Many lean consultants have a terrible reputation.
And they deserve it.
I know of far too many companies who have hired so-called “lean experts” who really function like traditional strategy or business consultants. They come in, create and share fancy PowerPoint presentations, make a set of general recommendations (many of which the client has already considered), charge an outrageous amount of money and then leave. As a result, many companies feel burned by the experience, and lean itself gets a bad reputation.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I know from experience that great lean consultants take a radically different approach than most clients are familiar with. That’s because their approach is based on the idea that lean is a learn-by-doing exercise. The path to lean practice is nothing more than constant practice. This does need the leadership and management of an experienced sensei overseeing kaizen activities in the beginning.
Back when I was a group executive at Danaher Corporation, we started using Shingijutsu as our lean sensei. They referred to themselves as “insultants.” They badgered us, they pushed us and pointed out all the stupid things we were doing. They were more serious about us improving most of the time than we were.
To be honest they function more like trainers. They teach your people to see the waste and develop approaches to eliminate it. They are very hands-on, showing your people how to improve and leaving a lot of “homework” to be done by their next visit. We never got a PowerPoint presentation or, in fact, any type of presentation from Shingijutsu. They just spent their time on the shop floor helping our people make things better.
So if you want to accelerate your lean practice I highly recommend reaching out to a good lean consultant to serve as your coach, teacher, trainer. Plan on working with these people over the long haul. We scheduled out their visits one year in advance. We tried to get enough of their time so we could make rapid progress and give as many of our people exposure to their thinking as we could. For example, a good lean sensei can handle four teams of 10 people each per week of consulting. For a small to mid-size company, 12 weeks of sensei-led kaizens per year is a good target to start with. Thus you can get 480 of your people exposed to this intensive learn by doing activity each year.
Recognize that what we are really talking about is changing the thinking of every person in the company. This is not a quick or easy thing to do. It can feel like having someone come in and say that everything that people are doing is no good and has to change—that everything they have learned is wrong. That’s a bit dramatic, and not always true—but the changes required for lean practice are in fact so big that it will feel a bit like this to people. This change, which is emotional and personal as much as it is technical, has to be led from the top down by leaders who the workers trust— to whom they have an attachment.
Great consultants recognize that their role is important, and ongoing; but limited. They are there to teach the operators and support and push the leaders. If they can’t get the full commitment of the company's leadership then a good lean consultant will “fire” that client. This is something that you will never see a traditional consulting firm do. They are more invested in their own revenue stream than in the improvement progress of their client. The opposite of a lean sensei who is fully vested in the rapid improvement and transformation of his clients.