build a computerized manufacturing "expert system", the subject of my doctoral dissertation. It was on one of my first trips to the plant that I first observed and began to recognize a management style that I later came to call "management by ongoing observation."
On this particular visit, I had set up my computer in the meeting room that had been designated as my work space for the summer. My usual habit was to start out by checking in with Jim, to let him know I was in the plant and to see if he had any instructions for me. But this time, his office was empty and the office assistant was out. So I found the first person I could, who happened to be the operations supervisor. I asked him if he knew where Jim was, and was told he was "up on the pup tent" out in the plant.
Well, I didn't want to look too stupid, so without further ado I began wandering out into the plant, wondering what a pup tent was doing out there and how Jim happened to be up on it. Fortunately, I didn't have to wander too far, when I realized that "pup tent" was the East Arkansawn rendering of "pulp tank". There was Jim, standing up on a large tank that held thousands of gallons of watered-down recycled paper, starch, soap, and a few other chemicals which was called pulp and was added to the gypsum slurry to improve the various properties of the wallboard.
I hollered at Jim, and he waved me up. As I attained the summit, I found Jim fastidiously hosing down the top of the tank. The pulp had a tendency to splash out of the top of the tank when the chemicals were added, since the tank was continuously agitated by two giant paddles, and dried pulp remnants grew daily on the top of the tank. At least until Jim arrived for his daily chore.
I thought it sort of odd for Jim to be out there in his boots with his pants rolled up, shirt and face splashed with pulpy splatters, performing a task that at any other operation would be assigned to the lowest person on the totem pole. In fact, I came to find out that Jim's being "up on the pup tent" was an inside joke and slight source of derision among certain other T-I managers who maintained clean shirts and shiny shoes in their own jobs. Nevertheless, I walked over to make my requisite check-in with the boss.
As we talked, I began to notice that Jim kept glancing over my shoulder. I managed to ease myself into a better view, and I soon realized that Jim was watching the operation while he hosed down the tank. Not watching in a spying sort of way, but just observing the plant as it lived and breathed. From the top of the pup tent you could see the critical mixer station, where the pulp combined with calcined gypsum called "stucco" in a large round device called a pin mixer, and the resulting slurry flowed between two large rollers that fed the wallboard paper faces, and deposited the resultant continuous "board" onto a belt. The board continued on the belt for a couple of hundred feet, and then, as the board stiffened through the hydration and crystallization of the gypsum core, it rolled onto a series of rollers that then carried the board to a turnaround in the line several hundred feet further on. At this "end" of the line, the board was cut into individual boards, flipped over, and transferred sideways onto a pivoting ramp that fed the several levels of the board dryer. The individual boards returned and exited the dryer near the mixer station. A control room was located between the mixer station and the dryer exit, and this control room was where my expert system was to be commissioned upon its completion.
I was transfixed by the sight, my first real view of the process. Jim and I stood there and just watched for several minutes. And I realized that most of the critical process points were visible from where we stood. If the slurry became too thick or thin causing a build-up or run-out of the slurry head, we could see it. If the paper broke as it approached or ran through the rollers, we would know instantly and be able to observe the process operators reaction to the situation. If there was a chemistry problem causing the board to fall through as it left the belt and hit the rollers, we would know. And if the boards were exiting the dryer too wet or dry, we could see the trends displayed by lights above the dryer that worked on moisture sensors at the dryer exit. We also could see the much of the board warehouse, and the forklifts that ran continuously unloading the dryer and stacking the boards in the designated area.
Over the next few months, I came to understand why Jim seemed to have a better intimate knowledge and control of his plant than other plant managers I was working with. Not only was he observing the operation for a significant period of time each day, at different times of the day, but his employees always knew that they could scramble up and bring an issue, whether personal or professional, to Jim while he was out on the tank. I also came to understand that even though Jim wasn't really a "buddy" of the plant employees, he had their complete respect and admiration. Because to them, he was working with them, not just telling them what to do. When he recommended an action, corrected a poor decision, or disciplined an employee, it was based on his intimate knowledge of the situation, not just a quick reaction to a self-serving second-hand report.
And Jim extended his attention to detail when he returned to his office. Trained as an accountant, he had worked as the plant controller before becoming the plant manager. He had trained the next controller personally, and she worked essentially as an extension of Jim's brain. He studied his plant's books daily, even while various colored lights in his office kept him in constant awareness of the plant's operational situation. In short, Jim knew his operation. And it was consistently one of Temple-Inland's top-performing operations during his tenure.
Now, Jim never really trusted my presence in the plant. After all, I was a smart-a college boy working on a system that supposedly was going to diagnose the operation better than the human operators in close to real-time, commissioned by the veeps at company headquarters. He didn't buy it, and in hindsight, I can't blame him.
But what I learned from Jim I used to much success in the rest of my career. I still spend time observing an operation in detail, for hours or days if necessary, when asked to diagnose a particular problem. During my industry years I guess I had a reputation as sort of an oddball...I would climb up in catwalks, make myself comfortable, and sit for hours apparently doing nothing, since I didn't have a hose handy or authorization to use one, if there was. But I had this way of seeing things others in the plant just couldn't see, even though they spent eight hours every day looking at them. I remember one plant manager, after I had diagnosed a problem with a particleboard press, asking me as we walked and I showed him the symptoms of his problem, "How do you see that stuff?"
I just thought of Jim with his hose, spraying down the pup tent.
To you company managers who want to try "Management By Ongoing Observation", or MBOO, try this: find a simple task you can perform personally in the shop or plant everyday. The humbler the task the better; don't try to show up the employees. Just something that makes you part of the team, and allows for your daily interaction with folks in action. You might be amazed at how well things begin to click for everyone.
If you don't think you have the time for it, just consider...how many hours do you spend reading and answering emails that relate to operational issues, or reading reports related to operational problems that could have been prevented?
And then consider...how well would your family work if you communicated with your spouse and children only by email?