Source Manager's Journal: Managing and Riding the Garbage Trucks

As a young and inexperienced manager of a large public agency in New York City, I was engaged in a continual search for role models. Probably my strongest positive trait was that I knew what I didn't know. I quickly zoomed in on a couple of people, one of whom was the newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Sanitation, a man named Herb Elish who has gone on to a distinguished career in both the private and nonprofit sector. Here is the story of what has become for me the Herb Elish Principle or "Why you have to ride the garbage trucks."
Immediately after Elish's appointment, people began to call the commissioner's office. They were invariably given the same message: He is not here. After about a week, puzzlement gave way to annoyance and someone finally asked, "Well, where in the hell is he?" To which the secretary responded, "He's out riding the garbage trucks." Thus, the birth of the Herb Elish Principle, one that I have applied rigorously over the years.
After leaving New York City government, I ran a federally funded management resource center. We provided training, organizational support and information services to social services agencies, including those in the Virgin Islands. At some point shortly after my appointment, a board member popped the question: "Well, where is he?" to which the receptionist responded, "He's traveling around with social workers in Newark." This experience – and many others – reinforced a basic message: to effectively manage an organization and the people in it, you must understand the business from the bottom up, from the point of contact with the customer or the client or the manufacture of the product.
The value of "riding the garbage trucks" flows from two fundamental assumptions. First, the role of the manager is to help. To help make systems and processes function, and to help people to perform better. To do this right, it is essential to understand what people do and how they do it. The second assumption is that most people want to do their job well and will welcome support that helps them improve their performance. Situations in which these assumptions are rejected are a subject of a future column.
Riding the garbage trucks – on an ongoing basis known as managing by roaming around – produces a range of benefits. Here are some of the most important ones:
–Once you understand the work from the ground up, you also understand what is reasonable and achievable and what is not. In concrete operational terms, we can see what people need to have and to do to succeed and also when they are not trying or doing something basically wrong. Decision making and priority setting are clarified. For example, what I learned with the young child protective workers in Newark didn't have that much to do with their job descriptions or agency policies; a lot of it was about the impact of inexperience, racial and class dynamics that are far different from those in textbooks and the effects of being a suspect outsider in a strange neighborhood. The failure to address these basic issues has bedeviled child protective agencies in almost every jurisdiction for decades.
–It earns the respect of people at all levels of the organization because you actually do know what it is like to do this work. "He or she really understands what we are up against out here." Those who don't become "the suits" or, even worse, the "high muckamucks."
–It gives great command of material in presentations and discussions and increases your power to convince and persuade. It allows you to answer the third question on the same subject with confidence. Listen to the responses of public officials in press conferences or public forums. For example, listen to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. After making some sweeping general statement, his response to a follow-up question is almost invariably to turn to one of the generals. The man has never ridden a garbage truck, but it is doubtful that anyone in this administration has. It is why think-tank people are so dangerous when they are placed in positions of responsibility.
–Riding the garbage trucks reinforces the norm of learning, a key to any organization's success. If their manager or leader has learned all of these things from the ground up, it certainly behooves his subordinates, those between the manager and ground level, to also learn them.
So why don't managers and leaders all follow this simple formula for organizational success? If it's so obvious, why doesn't everyone do it? One reason is that in the organizational culture in which the manager is operating, it just isn't done. And like most cultural norms, what is obvious and logical simply doesn't occur to anyone.
A second reason is that some managers and leaders have a very hierarchical view of the situation and focus on their position and title rather than their function and results. In my experience, this is a significant impediment in the Virgin Islands where titles and honorifics are given great weight and something as basic as riding on the garbage trucks would likely be seen as being beneath the person with this lofty title. This attitude is hardly limited to the Virgin Islands; large swaths of American business are led and managed by people who see themselves as part of an elite, one that focuses on the strategic and can't be bothered by the little people who actually make the company work. The same is increasingly true of government. The primary result is bad execution.
Then there are several specific issues. What happens when workers interpret riding the garbage trucks as micro-managing or spying? Answer: it isn't. Get used to it. Doesn't it disrupt the chain of command? The manager or leader is learning, not giving orders to front-line workers. If this makes other managers and supervisors nervous, it is their problem.
How do you get started? It is easiest to do this when you have been newly appointed to the job; simply say that I'll be out in the field learning the organization for a couple of weeks. It gets progressively harder as we get into the rhythm of the office, and time pressures reduce opportunities to get out. For those who have been in a position for awhile, even a long while, there is a logic to riding the garbage trucks but it has to be clearly communicated if people aren't going to wonder what is going on. You can say that you read an article.
Finally, there are managers who are just uncomfortable in these situations and would prefer to stay in their offices. In that respect, managing by roaming around and learning is like public speaking; at the beginning, it is necessary to get well out of the comfort zone, but in a short time, doing it becomes the comfort zone and the benefits start to roll in. Try it.

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