#68 Management by Hiding (2002)

All Rights Reserved © 2002 Thomas W. Day

Back in the decade of constantly changing management techniques, David Packard, of Hewlett-Packard, wrote a book called "The HP Way."  In this business biography, he took a bit of credit for "inventing" the "management by walking around" style.  Sam Walton gets a lot of credit for popularizing the technique, too.  If these managers actually walked around some, that's a good thing.  As for their having invented a style of management, that's bull.

In fact, this is ancient, common sense stuff.  Walking around management is the basic tactic of nearly every successful from-scratch start-up manager.  Mostly because the manager is the managee and he has to do the walking around, and do the work, to keep things moving.  Good managers keep walking around until they sell the company to someone who has a burning desire to kill or stagnate a successful business. 

Walking around management is still a popular topic of conversation, even if it doesn't get applied all that often outside of small businesses.  I found about 1,400 hits on the subject in a recent Yahoo search.  The phrase is live and well, regardless of the condition of the actual practice.  Lots of execs like to think of themselves as being a hands-on manager because even the lamest of the breed knows that anyone who isn't hands-on is useless.

However, most managers claim to be walking around when they're mostly hiding.  MBA-style managers in large companies are too busy keeping their backs to walls to do a lot of walking around. When you step onto the production floor, or anywhere where work gets accomplished, you bump into people who could use a little management assistance.  That distracts the MBAs from their primary task of promoting themselves to their equally clueless (and even more immobile) superiors, which derails the all-important promotion schedule.  The last thing a modern manager wants to do is to be useful to the people he manages.  In the never ending quest for stock bonuses and outrageously huge salaries, messing with people who do work is an unrewarding enterprise.

This immobile and distorted perspective isn't something that MBA factories have changed or created. (I'm probably not going to live long enough to see an original idea spawned in the MBA academia.)  They're not to blame for something that has been around for as long mismanagement.  In my 40-year working life, the most common work-related complaints I've heard (or produced) have been about lazy and incompetent management.  A good manager is hard to find.  Sounds like a country-western tune, doesn't it? 

It's a courage thing.  Walking around involves being seen, becoming expected to accomplish something useful, and having to take an occasional position regarding actual work and working conditions.   This would amount to an endless pile of issues and activities that are better left untouched by an ambitious exec.  Any manager, even a CEO, who does those things has courage and is about as rare as an honest politician.  Being accessible means you have to make and explain decisions, provide (or withhold) resources, and you have to manage. 

And you thought becoming a manager put an end to all the hard stuff?  Don't worry; nobody expects anything significant from management.  We're used to gutless, brainless, pointless, clueless edicts from the void.  We'd just get confused (and productive) of you did anything beyond the norm.  Sleep little exec, sleep.  Mamma will wake you when the bankruptcy court convenes. 

November 2002

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