The First Book of Management

Chapter 2 - Wandering About

The best boss I’ve ever had was David Stancombe of DRG in Bristol. He was a wily old bird, a captain of the ship who didn’t seem to do much, but always knew what was going on and somehow steered us all in the right direction. He is the subject of this chapter and chapter 10.

I was the Production Manager, and he used to walk around my factory every morning, talking to my machine operators. He knew all their names, and he would chat with them about football, their families, the machine, the job, the customers who the job was for, his plans, where the company was going, what they thought of the company, the machines, me, what they liked and didn’t like about things in general. He was a good talker, but an even better listener. He got his messages across, but he also found out what was going on at the coal face.  

Did I mind this?

After all, he must have heard some terrible things about me. Even when my decisions were good ones, half the factory thought they weren’t, and there they were, telling the big boss.  

And was it best use of time? He used to spend almost an hour every day on his factory tour! This was more time than he spent with me. And most of what they used to tell him was opinion and hearsay.

The answers are:
No I didn’t mind, because of the way he did it,
Yes it was good use of time.

His attitude was that he would always support his managers. The purpose of his daily tour was not to try to catch out his managers (that’s not difficult - we all make mistakes, expect for the people who don’t do anything at all. And as they say, the higher up the tree the monkey climbs, the more we can see his bottom. My mistakes were clearly visible to all!). The purpose of this daily tour was to get a feel for what was going on so that he could help me better. When I went to him to suggest a change, or ask for advice on a change, he understood what I was trying to do. He had seen the problems. He knew what it was like to be me. He knew how difficult it was. Often, if I needed help, he could provide it.

He was also able to support my decisions when talking with the operators - he could explain, maybe from a slightly different angle, why we were doing what we were doing. We acted together, as a team.  

What if he found out or saw something bad?

This is the crunch question. When things are going well it’s easy. But let’s suppose that he notices a job going wrong and nobody doing anything about it. Or someone breaking a safety rule.  

By the way, this daily tour doesn’t have to be in a factory. It could equally be in an office environment. The boss would walk round and chat with people about what they have got on today, in terms of problems, plans etc.

If the numbers of people are large, the boss would only stop at the occasional one, and would vary who they stop with each day. But they would have allocated enough time to have proper conversations, not just “Hello, I must be going”.

OK, so the boss has seen something bad. Maybe he has heard someone being rude to a customer on the phone. What should he do?

Three choices:
  1. Tackle the person right there and then.
  2. Go to the direct supervisor (in the above case this would be a section leader) and tell them. Also maybe tell me later about it.
  3. Go to the person who reports directly to him, which in the above case would be me.
Which one would you choose?  

The answer is that unless it is safety-threatening (in which case pick number 1 then 3) he should go straight for number 3.

The reason for this is that it’s about systems. If one of my people is doing something dangerous or being rude to a customer or whatever, the question has to be asked (in a positive improving kind of way) why isn’t there a system to prevent this? Maybe we have discovered an important loophole and we can improve the way we work? Maybe there is a procedure but it is not being followed. In which case why not? It is my job to ask these questions, and to ask my shift supervisor these questions. Together, my team and I will improve the way we all work.  

Maybe when the improvements to the system come down from me they’ll know that it was the top boss who spotted it originally. This is fine. But the message is that he did not act immediately because he is not there as an extra very-highly-paid supervisor, but as a big-picture thinker. He cares about customers and quality, but it is my job to manage those things for him.

If he intervenes directly or goes to my supervisor directly he is undermining me by doing my job for me (the implication being that I can’t do it myself ) and undermining himself because he should be doing more important work.  

Sometimes he would come to me and ask why an apparently silly thing is being done in my area (not in a criticising way but in a constructive way) and I would have an answer. It looks silly but there’s a reason for it. Thank goodness he didn’t get stuck in and change it there and then!

Message number 2: “Management by wandering about” is essential – keep your finger on the pulse, but don’t start being the doctor.
Chapter 1   - The Captain Of The Ship
Chapter 2   - Wandering About
Chapter 3   – Difficult Jack
Chapter 4   - Dr. Evil
Chapter 5   - Knowledge is Power
Chapter 6   - Destruction
Chapter 7   - A real friend
Chapter 8   - Teams from Hell
Chapter 9   - Dangerous Roy
Chapter 10 - Bob vs. Bob
Chapter 11 - Own Goals