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