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Are Lean Advisors More Commodity or Personalized Service?

Periodically I receive requests to do consulting for an organization that has a competitive bidding process. As a general rule I try to avoid these situations, but from time to time I am persuaded to participate. However, I’ve found that this never works out well for me or for the client.

Are Lean Advisors More Commodity or Personalized Service?

What usually prompts an organization to seek a lean advisor?


Here’s how the process usually goes: I am contacted by an executive or internal specialist in lean or continuous improvement who has “read all my books” and wonders if I do “consulting.”  After I explain that I do high-level consulting and have a network of associates who do day-to-day coaching through a transformation, they ask if we can talk on the phone. We discuss their vision for lean and what they are looking for in a consultant.  Typically they have had some negative experience with a tools-based approach to lean, usually meaning a series of one-week lean events were run and processes were transformed using lean tools, but the results were not sustained.  Everything seemed great at the end of each lean event, but each process soon reverted back to its previous form.  There were still remnants of lean tools in pockets throughout the operations—kanban here, standard work sheets there, a quick changeover process for a set of machines.  But these were not updated and rarely used—inventory returned, worksheets were ignored, and changeover times crept back to their former level—a predictable result of a mechanistic, tools approach to lean.


Is an organization truly interested in cultural change?


The above scenario is usually followed by a delightful conversation in which we agree we are excited about the possibility of working together.  They go on to explain they are now ready for a deep culture change that leads to engaged workers and managers who go to the workplace and personally lead the changes. Additionally, they want a consultant and advisors who will help them get there and teach them so they become self-sufficient.  We discuss Toyota and agree that the messages of my books are completely in harmony with their vision.  All seems good!


Then comes the dreaded email from their procurement department, complete with a request for bid and detail of the bidding process including all specifications for the proposal and key milestone dates.  They let me know that if I get through the first hurdle, based on my written proposal, there will be a conference call interview, or I can fly in at my own expense for the interview.


Once procurement gets involved the good feelings quickly degenerate.  The detailed specifications are complex. They want to know about specific customers I’ve worked with, preferably like their company, with specific numbers on return on investment.  They want me to lay out a detailed methodology with specific timing, milestones, and deliverables.  As well as leading to a great deal of waste in the proposal writing from my perspective, I begin to question whether or not the company really is interested in the deep culture change that we have discussed.


If I proceed to the interview process my initial fears are usually confirmed. The interview is conducted by a “team” of people from different backgrounds who have different ideas about what lean is and the vision and timeline for success.  The questions tend to focus on where I have done this before, whether the organizations were like them or not, and what results I have achieved in what timeframe.  I respond that, “I have not worked with an organization that is exactly like yours. It is impossible to predict what results will be achieved without knowing much more about your organization.  The approach we take lays the foundation for many benefits in customer service, reduction in lead times, and productivity that will grow larger over time as a critical mass of managers and workers develop new skills and ways of thinking.”  At this point, the tone of the meeting starts to become uncomfortable as the interviewees discover I am not guaranteeing quick and large cost reductions.  By the way, I almost never win the contract.


So what is the problem?  The problem is a disconnect between the initial vision of the executives and change agents who contacted me, and the vision-in-practice that emerges during the procurement process.  Culture change is extremely difficult.  It literally means people think and act differently every day they come to work.  The process, which requires repetition that is immediately reinforced with rewards, is well explained in The Power of Habit.


Things to consider when hiring a lean advisor


The role of the external advisor is to help the leadership set in motion the conditions that will support the daily practice needed to evolve to a new culture.  This is a very intensive process of first changing the thinking and behavior of the leadership who then become change agents and coaches themselves.  Leaders must learn to systematically pursue challenging objectives through the scientific method, while positively motivating the people who do the work. This coaching process can easily takes six months to one year of intense work.


One of my former PhD students, who is now a lean consultant, got the greatest compliment from her healthcare client.  After a glowing 360 degree evaluation, the medical director of the clinic wrote: 


“Dr. Katrina Appell has been an excellent sensei for our organization…She is committed to deep learning, and to developing the people of our organization to think differently… I was impressed with her ability to gently teach senior vice presidents, part time front desk staff, and everyone else in between, with kindness, and persistence.” 


Does thinking about hiring a lean advisor as a procurement process create the conditions necessary to find the right advisor(s) to guide your leaders through this intensive process? I don’t believe so. Instead, think about it more like hiring your own personal life coach, or perhaps selecting the best school for your gifted child.  You want the right fit.  You want teachers who will develop you or your child, not an organization with a production line.  You want their educational philosophy to match where you want to go.


Find someone who can do this for you and you are well on your way!


Dr. Jeffrey Liker is professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan and author of The Toyota Way.  He leads Liker Lean Advisors, LLC and his latest book (with Gary Convis) is The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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