You consultants – 3 reasons why you should better not blame them

It’s an often heard criticism in our trade: “You consultants just say what we long know“.

The last time I heard it, it was in a friendly tone from a nice chap I worked with, in a moment of exasperation about the situation I described and his scorched  pride.

I agree with that, what I described was already known, even if this statement is oversimplifying. But I understand the frustration of our customers’ teams when allegedly well paid consultants come in to restate  known issues and already proposed solutions.

Yet dear frustrated customers’ teams why not grasping the opportunity to reflect on your own responsibility about such situations? I will help you with that.

First, can you acknowledge the that it takes some skill to understand the situation and pinpoint the core issue in a matter of days, sometimes only hours, the time which is usually allocated for a diagnosis or a scoping?

It’s easy to boast knowing about something when witnessing or living it over years, it’s a real challenge to grasp enough understanding in a comparatively very short period of time.

Could you take such a challenge in a company and a trade you’re just discovering?

Second, you know what’s wrong and what needs to be done. Great. Did you “sell” your brilliant plan? Why didn’t management buy it?

In many cases we consultants come in to repackage “your brilliant plan” and complete it with missing bits, e.g.:

  • Thorough analysis
  • Robust action plan
  • Convincing business case
  • Commitment to outcomes

What we get handed over from previous in-house attempt is most often a “draft” with which no candidate for junior consultant position would ever pass the recruiting interview.
In less polite words: rubbish.

Lack of presentation skills is another common reason why in-house solutions don’t get the required attention.

When executives and decision takers aren’t bored to death by woolly presentations, they often have to guess what the presentation is supposed to explain.

Third, you long know about it but what have you done so far? Why did your management feel necessary to bring in consultants?

You say you had no time to work on it, but do you have more now, when consultants are in the place?

No you don’t but management will not buy your usual excuses anymore because of consultant’s’ daily rate. In other words, your company needs to pay a premium to get you doing what you should have long done.

So yes, we consultant may say what is already known, but we know how to say it in a compelling way, with a concrete and trustworthy solution backed up by a robust action plan. And on top of it we’ll take a challenge about the outcome.


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How corporate Lean programs spoil golden opportunities

This is the sad and true story of a manufacturing unit of a major manufacturer in his industry.

This company has a corporate program to roll out Lean, with permanently appointed staff to support it. The Lean organisation is structured from a corporate level to sites representatives and staff appointed to support departments within the plants (Lean Promotion Office).

The corporate program is consistent and fine, designed by subject matter experts and tailored to fit both the activity and corporate culture. Such an ambitious program has a phased agenda, milestones, audits, reviews and everything necessary.

The Lean Promotion Office supporting team is therefore very busy breaking down the corporate rollout plan and preparing training sessions, coaching sessions, reviews and everything necessary.

Everyone who has witnessed such organisation and corporate rollout knows that the supporting team tends to become a swelling bureaucracy of its own, with very busy people seldom seen on shopfloor.

Comes a day in a department when the production must be stopped for supply shortages and unfortunately the stoppage lasts several days.

Once the things jobless personnel could do were done, they were left unoccupied and all by themselves, in a kind of readiness, the production being assumed to resume anytime soon.

Which did not happen, and boredom became the daily normal.

This is when the consultant regularly visiting the department shows up, and a bit upset by the waste of human skills, proposes to organize a much needed initiation to 5S.

That can’t be done.
– Why?
– 5S is scheduled later in the year, according to the rollout plan.
– But people are available now and with the current department (messy, dirty) condition it is a golden opportunity to both train people and improve the condition!
– Nobody is available for the training.
– But I can do!
– This is not compliant to our rollout plan and procedures.

As incredible it sounds, there was no way to organize the initiation and no manager would back up the proposal nor agree to give it a go.

I assume the Lean Promotion Office members are measured according to their (planned) activity and weren’t eager to mess up the plan, take any chances to displease their managers.

Production managers were blind to the situation and not knowing much about 5S, could not see the opportunity to have meaningful occupation for their staff.

To add to the sadness of the situation, when 5S training time will come, the situation may not offer the same opportunity: machines may be running, everybody may be busy and the mess and dirt may not be that visible as it was during the stoppage.

5S training will then probably be done with case studies and simulation, on restricted area at best, in order not to disturb production. This is where the golden opportunity is really lost: using a real case to act on, learn and improve.

Postponing the training and improvements to later scheduled time slot will make the actual 5S related problems last longer, cost more and waste the opportunity.


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What coaching means to me – part two

A coach is a person able to teach, train and advise someone, to improve skills and/or practice and to make his/her coachee reflect about achievements and how to improve from the lessons learned.

It takes some experience and skill to coach others, that’s why I am not comfortable hearing the words coach or coaching that often is business, these words being used way too lightly in my opinion.

>Read What coaching means to me – part one

Many of the alleged coachings are nothing more than a kind of facilitation or workshop moderation. Coaching may sound better and please the facilitator’s ego, but it isn’t coaching.

What coaching means to me is living a significant part of time with the coachee on the shop floor or gemba (can be an office, warehouse, hospital, whatsoever) and making use of real problems to help him/her to improve his/her ability to cope with unexpected and random situations.

It may well need a structured approach, a set of principles, methods and a toolbox, but real-life problems are seldom solved in the way the examples in training classes depict.

Many of the real-life problems need a bit of creativity because they may be similar to previously experienced ones, but slight differences can hinder the same solutions to apply. A coach should have the ability to find a way to overcome this kind of difficulty and design a suitable experiment for solving the problem.

When a problem arises, it is an opportunity for the coach to see how the coachee is approaching it, and if needed give some advice and later feedback.

The coach does not need to know the solution and have answers to everything, but at least have the ability to analyze and make out a way to attack a problem in a structured way, then help his/her coachee to do the same without too much interference. After all, it’s the coachee’s golden opportunity to learn.

Except when regulatory constraint, if so-called coaches keep sticking to the book or procedures and are reluctant to “experiment”, it’s usually a sign of lack of experience and/or maturity. The stronger the cling, the less useful the “coach”.

The “coaching” mentioned in part one is therefore more about procedure reinforcement than real coaching. Its value lies maybe in the rollout of the Lean program but not in developing people’s skills.


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What coaching means to me – part one

In business we hear “coaching” a lot, maybe too often. While passing over knowledge and experience or helping people to improve a practice is a good thing, the way I see coaching done is far from delivering this kind of value.

The latest case is with a large corporation having launched a Lean program – even it isn’t called Lean nor program – with a framework of principles and chosen tools, and “coaching” as a way to cascade it.

The coaching is much inspired by Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata and looks good on paper. The limitations and flaws appeared when I witnessed it being done.

The coaching starts from the top of the hierarchical pyramid and is supposed to be cascaded down by each layer to the next subordinate one.

The “master coaches” come from a central Lean Promotion Office, young brilliant people familiar with the theory and trained to support the corporate program. Very few have any practical experience with applying Lean methods, tools or techniques.

These coaches will set appointments with managers and train and coach those to gemba-walk and carry out a much scripted routine. The coaching is merely explaining the procedure or script, give some side explanations about purpose and consistency within the corporate program and most of all, stand behind the coachee with a kind of checklist and make sure the procedure is accurately followed.

Obviously what matters to these coaches is the compliance to the scripted routine. If the gemba-walker is unable to notice problems and improvement points it is unimportant as long as the routine is carried out correctly. I assume the coaches would not be able to spot the problems and improvement points neither, as so many problems are left unattended even after series of scripted gemba walks.

Once these routines are consistently carried out in appropriate manner, the coachee is qualified to coach his/her subordinates in a similar way.

The cascading coaching is planned over the year and it will take about that time to get a department through the whole cascading process.

Unlike Mike Rother’s recommendations, these coachings are not everyday practice, but scheduled events. As you can guess, the middle management considers it as additional chore, and goes through it dragging feet just to be compliant and avoid trouble.

>Read part two

You may also like: You don’t give me answers, you ask questions


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12 tips for leading in a downturn

Slowdown, downturn, crisis, recession, words and condition that are around for some time now and for some businesses it seems to be the new normal.
I witnessed several companies’ and their leaders’ reactions when facing difficulties and I’d like to share my list of dos and don’ts.


Elevate your ambition

Chris HOHMANN

Chris HOHMANN – Author

When time is hard for business and everybody in the company gets anxious about the future, the ambition should be more appealing than the disappointing “live another day” and its variants. Yet how many times did I came across a similar sounding “ambition”! Frightening.

The leader’s skills, including inspire others, are supposed to show in troubled times. Gather your staff around a higher ambition, prepare all together the exit of the crisis and the turning of the vision into reality.

If the crisis is severe, people are more open to challenges and changes. Go for a leap, not a timorous step.

Focus!

When times get tough for your business, it’s time to (re)consider what your business is. instead of trying anything in order to meet the plan or budget, take a moment to (re)state what the purpose of your organization is.

With purpose clarified, the organization’s precious (and scarce?) resources can be focused on the purpose and deliver more, better.

I strongly believe that this exercise, in many cases, is enough to re-energize the staff and get better through the hard times.

Tip: with the Goal (re)set, the Goal Tree is a great tool to define all Necessary Conditions and on what to focus to achieve the Goal. Using the Goal Tree is a framework will help to break the new strategy down into concrete, meaningful and strictly necessary actions.

Search your blue ocean

The slowdown may be the result of recession and/or of competition. It may be the right time to question your offering and how it ranks compared to competition. You may be swimming with sharks in the blood-red ocean and then it is the right time to think about leaping into a quiet blue ocean, free from shark-like competition.

Make a side step, reinvent, do different

If you are to remain in the same business, and chances are you will, then what would distinguish your product, service, offering or company from competition?

Be bold. It’s about disruption, not small incremental change. You’ll have to surprize your customers, outmatch your competitors and inspire your staff.

So what sidestep would get you out of the war of attrition? How can you reinvent your business, products, services and get a wow effect in your market? What can you do different?

Ask your staff, all of them. Those closest to market and customers may have the right answers.

Sometimes brilliant ideas unexpectedly originate from people or departments you would not think about: accounting, finance, HR, delivery truck drivers…

Improve. Revisit your processes and create more value

In tough times customers are pickier, more demanding. They may be worried just the way everybody is but still have needs and problems to solve. Revisit your processes and improve in order to create more value for your customers.

Again, be bold! Competition may adjust to minor improvements and keep up. They may be afraid or unable to follow a bolder move.

Show confidence

Keep your worries for yourself or a very close circle. To all others, show confidence. Staff nor customers don’t like worried bosses/suppliers/partners. They are worried themselves. If you can’t show confidence in what you stand for, employees may seek more secure haven for themselves and customers will seek alternate suppliers or solutions.

Trust your staff, it’s not your enemy

Concentrate your energy to outmatch competition, not to harass your workforce. Too often worried managers turn their disappointment or anger towards their staff. Chances are few the situation is the staff’s fault, so why bother them?

Better build up a task force engage your team in finding and building a way out. Your staff is your ally, not your enemy.

So far for the dos , let’s see some don’ts

Don’t harass your staff because they have less to do in the downturn

When activity slows down it is normal to have more slack time. Consider using this freed time for training or creating new value for the customers, finding a way out of the crisis…

Refrain from micromanagement.

Constantly looking over the shoulders of your staff will not help getting out of the crisis, but will only stress your workforce more, show your lack of consideration and confidence.

Again, you cannot get angry with your staff just because business is not that good anymore.

Do not be unfair

If you are disappointed about some of your workforce not taking initiatives, first ask yourself if they ever were encouraged to take some or if this is a sudden expectation of yours.
Second, ask yourself if you gave enough insight and direction for people to understand where you want the organization to go, what the Goal and objectives are.
Third, if people are not the self starters you’re hoping, why did you / your organization hire them? What did you / your organization do to develop them?
If you objectively did everything to have autonomous self starters and they don’t behave like this, you may further ask questions about their attitude, by using the BlessingWhite X model for example.

Chances are that your workforce is nothing more than a representation of the general population, with some brilliant people, a bulk of average people and a some below average but still good enough for coping with their chores.
And chances are that your competition is not better off.

Don’t change direction every morning

In difficult periods doubt may surface about the strategy, the pricing, the customer relationship, about almost everything. Keep your cool and do not change direction too often. First because it will only confuse everybody, second because it will show your state of panic. Remember: people expect to have a self-confident leader.

You may conduct some experiments, but structure them with some consistency, show an overarching logic. If you can’t link the different ideas with some straightforward logic, some elements may have to be questioned.


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Continuous improvement: how easily focus is lost

In an industrial environment improvement opportunities are literally infinite, especially if nothing has been done so far about improvement and maturity, about industrial best practices and considering methodologies like Lean, Theory of Constraints (ToC) or Six Sigma was nearly nonexistent.

When starting to improve, it happens quite often: committed people get lost and lose focus. Instead of concentrating on the core issue to achieving the Goal,  they dilute efforts on lesser important subjects, secondary objectives or even unimportant things.

As a consequence real improvements are delayed or even won’t happen.

How to prevent this from happening? Here are three things that will help:

  • Choose proper KPIs
  • Have a sponsor keeping some distance
  • Start with a Goal Tree

Choose proper KPIs

Measurement is the first improvement step. Choose the (few) KPI(s) that really reflect the achievement of the assigned key objectives and assess the effects of improvement efforts with these figures.

Assigned key objectives points to a Goal set by the organization’s owner or the delegate executives. Bottom-up chosen improvement targets lead most often to local optimization which is scarcely contributing to the overall system improvement, hence the reservation about point kaizen or kaizen blitz workshops focused on local improvements/problem solving.

Expected improvement is generally about productivity, quality, timely deliveries or any combination of them. Outcome should be measured in physical units, e. g. widgets per hour, right first time rate or on time in full (OTIF) deliveries.

Pitfall to avoid with KPIs is to choose activity-related instead of outcome-related ones, like the number of kaizen events held in the week rather than additional widgets made ready for shipping.

Teams may get some scolding for not delivering the expected results even though they were convinced to have worked hard and gotten nice results. They are just not aligned with top management’s expectations.

Back-standing sponsor

Having someone higher ranking / legit, keeping some distance from details and looking at the project with a broader perspective is a good way to prevent shop floor teams to get pulled down into details and away from their objective.

The sponsor should have authority to both help the team to overcome some difficulties, when decisions are to be made with other stakeholders and authority to demand regular reports and direct the team when necessary.

Regular reports and expectation of results are powerful incentives for the team not to lose themselves during their improvement journey.

Having a back-standing manager is common practice in the consulting business where a manager will follow, support and coach the consultants shop floor team, making sure focus is kept on the right objective and progress is consistent.
Some customers can’t understand the importance of this management they consider costs added, not value-added, an easy way to charge more (Yes this may happen, but let’s assume the consultants we’re considering are good ones with real care about delivering value and some ethics).

Well, the cost of meaningless efforts, wasted time and resources on ill-chosen or defined objectives is often much higher than the cost of the back-standing manager.

When the Goal is defined at the top-level and the objectives assigned to the teams, the project governance is usually defined as well, with someone high-ranking taking the sponsor / jury role. Bottom-up initiatives do not always have it.

Start with a Goal Tree

My regular followers are used to read my posts promoting this fantastic tool: the Goal Tree. Many of you readers may not yet be familiar with Goal Trees, and I strongly recommend you to learn more about them and evaluate the potential benefits using them.

At the beginning of a project, building a Goal Tree is a smart investment worth the couple of hours required: a well-built Goal Tree will give guidance toward the assigned or chosen Goal as well as the associated few Critical Success Factors to achieve and the list of Necessary Conditions to fulfill.

The Goal Tree is built upon necessity logic (in order to achieve… we must…) and thus prevents to get lost in nice-to-haves or irrelevant “improvements”.

From the moment I used a Goal Tree from the start myself, I kept focused, consistent and more efficient for myself or the teams I worked with. Conversely, when I thought I could save the effort starting with a Goal Tree it went not that brilliantly, with some deviations, drifting and the like.

These unpleasant experiences were powerful reminders, especially when the back-standing manager legitimately “kicked the a**”.


Chris HOHMANN

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(At least) three reasons why you should not run your business with superheroes

Since I came across the quote of Fujio Cho* (Toyota chairman) about broken processes requiring extraordinary people, I keep wondering how many of the businesses I see are relying on superheroes. Superheroes are wonderwomen and supermen, those skilled and highly dedicated people who run processes or whole businesses ordinary people would not be able or willing to run.

*”We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant processes. We observe that our competition often gets average (or worse) results from brilliant people managing broken processes.”

They cope with situations others would just not start trying or give up quickly, because of broken processes, poor working conditions, work load or any combination of the like.

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Instead of fixing the processes or improving work conditions, so that they can be run by ordinary people, business owners or management invest tremendous efforts in recruiting superheroes.

Here are at least three reasons they should not.

1. Superheroes come in limited number

Superheroes aren’t common, otherwise they’d be ordinary people, not superheroes.

Hence finding the good fit takes time, costs money and efforts.

The same resources (time, money, efforts) could be allocated to fix the processes in order to be run by ordinary people.

For some strange reasons, management keeps searching for superheroes.

2. Superheroes get tired too

Sooner or later playing superheroes will exhaust them, or they get bored when the initial fun has gone.

Superheroes are aging as well, they may aspire to something else than running rubbish processes over time.

Because of 1 & 2, even with some longer lasting heroes coping with the mess, the organization will always be at least one short.

3. Superheroes have ambition or personal goals

a. Superheroes are likely to get promoted.

They are usually noticed and appreciated and their skills find many other applications elsewhere in or outside of the organization.
The trouble is once promoted, who will take care of the processes still in their same poor state?

b. Superheroes may leave the organization for personal reasons, getting married, change their career path, raise a family…

When Superheroes leave the organization, for any reason, they leave the broken processes.

Therefore and again, investing in fixing processes is more sustainable.

But for some strange reasons, management keeps searching for superheroes.


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Four good reasons to take a break if you are to remain efficient

Deep involvement in a project, problem solving or coaching really drains one’s energy. A periodic break is therefore mandatory in order to remain efficient. Here are four good reasons for it.

1. Recharge

Everyone needs a breather now and then. The tenser the situation, the more the break is needed.

Getting away some time from a project or an assignment helps recharging, gathering new energy and keeping fresh and motivated.

It does not have to be long but long enough to get the feeling of a real break. An extra day or two right before or immediately after a weekend for example can be good.

Taking a break doesn’t mean take holidays. Working on something else or seeing something else for a short period is usually enough.

2. Get rid of mental clutter

Taking a break is also an opportunity to get rid of mental clutter accumulated during the deep dive into the project or problem solving.

Often one just gets caught in a vicious circle, spinning around with a problem and not finding out.

Take a break.

When coming back, the brain is like reset and the mental cache emptied, ready to process new data or analyze differently.

3. Avoid complacency

Staying too long on the same subject may end up with complacency. After a while, abnormal conditions seem less shocking, ways are found to work around blockades rather than removing them and so on.

A breather helps to stay sharp, critical and to avoid complacency.

4. Look at the broader picture

Finally, stepping back simply helps to look at the broader picture. It’s easy to get drawn down into details and losing Sight of the Goal, of what is important.

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Gemba walk: go for the why, not the who (don’t look for someone to blame)

Chris HOHMANN

Chris HOHMANN – Author

Gemba walks got increasingly popular over time but so went the misunderstanding of its purpose.

One of the worst misuse of the Gemba walk is going to spot deviations and wastes, and then instead of trying to understand the causes which led to those deviations or wastes (the why), managers go for someone to blame (the who).

Looking for the seven, eight or more types of waste is looking for symptoms, which is relatively easy. The more difficult part is to find the root cause(s) and eradicate them in order to improve significantly and hopefully, permanently.

Gemba walkers should remember that mistakes or deviations happen because the system or process is tolerant to them.

The second thing they should remember is that most systems and processes are broken and require extraordinary people to run them.

Alas, as extraordinary people are few, the organization has to do with ordinary people.

As it is easier to improve broken processes than to turn ordinary people into superheroes, Gemba walker should go for the why, not the who.

They’ve done well if after Gemba walk and improvement, the processes can be run with ordinary people and fewer opportunities to do wrong or generate waste.

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Start less, finish more

Chris HOHMANN

Chris HOHMANN – Author

Four words of wisdom spoken by a manager in a department notorious for its long lists of actions (note I didn’t write action plan) and promises but a lousy transformation rate.

Looking closer on their usual way to solve problems or work on improvement revealed a common flaw in many organizations: the open loop.

The open loop is the belief that things will get done (simply) because someone put them on a list and presented them, without a control and feedback loop to ensure things really get done.

Usually the presenter refrains from any formal commitment and, as so often, what is called an action plan is a mere brainstorming or a wish list at best.

Complacent managers don’t demand due dates nor ownership, accountability neither clear assignment of tasks to someone.

As no one will track and check the real outcome of envisioned actions, they’ll get done only if someone has a personal benefit in it and/or by goodwill.

Complaints for the status quo remain rare as complainers fear being put in charge of carrying out or solve what they complain about.

Thus, no complaints, no problem.

Apparently, as nobody complains, issues seem to be solved, confirming that no closer tracking is needed.

The issues remaining hopelessly unsolved, people keep suffering in silence or find ways around, by-passes, arrangements, usually off standards and uncontrolled, sometimes hazardous.

These ‘solutions’ bring new problems, themselves being handled in the same way and gnawing on performance.

When the wind suddenly change, with a new demanding boss in charge usually, the amount of corrective actions could sweep tsunami-like onto the staff.

There is where the four words of wisdom come in: start less, finish more.
Way too late though.

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