Hiring a process improvement consultant to help you streamline and improve the profitability of your business is a big decision. Process improvement efforts can be time consuming and disruptive. Not to mention the fact that process improvement consultants are not cheap – at least the good ones aren’t.
It’s hard enough to bring yourself to paying a good process improvement consultant and putting up with the disruption even if you know you’re getting a good ROI. The last thing you can afford to do is to hire someone, spend the money and the time, and find that you have nothing to show for it.
So how can you tell – ideally before they have your money – which process improvement consultants really care about improving your business and which ones care only about their fee? Of course, no method is completely foolproof, but you can dramatically improve your odds of getting one of the really good ones by asking the right questions.
When you ask these questions, listen carefully to the answers. While we can’t predict every answer you’ll hear verbatim, the following will offer some guidelines.
1. How do you know whether a new or improved process will fix my problem?
Although you should already have a pretty good idea that you have a process problem before investing the time to talk with process consultants, you should still ask this question. Process problems tend to have some pretty telltale symptoms that we discussed in an earlier post.
So when you ask this question, listen for why the prospective consultant believes that you have a process problem, not how they’re going to fix it. If they jump right into how they’re going to fix it, your antenna should go up. If the problem is obvious enough, they may indeed have ideas for a solution right away. But if they start talking about a named methodology, whether you’ve heard of it or not, beware. Which leads to…
2. What methodology do you use?
The right consultant may have a good idea about how to fix your problem, but should never be fixated on a single, one-size-fits-all process or methodology – and neither should you. Lean, Six-Sigma, TQM, Agile, DevOps – all of these terms describe general frameworks for approaching process formalization that each have their own strengths and weaknesses; are each better suited to some situations than others; and each come with their own toolboxes and their own challenges.
A truly great process consultant will know enough about all of these frameworks to select the best of breed from among them to tailor a solution to your specific situation and needs.
If you call a prospective process consultant and tell them “I want help implementing DevOps,” you’ll probably get what you asked for – or at the very least, what you deserve. But it may not be what you need. And you may not be any happier with the result than you would be if you went to a doctor and the first words out of your mouth were “I want a hip replacement.” You many indeed wind up with a hip replacement, but no responsible doctor would start with that assumption.
3. What resources will you need from me?
Process improvement requires the involvement of your people and usually requires access to your current systems and data. The right process consultants should have a pretty good idea which of your people and systems they need to engage and how they want to engage them. If they claim that they can do their work without talking to your people or looking at your systems and data, run the other way! You’re in for a hip replacement to fix a cough.
4. What resources and talents can/will you commit to the project?
A good consulting team also should be open with you about whether they expect to need or use additional people on your project and, in general, what they might be doing. If you’ve ever worked with a law firm before, you know that, although that partner level attorney may be brilliant and may be critical to your success, most of the work done on your patent, trademark, or case is actually done by much less expensive paralegals and/or junior attorneys. Similarly, if you have a large process project that could take months and hundreds of hours to complete, you don’t want to pay executive level consultants for all of that work.
Also, most process improvement initiatives involve IT systems and data at some point and may require specialized skills to make the required changes or to source, build, or stitch together the tools needed to make your processes flow smoothly. Do you have all of the people that will be needed on staff or will you or the process consultant need to bring them in? It may be too early to know all that might need to be done, but it isn’t too early to know what skills your consultant brings to the table versus what skills you (or they) may need to add later.
But even more importantly than conversations about specific skillsets is a frank conversation about the consultant’s full time staff and hiring & subcontracting practices. No consulting company can be fully staffed for any and all eventualities. And the size of a consulting company’s staff is far less important than the experience and mix of skills they bring. But too many consulting companies keep no full time staff, instead relying entirely on temporary labor.
Maybe you’re OK if you and your consulting company both first meet one of their “experts” on the same day – that day being the first day they’re billing hours to your project. Just don’t let yourself be surprised by this. If you do, then by the time you realize it, it may be too late to object without putting the entire project at risk.
5. How much time will you need to solve my problem and what will it cost?
This is a bit of a trick question. Although an experienced consultant should be able to give you some ballpark ideas of the cost based on the size of your organization, the nature of your problem, the level of integration of your various systems with each other, etc., the only thing any consultant will be able to estimate with any degree of accuracy will be the discovery phase of the project.
Any consultant who claims to know what an entire project will entail is most likely just telling you what you want to hear in order to get you to start the project with them. Escalation of Commitment and the related Sunk Cost Fallacy are very real threats to your business. Slick consultants know how to use these psychological tendencies to their advantage. Make sure you guard against them.
The good news is that a consultant who is truly committed to your success and to working within your budget will come to you at the end of the discovery phase with several options requiring varying degrees of disruption and cost. You have every right to expect this. If your prospective consultant doesn’t promise some kind of a la carte menu as the deliverable of the discovery phase, you can probably do better.
6. Can I talk with some of your past clients?
Of course the answer should and will be yes, but that is not the point of this question. And you won’t want to waste your time asking if their past clients were happy with them or would work with them again. Prospective consultants won’t let you near anyone who won’t give the “right” answers to these questions.
What you do want to do is to take this opportunity to ask questions like:
- Were there any negative surprises on your project and how did the consultant handle them?
- Describe the return you got on your investment.
- What did you learn on this project that you might do differently if you had it to do over again?
- Assuming I engage this consultant, what advice do you have for me that will ensure that I get the best result for my money?
Of course, there are many more such questions – and we’ll try to put some more meat on these bones in a future post, but suffice it to say that you shouldn’t pass up an opportunity to learn from someone else’s mistakes or experience.
7. Do you have any questions for me?
No capable process improvement consultant can come in cold, without learning anything about the size and scope of your process issues, your current process, your budget, your timeline, your goals, and your tolerance for disruption and change and begin working on your problem. A good consultant will have questions for you about all those things in order to understand what’s going on and know where to start.
Your candidates should be especially interested to know how much you’re budgeting for the project and for implementing any recommendations. If you can’t tell them that, they can’t give you realistic process improvement options or tell you what they can do for you within a specific time frame. So before you ever sit down with your first prospective consultant, make sure you have some idea what your current problems are costing you and what you would be willing and able to spend to fix them.
If you have resisted getting process improvement help because you are skeptical about its value, rest assured, your skepticism is totally justified. But if you arm yourself with the right questions, you can dramatically increase your chances of getting a positive ROI, increasing your profit, and improving your quality of life.
Just like a root canal, process improvement efforts can be painful and expensive. Nobody wants a root canal unless they really need it. But if you really need it and don’t get it, the best you can hope for is a future of unnecessary pain. And the worst? Do yourself a favor and look into a root canal before you find out.