Leaning towards consultancy

Posted on 6 Jul 2010 by The Manufacturer

When a company whispers the suggestion of a new lean project it doesn’t take long for business consultancies to descend with promises of transformation. Jane Gray finds out from lean consultancy providers and clients about what consultants need to consider before prescribing the right medicine and what manufacturers need to do to get the most out of their investment.

The lean consultancy marketplace is teeming and it is often difficult to differentiate the effective providers from the pedlars of empty business improvement rhetoric. And with so many manufacturers now being well versed in lean methodologies, tools and principles senior management frequently ask, what exactly can external expertise add to in-house experience? So why do organisations seek external help?

What the consultants say…

Jon Armstrong, managing director at Simpler, had the following to offer: “The primary reason to seek external help with any lean or transformation programme is to bring experience in to the fold.

Engaging, as the Japanese say a sensei – one who has walked the path before – enabling the confidence to pursue more significant change with less risk.

There is also the benefit of a new perspective and fresh eyes to be considered. However skilled and experienced in leading business transformations you might be, new perspective can always add something extra. Every company and industry has its paradigms and it is crucial to try and think beyond these to achieve step change. We find this even within consulting – work with one industry or sector for too long and you find that you ‘go native’, which is why all our consultants constantly work with a range of clients across sectors.“

Andy Spooner, business development director at operational excellence consultants Suiko, says: “The appropriate use of consultants can give companies real benefit. Reasons for engaging consultants vary, from contracting out the ‘hit squad’ to buying in the ‘know-how’ to develop internal capability. In Suiko’s experience the best investments are where there is a good cultural fit and both parties have a common understanding of value.

Defined objectives and a clear scope are crucial to success. The client needs assess how they want the relationship to work for them. A feasibility study can help clients do this — developing a practical way for working together and clarifying where the business is now and where they want it to go. Success requires a collaborative approach.”

What the companies say

Mark Dash, automation solutions manager, Bosch Rexroth, is a key player in the Lean Factory Group, an innovative project that brings supply chain partners into a collaborative group – including partners like SSI Schaefer, SICK and Orgatex – so that their shared products and processes are completely aligned for better total efficiency and effectiveness. One of the seven partners that comprise the group is Leonardo Consulting and Dash says: “Consultancy and knowledge training is very important to the Lean Factory Group. As members we all have our individual products or services and apply them to factory situations, naturally we tend to focus on our own scope as part of the overall system, which can often mean we aren’t aware of the overall picture and the changes taking place. This is where having the consultancy is important, their role is to see the bird’s eye view and communicate, with reason, to the team. Knowledge is always best acquired from an impartial source such as a trainer, and again this gives the Lean Factory Group credibility and a balanced approach to any problem.”

Andrew Downie, head of manufacturing at AB World Foods, acknowledges that: “We could not have achieved the level or speed of change that we have without Suiko’s help. They trained us to use tools to identify and solve problems and have allowed £500,000 in cost to be driven out of our processes. This improvement was important to make quickly when our existing family-owned company was absorbed by AB Foods and the bar was raised significantly as far as expectations around manufacturing performance were concerned.

The key to the success we have had with our consultants is that we went into the relationship open minded and prepared to change. There are bound to be internal preconceptions about external consultants from the workforce whose ways of working are likely to be affected. Companies need to try and engage this workforce early on, to create positivity and motivation about change. To support this internal effort it has been very important that Suiko is fundamentally behaviour-focussed – working with employees at all levels to introduce improvement through individuals rather than through impersonal tools and systems.”

Seeking total independence

These testimonies form a positive case for getting external help in either focussed projects or enterprise-wide initiatives. However, although Jon Armstrong has stated that effective consultancy lowers the risk of implementing an improvement project, external consultancy clearly represents a significant cost, and indeed a risk in itself.

Avoiding this risk – incompatibility of styles and poor return on investment – is among the many reasons why some companies have chosen to avoid using consultants and focus harder on developing in-house lean talent through training. Kent-based brewers Shepherd Neame, who recently won an IQPC Process Excellence Award for their inventory reduction project, feel strongly that this approach is better for sustained improvement over time.

Tom Falcon, production and distribution director at Shepherd Neame, says: “We often look to recruit people with new skills to develop existing functions. We have trained employees to do what, in many cases, a consultant would have been commissioned to do because we wanted to build on those skills internally and not lose them once projects are completed.” Falcon is himself an example of Shepherd Neame’s approach to building independent capability. A six sigma black belt with experience in process transformation for logistics, he stepped into a job with Shephard Neame that had traditionally been held by a brewer. “The board recognised the opportunity for a change in focus from product quality and consistency, which is, fundamental, to tackling supply chain and efficiency challenges. Shepherd Neame was not specifically looking to avoid external consultancy. However because of the skills and experience I could bring to the company, this need was mitigated, particularly in the early stages of the programme.” In general, even those companies who have used external consultancy effectively are working towards a dream of independence. British engineering group GKN, for example, has taken pains to develop an internal strategy for a very organic culture of continuous improvement that is enterprise-wide.

Peter Watkins, global lean enterprise and business excellence director at GKN describes the lean structure they have achieved. “The enterprise-wide initiative now provides hundreds of site continuous improvement leaders, executive leaders, plant leaders and value stream leaders and we are launching a business process excellence development program for over 1,000 functional site level leaders. Eight global continuous improvement leaders have supported and developed the training centrally so that it is tailored to the organisation.

The implementation is supported by six divisional lean directors and seven regional continuous improvement leaders.

We could not have achieved this without external help but we do not want to rely on them for progress. The key thing at every stage has been to find consultants who really teach – not just run kaizen events – this can be very hard!” Some lean experts, however, believe that the goal of independence from external help is unachievable. Jon Miller of Gemba Research for instance blogged on TM’s website on June 3 that consultant-free lean was one of the hallmarks of ‘fake lean’. “While I encourage clients to envisage the day when they are self-sufficient in lean, I will never guarantee that they can continue to sustain, grow and overcome new hurdles without additional outside help. Whenever a client says, “In a few years when we no longer need consultants…” it’s time to remind them that the moment when they no longer see the need for the teacher is when that need may be the greatest.”