Telling Good Lean Consultants From Bad Ones | Michael Ballé


“There are no good lean consultants. I’m not saying there are no good consultants. Of course there are; same bell curve as in every profession…”

See it in Gemba Coach

Michel Baudin‘s comments: 3 years ago, in What to Expect from Lean Manufacturing Consultants, I wrote an article on this subject from a different perspective. This article’s opening boggles the mind, starting with the easily debunked assumption that performance is distributed along “a bell curve in every profession.”

“… — but the very idea of consultants reflects the Taylorist mindset. Frederick Taylor himself was the first consulting engineer. He opened a consulting practice in Philadelphia in 1893.”

Michel Baudin‘s comments: Consulting is just a business model suitable for individuals with skill sets that are needed by many organizations some of the time rather than one organization all of the time. It is compatible with all sorts of different work contents, generally unrelated to Taylor.

Many people who call themselves consultants work as temporary extensions of their clients’ staff. ERP implementation consultants, for example, work full time at a client’s site for months setting up and populating databases, and training end users. The business arrangement allows them to use the term “consultant,” but I view them as contractors instead, regardless of the amounts they are paid.

As taught to me by Kei Abe in Japan, consulting engagements involve client visits of a few days every couple of months to give advice, guidance, and training to company employees who do the work. And, with this philosophy, consultants should not bill 100% of their time but instead set aside time to maintain their skills and do research.


“Consultants have essentially two missions:

  • Solve a problem for you. They investigate through audits, benchmarks, analysis, to come up with a diagnostic and then recommendations, mostly in the form of a report….”

Michel Baudin‘s comments: Audit evokes compliance checklists; benchmarks, comparison with other organizations. Audits and benchmarks are indeed staples of the consulting industry, but of limited value when working to improve performance. You can check every item on every list and still go bankrupt, and researching what others are doing distracts you from solving your own problems.

Analysis, on the other hand, is about your own organization. It stands to reason that a consultant’s advice should be based on specific knowledge of the client’s business, technology, and management practices, acquired through direct observation, data analysis, and stakeholder interviews, confronted with the consultant’s prior experience and processed through logical thinking. Ballé seems to think that this can be dispensed with.

To some consultants, a report may be the output, and it may be what a client wants. I view the report as an output. In consulting, most of the value is provided in personal communication, with individuals or groups, and reports are only documentation of it. In 2017, few consultants actually provide reports with complete sentences, organized in paragraphs and sections, with illustrations; instead, they just leave slideware behind. They just assume that clients won’t read.

My experience is that clients do read reports if they are on-topic, tell them things they don’t already know, and are reader-friendly. A 50-page report is daunting if the only way to learn from it is to read it cover to cover. On the other hand, busy executives will read a one-page summary with all the key findings, and develop confidence in the whole by spot-checking the supporting evidence in the well-indexed and cross-referenced body of the report. Such reports have a long shelf life; years later, the author may receive an email with a question from an engineer about a detail on p. 35.


  • “…Get productivity out of your teams. They use work improvement methodologies, essentially Taylorism, to implement more productive processes…”

Michel Baudin‘s comments: That’s the consultant working like a 1920s industrial engineer, timing production workers with a stopwatch and writing them up on a clipboard. Such consultants surely exist, but the shop floor work my colleagues and I do is different. We coach improvement teams on the technical content and the management of their projects. These projects often involve detailed observations of the way work is done, but the teams are following in the footsteps of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, not Taylor. The goal is to make the work easier to do, not to prevent operators colluding to restrict output.


“In both cases, consultants are used by top management to substitute for failings of middle management and get things done…”

Michel Baudin‘s comments: It’s legitimate for top management to bring in consultants with needed skills that middle management doesn’t have. Middle managers with 10 years of experience in, say, plastic injection molding, are not failing because they don’t know how to implement Lean, and consultants provide a faster and cheaper way to get started than trial and error.


“…Lean does not have consultants, but a different role: ‘senseis.’…”

Michel Baudin‘s comments: A consultant by any other name… One of my main clients had a policy of not using consultants, so they called me a trainer. Why would we want to use the Japanese word that is just the generic, polite way to address any instructor?  Elementary school teachers and, by default, anybody who teaches is called “sensei.” And there are other terms for high-level instructors. In the US or France, “sensei” sounds great; in Japan, it’s nothing special.


“…The sensei role is not to make you do this or that, or to solve your problems for you, but to point to opportunities for improvement you had not seen before. The sensei will make you see a problem that they think is important for you to solve, and watch whether you tackle it or not, and what you try or don’t, and then discuss the type of solutions you sought, encouraging some and discouraging others. (Often by giving you an exercise to practice)…”

Michel Baudin‘s comments: How does the “sensei” know that an improvement opportunity is worth pursuing? If we go by the beginning of the article, an analysis of the organization’s situation is something consultants do but, apparently, senseis don’t. Among other things, this analysis identifies specific opportunities that can be pursued with available resources. The senseis “just know.” Fortunately, there are indications further on about what senseis are supposed to know:


“…But a good sensei also knows inside-out some basic mechanisms of lean:

  • Mura leads to muri leads to muda.
  • Rework leads to quality issues and overcosts.
  • Improving flexibility with a strong focus on quality leads to reducing overall costs. Visual confusion leads to ambiguity, rework, and mistakes.
  • Not treating people as individuals (but as “resources”) and not recognizing individual efforts leads to disengagement and mindless work.
  • Without stable teams and good team leaders, kaizen can’t happen.
  • Faulty technical processes and equipment (separate human work from machine work) lead to frustration, anger, and acting out.

And so on. A good sensei is also steeped in the lean tradition and has seen these principles at work in many varied situations…”

Michel Baudin‘s comments: Is that it? With just this, you can go directly to the shop floor of any manufacturing company or the operating room of any hospital, point out problems to solve, and collect consulting fees. Sorry, I meant sensei fees.

#Lean, #Consultant, #Sensei

One comment on “Telling Good Lean Consultants From Bad Ones | Michael Ballé

  1. Many organisations employ external consultant organisations to improve their performance. What I have found is a major force multiplier & a more certain way to ensure continuity of the improvement process, is to show clients how to consult, develop & engage the abilities* of all their own people. Our job as consultants/helpers is not to show clients how clever we are, but more importantly, to show and demonstrate to them the cleverness of their own people. ‘Star consultants/helpers make their client’s people shine’. When our job is done the people should say, “We can do this for ourselves.” We must give our client’s management and people the understanding, techniques & skills to create flow in four areas.

    1) TAOZEN . This is the management system to identify, create & sustain the flow of the correct changes throughout the organisation. The central theme of Taozen is; ‘Star managers make their people shine.’ The role of the manger is not only to demonstrate their own ability*, but more importantly to release and focus the ability* of the people they lead. — The system also requires a fundamental change in attitude within the organisation. The traditional organisational structure has the directors at the apex of the pyramid, with everyone else beneath them. The Taozen system requires the pyramid to be inverted. Directors now support managers, who then support their people, who will then identify & support the needs of the market & their customers. — Before we start a programme we insist the senior management team have two days to study this subject. This will give them a common understanding & vocabulary for their role in creating & sustaining the change process/environment to support the introduction of TPS/Lean… —

    2) TPS/Lean.. The smooth output of a waste & defect free flow of existing & new products to customers. This must give them; what they want, when they want it, in the quantity they want. The output of your organisation has three main dimensions P, S & E. P – physical products. S – the services you provide to support them. E – the experiences (physical & emotional) your customers will enjoy when using them & in all their direct & indirect contacts with your organisation. Your goal is to produce the best values of; Quality, Cost (lowest ownership cost), Delivery (OTIF), & Customer Delight in your industry, (Q – C – D – D. Pronounced Q, C double D). The future of your organisation depends on improving these values faster than any existing or future competitors. —

    3) TPM. The smooth flow of materials, products, information and services through machinery, processes & systems. In this area the goal is to achieve Zero 4D’s. Zero – Downtime. (Unplanned). Zero – Delays. Zero – defects. Zero – Damage and Danger to people. (Accidents). We must move from 2F’s to 2P’s. .Finding & Fixing problems to Predicting them & Preventing their occurrence,

    4) KAIZEN. The flow of people’s ability* to drive the waste elimination, continuous improvement & customer delighting process. The goal in this area is to release & focus the total ability* of all our people to achieve the goals in the first three areas. The equally important personal goal is for our people to make their jobs, easier, faster, safer & more fun/enjoyable. —

    I find this concept of the four flows gives a clearer understanding of the overall process/nature of the TPS/Lean journey. It also helps everyone to understand their roles & goals within it.

    From the combination of these flows you can produce a torrent of competitive advantage.
    We must always remember that the ultimate goal of all our activities is to produce organisations that can compete successfully on the global battlefield, now and in the future. They must also be secure, challenging, fulfilling and enjoyable/fun places to work.

    *Ability has three dimensions. 1) Talent, the ability to existing tasks well. 2) Creativity, the ability to continuously improve what we do and the way we do it. 3) Enthusiasm, the emotional ability/energy to do the first two.. —

    *Ability for managers starts with the understanding that, ‘Star managers make their people shine’ – . They must also define and implement the 3 V’s and 5P’s. – –
    3 V’s. — There are three V’s needed to guide our activities.
    1) VISION, what is your purpose. What do you want to achieve or create?
    2) VALUES, attitudinal, behavioural & numerical to guide, support & focus your vision.
    3) VECTORS, the direction of your activities to make them a reality.
    The key to success is to ensure the 3V’s are shared by all your people, & everyone knows their team’s & their personal roles & goals to achieve them.
    5P’s — There are 3P’s that should guide your personal activities & performance; Purpose, Passion & Persistence. Organisational performance requires two additional P’s; Practiced by all your People — ‘Purpose, Passion, Persistence – Practiced by all your People. Job done! The leader’s job is to define the Purpose, create the Passion, support the Persistence & ensure all their People are engaged in the Practice.

    I think for clarity, we should give the final words about who we should consult to Mr Clinton;


    Anyone wanting to understand the activities of the major consulting companies should read, ‘Dangerous Company – The consulting powerhouses & the businesses they save & ruin’. “Brilliant reportage produces uncomfortable evidence that, for many clients, the price is too high, the contribution too low.” Robert Heller. ’An engrossing credible analysis of the influence & perils of the advice trade, & their apparent willingness to do what the authors call a company’s dirty work.’ New York Times.

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