Lean Consulting – Should You Pay For Outside Consultants?

If your company needs to implement the waste-reduction method known widely as lean, they will have a couple of different choices.  They could hire outside lean consulting professionals, or they could create experts within the organization.  Both of these choices assumes that the company doesn’t already somehow possess the expertise…inexplicably ignoring it.  So let’s take a look at the pros and cons of these two choices in obtaining any sort of lean consulting.

Outside Consultants
The first, and most immediately available option is to call in the cavalry, so to speak.  The benefits here would be how quickly you could get started, the peace-of-mind of knowing you have an expert on-board, and how rapidly you could start taking action.  In turn, the above benefits would prevent you making false-starts in implementation.

So what are the “cons” of paying for outside lean consulting?  First, it tends to be more expensive.  Second, the company is less likely to buy in and own changes in their processes if some outsider (who probably doesn’t know nearly as much about the business) came up with them.  If that second thing happens, then the company is less likely to stick to any changes long-term.  As soon as things look like their “going awry,” the old processes will come right back.

That brings me to the third potential problem with hiring outside lean consultants…lack of “continuity of care.”  Companies need to be vigilant when selecting a consultant, and ensure that they understand the terms of service.  There are a lot of lean consulting firms that will send an expert to you for two weeks to run one “lean event,” after which they leave.  Unless you company already has very strong commitment to and belief in the lean methodology, this method of “buying events” from consultants can encourage a lack of buy-in.  There is more of a feeling that you’re paying a “waste doctor” to come in and perform multiple surgeries of a period of a year or two, which will fix all your problems while you continue to operate under the same mind-set that got you into trouble in the first place.

Internal Lean Experts
The “pros” of seeking to train your own experts inside the company include an increased likelihood of buy-in.  If employees see that the changes are coming from someone who has done what they’ve done…seen what they’ve seen, someone who knows the business, they’ll be more likely to believe in and stick to those changes.  Also, when there is full-time lean expertise within the organization, the cost tends to much lower than paying outside consultants, at least initially.  Plus, management can rely on day-to-day oversight of lean implementation and activity, rather than doing it in 2-week spurts every few months.

But there are disadvantages to building an internal lean team as well.  The biggest draw-back is how long it will take to develop enough expertise in your new experts to make any difference.  The “ramp-up” period is much longer than bringing in outside help.  Next is the additional time it will take the company to “get it right” after several false-starts.  Just like learning any new skill, you will make mistakes at first.  And without an expert coach, you will make more.  And ironically, some of the same buy-in issues that exist in the outside consultant scenario can exist here.

A common scenario plays out like this.  The big boss decides to implement lean internally, so they pick the folks from the workforce who will become the experts.  The organization sets up a team and sends them to a training seminar lasting a few weeks.  Then the big boss goes about business as usual, asking for status reports from the team periodically.  Even if the team has managed to become experts in 2 weeks (not likely), they will still just be employees of the company, and their ideas will simply not carry the weight with management that the same ideas would coming from an outside consultant.  It’s the prophet in your his own country paradox.  It isn’t logical, but it is a powerful part of human nature.  Unless management has strong belief in and support for lean concepts, this approach is not likely to yield positive lasting results either.

So… what?  Am I saying you should neither hire outside an outside consultant, nor try to train up your own expert team?  No…I’m saying you should do both!  By taking advantage of the “pros” of both approaches and cautiously avoiding the cons of both, the odds of success are high.  Did you notice that there was one common factor in each approach that could make the difference between success and failure?  Strong leadership support for and belief in lean concepts and methodology is absolutely essential.  Once you have that, it almost doesn’t matter which method you choose, because you’ll have the support to get you there eventually.

So assuming proper leadership support for lean concepts, make the best use of both options above by hiring the outside consultant at the very start.  Pick your team and have them work side-by-side with the consultant for a few months.  This way you can avoid the drive-by lean event method. During this time, start training everyone in the organization in lean thinking.  Then leadership must start making changes in the measurement and reward structure of the organization to adapt to lean thinking versus traditional thinking.  Now you start you lean events/projects, facilitated by the consultant and members of your lean team.  As employees get used to participating on event teams, and as your internal team gain more expertise and experience, the consultant can spend less and less time on-site, eventually fading away entirely.

As long as that leadership support remains, the above approach to external and internal expertise will have a huge chance of succeeding.

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