Oct 072012
walking the shop floor is important to business management

“He walks the site three times a day,” said awed contractors about a construction project manager – who we’ll call Rob – that I encountered as a cadet Engineer in the building industry. Getting out of his site office and seeing what was going on made sure dodgy contractors or inexperienced trainees like me couldn’t slow down his projects.

Slate Magazine’s story of how the Wendy’s hamburger chain changed the US fast food industry recalls how Rob would successfully run his projects and the importance of hands on management.

Jim Near was recruited as president by his friend and Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas to get the business on track after over-extending in the mid 1980s. Slate says of Jim’s hands-on management style;

Near liked to stalk through the dining areas of his stores examining people’s trays. If customers were leaving fries, he’d go harass the fryers: Were they serving the potatoes too hot? Too cold? Not using enough shortening? And he would sit in his car in the parking lot, surveilling the activity at the drive-thru window.

That obsession sounds like Steve Jobs and its no-coincidence; Jobs, Jim Near and Rob the project manager gave a damn about the product that was being delivered. Rather than sitting in an office obsessing over paperwork and meeting artificial KPIs, these effective leaders got out and saw what the realities were in their business.

Probably the best example of this “management by walking the floor” ethos was Bob Ansett who built up the Australian Budget Rent-A-Car business in the 1970s. Every senior manager was required to spend a couple of days a month working on one of Budget’s rental desk dealing with customers.

That policy forced Budget’s executives to understand the business, just as Jim Near was described as ““a ketchup-in-his-veins type of guy” through working at every level in the fast food industry.

One of the many conceits in modern management is the idea that everything – from building high rise towers, running car rental companies or operating a hamburger chain – is like selling soap. This philosophy ignores that every industry has its own characteristics and even selling soap has its own unique challenges in different markets.

It’s easy to think everything works as described in a 1980s business school textbook when you have artificially constructed KPIs and layers of managers to deflect responsibility.

Over the last quarter of the Twentieth Century we saw customer service become disdained in the Corporatist business culture which favours accountants and lawyers as managers who rely on marketing people and lobbyists to protect them from the reality that they aren’t really very good at running their companies.

Now that era has come to an end and the times now suit those who listen to customers and the marketplace. Walking the floor and paying attention to what the public are saying about us on new media are competitive advantages.

While the corporatists lobby their friends in government for subsidies and protection, entrepreneurs and genuine business builders like Dave Thomas, Jim Near, Steve Jobs and Bob Ansett have the opportunity to seize the markets that are being neglected.

There’s never been an excuse for not listening to the customer and today it’s more important than ever.

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