How can I tell good lean consultants from bad?
Dear Gemba Coach,
If lean’s not a scam – but there are scammers -- how can I distinguish good lean consultants from bad?
Oh, well, that’s easier. There are no good lean consultants.
I’m not saying there are no good consultants. Of course there are; same bell curve as in every profession -- but the very idea of consultants reflects the Taylorist mindset. Frederick Taylor himself was the first consulting engineer. He opened a consulting practice in Philadelphia in 1893.
Consultants have essentially two missions:
- Solve a problem for you. They investigate through audits, benchmarks, analysis, to come up with a diagnostic and then recommendations, mostly in the form of a report.
- Get productivity out of your teams. They use work improvement methodologies, essentially Taylorism, to implement more productive processes.
In both cases, consultants are used by top management to substitute for failings of middle management and get things done. This obviously, flies in the face of the basic tenet of lean of “to make products, first we have to make people.” Consulting is an extractive industry, where specialists are used to extract more value out of people and operations, whereas lean is fundamentally inclusive, showing the people themselves how to create more value while generating less waste – and sharing that extra value.
Lean does not have consultants, but a different role: “senseis.” The sensei approach to developing people is not about making them apply rules or methods, hoping they’ll assimilate them (I’m not dissing that; it has proven a very effective way to teach over centuries), but, as Yoshino-san, one of Toyota’s most revered veterans taught us recently in Japan, to create experiences for people so they get outside of their comfort zone and figure out things differently by themselves.
Yoshino-san was in charge of the fabled NUMMI experience, and told us how they chose to send American team leaders to Japan, not speaking a word of Japanese, and put them on lines with Japanese operators, not speaking a word of English, and let them both figure it out (both sides understood what was at stake). For the most part, he said, this was a transformative experience on both sides.
What about those that didn’t get it? Well, Yoshino-san suggested, always a little more patience and a little more open-mindedness.
A Sensei Approach Example
The sensei role is not to make you do this or that, or to solve your problems for you, but to point to opportunities for improvement you had not seen before. The sensei will make you see a problem that they think is important for you to solve, and watch whether you tackle it or not, and what you try or don’t, and then discuss the type of solutions you sought, encouraging some and discouraging others. (Often by giving you an exercise to practice).
The sensei points the way, but, as opposed to a consultant, does not solve your problems for you, or make you do anything.
How does this work out on the gemba? Well, I was visiting a hospital where we saw two very different experiences.
In the cardiology department, for instance, the professor in charge of the ward has been working with his team to reduce the waiting time for patients for a procedure from 24 hours to less than three. He has reduced the queue to 80% of patients in less than three hours. However, he felt that the dynamic he’d created in the team was flagging. But he also felt there wasn’t much to gain to reduce three hours to two or go beyond of 80% because of all the special cases.
The sensei discussed three possibilities for progress:
- Reduce lead-time from three hours to two hours
- Increase the percentage of patients under three hours from 80% to 90%
- Investigate morbidity in the ward (why do we lose patients?)
The professor, not unreasonably, pushed back on each of these issues feeling there was not much to gain. One the one hand, he felt the waiting queue issue had basically been solved. On the other, he felt that the morbidity issue was mainly a medical one and that since he had a top department in the matter and was referred all the more difficult cases, the numbers might make him look unfairly bad.
The sensei’s argument was that it wasn’t about gains, as about learning: what is the next step in the learning curve?
The sensei also argued, that in lean terms, the topics are quite well defined:
- What would it mean for us to increase patient and staff safety?
- What would it mean for us to increase the quality of care?
- What would it mean for us to reduce lead-time by increasing flexibility?
- How does increasing quality and flexibility lead us to find ways to eliminate muda and reduce total cost
- You can’t do any of the four previous things without working closer and closer with the teams themselves.
Respect for people is a natural consequence of trying to do challenging things – the harder it gets, the more you need the people. You can’t move forward if you don’t engage them in solving the challenge, if you don’t listen carefully to the obstacles they encounter and support them, and if you don’t share the results with them. More importantly, if you’re not determined to learn from their own discoveries, to grow even deeper teamwork in the team.
To his credit, the professor saw the logic of the learning argument and committed to reconsider his position and think more deeply about this.
In the same hospital, the sterilization unit had been using consultants to improve their turnaround times of sterile instruments to wards, and mainly the operating theater. For a while, the consultant achieved quite visible and rather spectacular results. But on yesterday’s gemba walk, a couple of months after the consultants had left, the sterilization unit was in worse shape than ever, causing supply problems all over the hospital and facing issues of burnout, conflict and all the usual healthcare dysfunctions.
I’m not suggesting the consultant did a bad job. He achieved visible results as long as he was there, substituting for local management and micro-managing issues. I’m suggesting that using a consultant is the wrong approach in this case.
Senseis (and trainers at shop-floor level) are the lean response to consultants and a very different approach.
Which begs the question, how can you tell a good sensei from a bad one? (Or, in the current situation, true senseis calling themselves consultants from consultants calling themselves senseis, as the terminology is not settled yet).
A good sensei is one that understands there is no set process for taking good decisions. Every case has to be looked at on the merits. A good sensei also understands that you can’t ever “teach” lean to someone. You can explore with them what lean means in their situation, and discover with them where that takes you.
What Good Senseis Know
But a good sensei also knows inside-out some basic mechanisms of lean:
- Mura leads to muri leads to muda.
- Rework leads to quality issues and overcosts.
- Improving flexibility with a strong focus on quality leads to reducing overall costs. Visual confusion leads to ambiguity, rework, and mistakes.
- Not treating people as individuals (but as “resources”) and not recognizing individual efforts leads to disengagement and mindless work.
- Without stable teams and good team leaders, kaizen can’t happen.
- Faulty technical processes and equipment (separate human work from machine work) lead to frustration, anger, and acting out.
And so on. A good sensei is also steeped in the lean tradition and has seen these principles at work in many varied situations. Finally, pragmatically, these guys tend to be difficult, so a good sensei for you is one you get along with. It’s a journey of discovery together, so the relationship is essential!
I don’t have much advice to offer about finding the right sensei. This is part of your own learning journey. The lean community tends to know who is who. My own personal standard is counting the degrees of separation with Taichi Ohno.
Lean is not a religion, it’s a practice. Lean can’t be learned in books; it’s learning by doing. Lean studies by professors won’t teach you much. I was persuaded by the Toyota guys I studied while perusing my PhD that if I wanted to learn this stuff, I had to get involved, personally, on the gemba.
Because lean is not something we do to someone – that’s what professors or consultants do. Lean is something we practice with someone. The real challenge is not to teach someone to apply lean in their conditions. The challenge is to discover with them what would lean mean for them in their situations and what undiscovered potential for improvement could we explore so that we continuously deepen our understanding of the job. Lean is never known, it’s always learned.