The Sweet Spot

During a rather lively discussion with one of my colleagues regarding the not-so-subtle differences between gemba and Management by Walking Around (MBWA), I was reminded of the wisdom of W. Edwards Deming.

“MBWA is hardly ever effective.  The reason is that someone in management, walking around, has little idea about the questions to ask, and usually does not pause long enough at any spot to get the right answer.”

Perhaps because of Deming’s insight, I frequently heard MBWA referred to as “Management By Wandering Around”; a nod to leadership’s seemingly aimless wandering through manufacturing facilities.

After many years in manufacturing, I have to conclude that Deming was right…. And wrong.   Surprised?  Perhaps a more in-depth look at what Deming is saying is warranted.


Is MBWA effective?

Let’s look at the reasons Deming cited for MBWA’s ineffectiveness.  The manager or supervisor:

  • Doesn’t know what questions to ask
  • Doesn’t stop long enough to get the right answer

Solving these require training, education, and time-at-task to understand the operations, processes, and workforce.  This is not something fixed overnight, but rather developed over time, given the right amount of interest and dedication.  Leadership MUST go beyond knowing WHAT questions to ask to being willing to LISTEN to the full responses being given.  And they must be willing to act on what they learned to foster ON-GOING communication.

Does that mean MBWA is truly ineffective?  In a word, NO.  In fact, you don’t have to ask any questions every time you’re on the floor. If you know and find the “Sweet Spots” the floor will talk to you.


Manufacturing Management: Watching and Listening

As a supervisor with a very large department, there were areas (operations and people) I simply could not see from the location of my desk and computer.  Continuously walking the department often ensured I was NOT in the location of the latest breakdown or issue, but hurrying toward it after receiving a call on the radio. “Reacting and chasing” ruled my shifts and those of many of my fellow supervisors. Surely there had to be one spot in the department that would allow me to monitor my department and detect issues as, or before, they happened, not after they impacted production.

And by accident one night, I found it. As I paused after solving a production problem at the far end of the department, the overhead noise of conveyors changed. Looking up I noticed one of the conveyors had a gap in product flow. If the gap continued or expanded, I was going to shut down a section of sub-assembly. Right now, I had to resolve the gap in product, so heading toward the offending piece of equipment, but I wondered if that spot could tell me more.

Later I returned to that spot and started watching and listening to the overhead system of conveyors linking my production equipment.  Over the next several hours of the shift (and several days), I spent more time at this location.  Watching and listening, I was able to identify many production issues through the gaps they created before they impacted final assembly.  In fact, I was even able to tell when final had an issue.


Finding the Sweet Spot

I’d found it!  A Sweet Spot. One spot in the department where I could monitor departmental conveyor systems, easily observing how parts were traveling from, to, and between all operations. A gap in the flow indicated a problem, and I could then target my attention.  As I learned to read my Sweet Spot and tracked the data I gathered from monitoring it, I was able to better and more quickly identify repeat issues, improving throughput, and saving a whole lot of walking!!!

Is there a Sweet Spot in all areas?  From my experience, yes.  But you’ve got to be willing to spend time looking for them and validating them.  Once you learn them, then as a manager, you can MBWA monitoring those spots and understand how well your departments are running.  Using your observations, you can then engage your supervisors and operators in meaningful conversation about issues in each department / operation.

They will appreciate your targeted attention and questions, and the support you can provide to assist them in improving the process or eliminating the problems.


Need help finding those Sweet Spots in your plant? A true professional lean manufacturing engineer actually DESIGNS the sweet spots into the manufacturing layout and process. HVM associates have the experience you need. Let us know how we can help!