The concept of "management by wandering around," or MBWA, was created by David Packard of Hewlett-Packard. He believed that the best managers do not spend the majority of their time behind their desks; rather, they move around the factories and warehouses, talking to those working there, learning about their problems and ideas.

Packard was convinced that the best leaders are those who recognize the importance of talking to the troops. He also recognized the importance of listening, discovering opportunities by hearing and considering the ideas of his workers and managers.

Nowhere is MBWA better applied than in distribution center management. Many of the best warehouse workers, particularly order pickers, are "loners." They are not likely to approach senior management with suggestions and new ideas.

To learn from them, managers must go out on the floor and talk with them on their own turf. Furthermore, maintaining best practices and good housekeeping in the warehouse cannot be accomplished by any manager unless he or she is out on the floor, not just occasionally but on a regular basis.

While MBWA certainly is valuable, wandering the floor, alone, has limited usefulness. Asking good questions as we walk around is a great deal more important. "Management by asking good questions," or MBAGQ, is a vital supplement to MBWA.

Good questions are the key to success. So it is necessary to go beyond casual inquiry — "How was your vacation?" to meaningful and important questions.

The genesis of asking good questions

Several decades ago, I was privileged to know a brilliant, nationally recognized lawyer. He was nearly 80 when I first met him, an age at which most people tend to look inward.

As the cousin and guardian of my wife, he frequently was in touch with us. I noticed that not only every meeting, but every telephone call included a barrage of good questions. He never talked about himself, he only asked questions of us. Whenever we answered one question, he was ready with the next.

Perhaps it was his legal background that caused him to approach each personal encounter as an examination, a chance to ask good questions that enabled the interviewee to brief him on problems and opportunities. From this man, I learned that wandering around must also be accompanied by asking penetrating and useful questions.

Places to wander

While Packard emphasized the value of talking with the hourly workers, it is equally important to share ideas with key customers and suppliers. It is important to talk with your largest consignees, as well as your colleagues in the industry.

Visits with customers and suppliers should go beyond the normal business of discussing price adjustments and contract terms. They represent an important opportunity to learn by asking good questions.

This stretches the walking around space beyond company property. It extends it to the offices of customers, consignees and suppliers, as well as to the halls where associations and societies hold their conferences. All of these are appropriate places to question customers, suppliers and others involved in the same industry.

The question behind the question

Author John Miller expressed a guiding principle for MBAGQ. He wrote that: "The answers are in the questions. ... If we ask a better question, we get a better answer." He offered three guidelines for asking questions that provide productive answers. They are as follows:

  • Focus on action.
  • Begin with what or how, avoiding as much as possible why, when or who.
  • Include an I, avoiding they, them, we or you.

Miller believes that too many "why" questions focus on a victim attitude. "Why me?" is a less productive question than "How can I do the job better?" Questions asking "when" lead to procrastination. They suggest that we have to wait, or put off any action until another time. The "who" questions suggest that we are seeking someone to blame, a scapegoat.

Miller's stress on "I" questions is a matter of personal accountability. Accountability starts with me, not they, them or you. When you question hourly workers, they assume that you have the will and the ability to make things happen. If you respond by referring to your company as they or them, the power behind the question, and the questioner, is diminished greatly.

Where and what you should ask

When talking with workers in your own company, the best place to ask questions is on their turf, not in your office or conference room. That turf could include a break room, or the site of a group luncheon or a party. Because bosses typically underestimate their ability to intimidate workers, the situation should be one that creates minimum tension for the employee.

With customers as well, the best place to ask questions is on their turf, or in their own offices. The customer who comes to visit you already has an agenda. It can be difficult or unpleasant to overlay your agenda of asking good questions. The same thing is true for suppliers. When you visit them, you set the agenda.

Conventions, conferences and trade shows are an economical place to conduct your questioning, because you should be able to contact several customers, suppliers or competitors in a single journey. This is neutral turf, neither theirs nor yours. Within the trade function, it is essential to pick a place with reasonable privacy and ability to concentrate, such as over a meal or during a game of golf, tennis or cards.

Don't assume that the questions asked of an hourly employee should differ substantially from those you ask a vice president at a customer company. While the answers may not be the same, you might be surprised at their similarity.

The purpose of the questions is to gain knowledge that will allow your company to survive and grow in a rapidly changing environment. Nearly everyone you select to interview should have some good ideas relating to that broad goal.

The remainder of this article is focused on the content of the questions that might be asked, as well as the answers and discussion that might follow.

How can I become ETDBW?

The acronym ETDBW stands for "easier to do business with," and the obvious opposite is HTDBW, "hard to do business with." If you are the boss, you could be the last to learn how easy, or hard, it is to work with your company. Unless you phone in and disguise your voice, you might not know that a protective receptionist or secretary is trying to determine a caller's serial number and blood type before allowing the individual to speak with you.

Your customers and major consignees will tell you whether the shipments sent from your warehouse are easier or harder to handle than shipments from other sources. They also will comment on your flexibility, the readiness of your staff to handle special situations, or unexpected changes in demand.

Your suppliers, those who are selling to you, may comment on the courtesy, fairness or lack of same exhibited by your buyers. Many of us like to imagine that we always are in a buyer's market, with an ample number of suppliers willing to jump through hoops to win our business.

Currently, in the field of transportation, especially trucking, we are in a seller's market. The demand for trucking greatly exceeds the supply, and truckers increasingly are searching for the ETDBW shippers. Learn whether or not you are ETDBW. If not, what steps are needed to make you a preferred customer?

How can I deliver MVA?

MVA is Michael Hammer's acronym for "more value added." At a time when the term "value added" has become an overworked cliche, the emphasis now is on more. What extra steps could I take to move beyond being a competent service provider to become a truly outstanding one? What are the blemishes that make your company just average, rather than superior?

In answering these questions, your employees are likely to generate ideas you never considered. Customers, suppliers and consignees may tell you about competitors who provide more value than you do.

Asking your customers good questions about these topics will provide a clearer answer, and hopefully, they will give you some usable ideas about how to move your company from average to superior. If you are providing a value-added service in your warehouse, you need to learn whether you are providing the maximum value by doing the job in the best possible manner.

Am I measuring effectively?

In many companies, measurement is a mess. Most managers use only a tiny percent of those things that are measured. Because many people have no idea of what should be measured, they substitute volume for substance, measuring things that are easy to measure, regardless of their relevance.

Are the measurements now made in your company truly relevant and meaningful? Do they provide supervisors and managers with any real guidance on how to improve? The purpose of measuring is not to know how your warehouse is performing; rather, it is to improve performance.

When you are asking good questions, find out how meaningful current measurements are to those who work with them. You might be surprised at their answers.

Are your people focusing on the final customer?

Do you and your staff know who your most important customers are? In many warehouse operations, the most critical customer is the consignee, not the client who pays your bills. Because the consignee actually is your customer's customer, if that consignee is unhappy with your shipping performance, you are in danger of losing your client.

The ultimate customer is the consumer, and consumers will be impatient with any shipment that is not absolutely perfect. When asking good questions about service levels, make certain that your staff is focused on the final customer.

Turning the agenda into action

Finally, are your people willing to make things happen? If responses to your questions reveal some obvious opportunities for change, how ready is your staff to change procedures?

While change is easy to talk about, it is far harder to implement. Identifying what needs to change and determining how it should ultimately be done are the most important reasons for managing by asking good questions.