Two technology entrepreneurs in 1940s Palo Alto, Calif., pioneered a wide-open approach to running their rapidly rising business that became a de facto trademark of its operating style and a darling concept among management gurus. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard caught the attention and captured the imagination of a wide audience of business-theory disciples with their philosophy of “management by walking around.” Its simple premise was that managers should get out from behind their desks, circulate throughout their companies and engage in regular exchanges with their employees. For many people, that was a radical idea in an era often characterized by strict hierarchies and authoritarian bosses in U.S. companies, large and small.

In due time, the idea of management by walking around became popular throughout American business and industry—universally recognized either by its full name or its initials, “MBWA.”

In the 1980s, some 40 years after the idea’s inception at Hewlett-Packard, Tom Peters gave this little precept a second chance at fame when he touted it in his New York Times bestseller, “In Search of Excellence,” and in the continuing dialogue that followed in the wake of the book’s popularity.

Thirty more years have passed, and we think MBWA deserves another boost. In this renewed attention, however, with our professed bias toward service-oriented electrical construction, we propose that electrical contractor (EC) owners and managers not only practice management by walking around, but take an even longer walk than the original version of MBWA would have prescribed.

Applied to any form of electrical construction, the MBWA principle can be translated into down-to-earth advice for electrical contracting executives to escape the captivity of the office and devote more attention to the field, or, simply put, “Get out—and stay out.”

ECs will readily complain that “walking their jobs” is unfortunately a management function that they commonly must forsake because they are chained to their desks. Twentieth-century electrical contractors blamed being trapped in their offices on having been burdened by an endless onslaught of too much paperwork. Twenty-first century electrical contractors, living and working in an supposedly “paperless” era, but now drawn into an updated form of captivity by their office computers, offer substantially the same excuse about having little or no time available to get out into the field. Thus, MBWA has become substantially reduced to those projects with the most concerns.

Earlier this year, the Construction Industry Institute (CII) released information from its ongoing studies that reconfirmed what previous investigations have concluded and what has long been a matter of common belief: namely, that construction workers still spend only half of their on-the-job hours doing what we generally think of as “productive work.” On those occasions when they exercise the principle of MBWA by going out into the field (usually as a result of their concern about the progress of a particular project), ECs devote the bulk of their attention to construction productivity and, according to CII, rightfully so. CII continues to press these matters, not as a criticism of the work ethic of construction workers, but rather as a challenge to the organizational skills of company managers.

MBWA, in a typical electrical and construction contracting scenario, is, therefore, most often a walk through the wilderness of productivity issues of just one or two problematic jobs, i.e., the ones that are currently creating the biggest headaches for the organization.

While the need for MBWA may be straightforward when a strictly project--oriented EC is confronted with a “problem job,” the application of the MBWA technique in an organization single-mindedly dedicated to service work requires a much different approach, one that demands a special degree of discipline and planning. Much as MBWA may connote a relaxed and casual style of interaction with employees and customers, to be truly effective in a service-oriented business, it requires a highly systemized approach because it must thoughtfully cover an entire customer base, not just the problems of a project or two. “Walking around” becomes an intricate process of taking the pulse for an entire portfolio of customers, workers and types of work. Active listening becomes a vital tool, as a proficient manager will quickly triangulate, diagnose and make corrective actions to problems and reduce headaches in the long run.

An EC that has successfully built a large business base by focusing on service work has to master what we term “reminder marketing,” which dictates the appropriate level of attention that a service organization must devote to respective categories of customers. It recognizes the difference between relationships that methodically require personal management-level attention and those that do not. In a disciplined way, reminder marketing classifies the ones that service electricians can handle and flags the ones that periodically call for the classic MBWA manager-level approach.

All customers are not equal, but most are worth keeping. A well-balanced system of MBWA provides an important means of maintaining their loyalty.


MCCOY is assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Contact him at apmccoy@vt.edu. SARGENT, a 40-year veteran of the electrical contracting business based in Pittsburgh, can be reached at fred@sargent.com.