What to Expect from Lean Manufacturing Consultants

How to select and use consultants is awkward for consultants to discuss, but it came up in a discussion started by Rey Elbo in the TPS Principles and Practice group on LinkedIn. On this topic, we can always quote third parties and, some years ago, I found the following strip in the pages of the Japanese monthly Kojo Kanri (工場管理, or “Factory Management”):

How to choose and use lean consultants

I understand that some of these recommendations may be surprising, and here are a few explanations from the body of the article:

  1. Do not hire cheap consultants, anymore than you would a cheap surgeon or a cheap lawyer.
  2. Use consultants who talk drills and wrenches and drills  rather than bar and pie charts. There is room in lean manufacturing for analysis resulting in charts, but mostly upfront, in setting a plan with top management, but 95% of the work involves the nitty-gritty details of shop floor life.
  3. Treat the consultant like a god. Follow recommendations rigorously and without challenging them.Defensiveness is self-defeating. If you don’t trust a consultant, replace him or her.
  4. The consultants should not do anything. For skills to take root in the organization, the work needs to be done by in-house personnel. This is the distinction between consulting and engineering services, and the idea is that Lean skills need to be permanently in the company.
  5. Get everything you can from the consultant in terms of ideas and recommendations. Pick the consultant’s brain relentlessly. If it takes being on the shop floor during the night shift, so be it.

10 comments on “What to Expect from Lean Manufacturing Consultants

  1. Good points – relevant is still the outcome compared with the input (in financial terms, and other effects within the workforce that are not obvious). Since 2003 I have seen quite a few lean experts in action, mostly focused on small part of the value stream, too seldom focusing on the whole.

    For anybody in need to hire a consultant, Russell Ackoff’s talk is enlightening http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pcuzRq-rDU h/t go to http://twitter.com/SteveBrant

  2. One of the essential elements of the consultant’s contribution is to show the management team how to ‘consult’ and engage the abilities of all their own people. Without this the initiative will not sustain. —
    Ability has three dimensions.
    Talent. The ability to do existing tasks well.
    Creativity. The ability to improve what we do and the way we do it.
    Enthusiasm. The emotional ability/energy to do the first two. —

    The other major contribution is to give managers the skills to wield this awesome weapon. Too often managers are taught the lean tools, when what they need are the skills to create the environment to support their people in their application. They must be taught that, ‘Star managers make their people shine’. Their role is now not only to demonstrate their own ability, but more importantly to release, focus and motivate the abilities of the people they lead. This should be an integral part of any initiative.—-

    The role for the star consultant is to teach their clients how to shine themselves.—

    I always insist that the only person to be made redundant by a programme should be the consultant/helper themselves.

  3. I disagree with two points in the article.
    The first point: “do not hire cheap consultants”. It is obvious what this point is trying to say, but instead of helping, it actually reinforces the naivete that prevails in selecting consultants generally. It is based upon traditional models of consultants who do not measure value added. The day rate of a consultant is frankly no guide as to how good they are.
    The third point: “do whatever the consultant says without question” is frankly WRONG! It couldn’t be more wrong. It is exactly the “questioning and trying to understand” process that will ensure that any changes have the remotest chance of being sustained. Too often consultants fear to be challenged and too often the client seeking reassurance, explanation and support is labelled as simply defensive and resistance to change. Changes then get pushed onto people, rather than pulled, and stress increases, resentment builds…consultants who think this is the right way to get change to happen and be sustained are the ones you should run a mile from.
    If I had the time I’d write a book on this, as it clearly isn’t well understood at all!

    • In the post, was quoting an article from a magazine. As I don’t know how the article’s author would respond to your comments, I have to inject my own thoughts here, based on having been in the consulting business for >25 years.
      For consultants who work for large firms, the bulk of the fees goes to cover overhead and support the owners/partners. Consultants who are independent and network with others have costs to cover, but not in the form of office suites or owner fees.
      Instead, they need non-billable time to maintain and develop their skills. It means doing independent research, attending conferences, or learning new approaches. How much time this takes depends on their specialty, and whatever fees they charge must allow them to do it.
      Many people call themselves “consultants” simply because they work for companies without having the status of an employee. Among people who work in this mode, however, there is a distinction to be made between contractors who are a temporary extension of the work force, and consultants in a strict sense, who advise and recommend actions but do not execute.
      A contractor may be in residence full time at a client for months, implementing an ERP system or programming production machines. A consultant visits a client for a few days at periodic intervals, reviews what employees have done, and provides follow on guidance.
      Both can be valuable services, but of a different nature, and paid for differently. A contractor usually charges less by the day than a consultant, but bills more days.
      As for your point about doing what the consultant says, there are several issues to consider. The most obvious is that, if you hire a consultant and don’t follow his or her recommendations, you are wasting your money, your time, and the consultant’s.
      If you are bringing a consultant in two days every other month, you want to collect as much input and feedback as you can in a short time. You do this by asking for clarification and details, and the point of being on site is that you can do it in the actual situation, where the work is being done. It is not the same as arguing against the consultant’s recommendations.
      The article also was not about consulting in general but about consulting in manufacturing, a field in which the value of an idea is not established by arguing about it but by trying it out.

  4. Comment on LinkedIn:

    I just want to add to Richard’s comments, this is all wrong. No where did it say anything about the basics, where was understanding the business model as an starter? Surely we have moved on from this sort of thinking.

  5. What I take from the comments by Keith and John is that the cartoon says nothing about the following two subjects:

    1. The consultant’s understanding of the client’s business model.
    2. The consultant’s “beside manner” when working with client employees.

    About content, all the cartoon says is that the consultant should be talking nuts and bolts rather than charts and graphs. Of course, this is only about manufacturing; in other fields, it would have to be translated appropriately. And I do not agree with the cartoon on this. I think a manufacturing consultant should be proficient in BOTH nuts and bolts AND charts and graphs.

    Requiring the consultant to understand the client’s business model upfront is perhaps unrealistic. Achieving this understanding takes a level of communication with client management that is only possible during the engagement, and the consultant should pursue it diligently. In my experience, it often takes times and reading between the lines of the client’s statements about it.

    The cartoon does not even require the consultant to show common courtesy, but we can take that to be implicit. It is all about how clients should use consultants, not how consultants should behave. John is correct in pointing out that it says nothing about “engaging individuals.”

    In the early days of Lean, many Japanese consultants brought into US factories were so abrasive as to become known as “insultants.” This did not prevent them being effective, as is acknowledged by many of their former “victims.” Would they have been more effective by being less confrontational? There is no way to know. Personally, I agree with John.

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