Hiring the Right Continuous Improvement (CI) Consultant

For many companies, developing and sustaining a continuous improvement culture to achieve production goals, instill innovation, drive efficiency and enhance job satisfaction has become a high priority initiative.

In response to that reality, more companies are aware of the value proposition and investing in or getting ready to invest in continuous improvement services. That has led to the emergence of a wave of continuous improvement (CI) consultants to help those companies. We wanted to examine some of the potential issues companies can experience from hiring the wrong consultant for this important work.

One group of consultants or firms to be aware of are those who declare themselves experts due to paper credentials alone. For example, publications, certifications or membership in an association on their own illustrate that someone may not have the hands-on experience or the client relationship skills necessary for a successful project. Often these firms are experts in another field and view continuous improvement to be a valuable add-on service or simply a good lead generation tool to land work from clients they otherwise would not get.

The problems with this type of consultant are numerous: defining yourself an expert does not make you one nor does utilizing borrowed approaches and trying to make the issues they find in a facility or plant fit that mold regardless of the consequences. Continuous improvement will flop because such work devalues the innovation of others, consumes real productivity and destroys future growth. It is not sustainable since it is built on a shaky foundation and can prevent the company from investing in continuous improvement services that could actually help.

Another group to steer clear of are what can be called the “system gurus”. Large firms that prescribe a set system approach to a company’s unique challenges should raise alarm bells. Independent sources reporting on the failure rate of business or operations transformation projects place the success rate around 65%. This is not easy work; it takes discipline, determination and honesty to succeed.

These large firms have an agenda; they know if a large investment is made the company will be very hesitant to pull the plug and continue to throw resources at the implementation for as long as it takes. The people these firms hire are smart and capable, but they are asked to fit square pegs in round holes and, as we all know, that ultimately does not work no matter how many resources, hard work or skills are applied. If the company wants better results, they need to steer clear of the one size fits all approach and identify a provider who will assess the issues and apply proven solutions aligned with the company’s culture, structure, goals and budget.

Related to the selection of a continuous improvement consultant is the selection of the system approach. There are two general approaches for quality and improvement. First, the traditional accounting and quality audit approach focuses on the concept that form defines function. If there are small adjustments to be made or the company is looking to begin a process that adheres closely to their current state, that is likely the right choice. Second, the engineering and scientific approach favors the concept that function defines form. This is the approach for driving more substantial changes since it is based on a comprehensive understanding of the fundamental drivers of the company’s system. Again, reflect on why the company is hiring a continuous improvement consultant in the first place: was it to stabilize the current system and increase your competitiveness or initiate significant changes and create breakthroughs?

The answer to that question guides the remainder of the decision making process. However, to drive change, people must be willing to follow your lead. Hiring an external consultant sends a message to your internal staff, especially those with expertise in continuous improvement or change management. If the consultant delivers verifiable results, conflict can be avoided and progress sustained, but, if the consultant fails or is only there to give recommendations without implementation, the internal staff could lose trust and the process collapse. The best consultants work to ensure what they do has an impact either because they care about their client or about the service they deliver. Being true to one’s craft means having pride in the outcome and application. The key is all parties, especially the consultant, have to be committed to a shared outcome. If that never exists or falls through during the process, no amount of expertise will matter.

Also strongly consider the importance of knowledge transfer. It is human nature to not share information to protect one’s career or source of authority. The best experts derive their value from sharing, and thus enhancing, their expertise and experience. They are not threatened by people challenging their recommendations. Challenges provide opportunities to explain and teach those recommendations, actually enhancing their authority. Compare this to the experts who are constantly defending their position and power. These are the consultants who deflect challenges or attack the challenger instead of the ideas put forth for consideration. For them, protecting their “solutions” is more important than helping the company succeed. If the company does not take their recommendations, these consultants claim the company either misrepresented the issues they needed help with, thus putting the consultant in an impossible situation, or do not really want to do the work necessary to change. It is never the consultant’s fault. That is not how a real expert approaches a client or this type of work.

Now that the pitfalls to watch out for have been described, what are the critical steps to take? Obviously, your company wouldn’t be hiring outside help if you knew all the answers and had all the solutions. You have a need, you need help and the choice of who helps you will make all the difference.

1. Understand what your consultant is selling you. Find out the source of their expertise and how that expertise will be used to improve your business. The real experts will tell you. They know they have something to offer that transcends the first inquiry and they will be focused on building that expertise in your organization so sharing is never a problem.

2. Focus on expertise. Make it clear to those experts that their focus should be on addressing the company’s problems. Do not hire someone that you need to train or upskill. If you want to do that, keep the work internal and train your own people. Those people will stay at the company longer and retain the institutional knowledge learned to address those problems when/if they emerge again.

3. Discover the motivations of the consultant. Are they invested in your company’s success or is this just another job for them? Do they share their own knowledge in an open way? Are they committed to investing in your people so, when they leave, the company will retain the expertise for future use? Are they resistant to such a process? These are all important questions to answer so you can be sure the consultant you hire is the real deal.

4. Encourage knowledge transfer. You have a problem. Most likely you lack expertise and that is why you hired a consultant. If they don’t transfer that expertise to your company, how will you deal with any recurrences of that problem?

5. Make sure your company’s internal experts have seats at the table and can participate in the continuous improvement process. They may not have the current experience and knowledge to avoid hiring a consultant, but they are also the people to sustain success after the consultant leaves.

Overall, a well managed continuous improvement consulting arrangement is a fast and effective way to bring expert knowledge and experience in to rapidly change an organization. If managed poorly, it can do more harm than good. Understanding the pitfalls to avoid in selecting the consultant and how to position the company in preparation for their work is vital. That is the job of the company decision maker(s) responsible for hiring that consultant.

Please contact us for assistance with continuous improvement consulting, hiring a good consultant or other lean enterprise services.

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