The case studies in this chapter highlight five fundamental ways in which consulting firms help organizations to improve their performance.
One of the key ways in which consultants can help improve performance is by pinpointing the underlying cause of a problem. Every one of us finds it hard to step back from our daily lives: even the smallest organization can become bogged down dealing with the here-andnow. We apply the same thinking to the same problems, but expect different results. For someone to come from the outside, as a consultant does, and see a situation clearly and disinterestedly can be enormously helpful. This is just what Kepner-Tregoe was able to do at Sun Microsystems when they realized the key to improving complex customer problems was the quality of information transferred from one shift of support engineers to another as they worked around the clock - and around the world. Ashridge Consulting challenged long-standing assumptions at the Norwich Community Hospital by suggesting that improving patient throughput was more than just a matter of more money, but depended on improving the efficiency with which patients were discharged. BT Retail was not short of information about consumer behaviour and market trends, but that did not mean it could see how to buck a stagnating fixed line telephone market. It needed to stand back and, with the help of Edengene, brainstorm a welter of possible options for generating new business before it appreciated that solving the micropayment issue was critical.
Of course, problems viewed in isolation can be highly misleading. Cut out as much of the white noise as possible that typically surrounds a business problem, and you can be left with something that can look deceptively black and white. Good consultants therefore marry their identification of a problem with an understanding of all the constraints that make the problem difficult for that client to resolve independently. For the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the challenge was not so much reconfiguring existing systems and processes, but doing this without interrupting the highly sensitive work involved. At Sun Microsystems, Kepner-Tregoe realized that training would not be enough to change the behaviour of Sun Microsystems' engineers; the consultants had to insert clear points in the problem-handling process which would trigger additional tasks.
Although apocryphal, it is still a pertinent story. A critical machine in a large factory breaks down, holding up production worth tens of thousands of dollars a day. When the in-house experts cannot fix the problem, the factory manager calls in an external mechanic. For a few minutes, this outside mechanic walks up and down the machine, occasionally poking things with his screwdriver. Then, in a flash, he leans in to tighten a screw and the machine starts up. But the factory manager is less delighted a week later, when an invoice for US $10,000 hits his desk. He rings up to query the amount. ‘That's right,' says the mechanic. ‘It's a dollar for tightening the screw - and 9,999 dollars for knowing which screw to fix.'
The value that a consultant brings is not determined by the amount of time he or she spends working on a problem, but by the experience and techniques he or she can bring to bear on what appears to be an intractable problem. Perhaps more than any other area of consulting, ‘operational' consulting benefits from a wealth of management tools and techniques. However, the skill of the consultant does not just lie in bringing a briefcase full of techniques to a given problem, but in knowing which are appropriate and how to apply them. Consultants are often criticized for coming up with ideas that prove impossible to implement in practice, but that is far from the case with the projects represented here. Ashridge Consulting used Eli Goldratt's Theory of Constraints to demonstrate that a system - in this case a community hospital - could only run as fast as the speed of its weakest link. Kepner-Tregoe brought clearly defined intellectual capital to its work at Sun Microsystems - a problem-solving methodology. But the firm's contribution was not confined to telling Sun Microsystems' engineers something new, but in ensuring that it was used on a consistent basis. PA Consulting Group's Systems Engineering methodology was one of the main reasons why GCHQ wanted to work with the firm, providing it with a means of analysing the interactions between its complex processes, 5,000 staff and more than 60 independent IT systems. The Chief Executive of BT click&buy described the consulting team from Edengene as pragmatic as well as smart: ‘Edengene's delivery was really excellent, from the more academic analysis at the start of the project, right through to implementation.'
Skills transfer is something that clients consistently put high on their agenda when it comes to hiring consultants - it is not enough to use consultants to solve a problem, they have to show the client's people how to solve it for themselves in the future. To quote Bird at Kepner-Tregoe again:
The best clients say ‘show me how, and I will execute'. Consultants have to leverage a client's internal resources rather than their colleagues; they need to have people who are credible, and consulting teams that are small enough to be flexible. They have to multiply their impact, not by bringing in more consultants, but by transferring skills.
Skills transfer was one of the aims of Ashridge Consulting's work with the Norwich Community Hospital. Here, the consultants helped the hospital's employees to learn, based on a combination of practical experience and analysis of how people learn in different ways. Kepner-Tregoe focused on training Sun Microsystems' trainers in order to pass on problem-solving techniques. At BT Retail, Edengene were involved not just in generating and evaluating new business ideas, but in helping set up BT click&buy, working side by side with BT's staff to pass on entrepreneurial know-how.
Resolving operational problems often depends on getting diverse groups of people to work together. The fifth and final facet of the best operational consulting is to ensure, once a change has been made, that it sticks. At the Norwich Community Hospital, anyone - from porter to senior clinical staff - could have blocked the initiative. To get around this potential obstacle, Ashridge involved as many people in the process as possible, giving them a stake in the solution. Kepner-Tregoe realized that Sun Microsystems' engineers were unlikely to use its process-solving on a consistent basis unless it gave them a positive incentive to do so - as long as they collected the information required, they could offload the problem on to the backline support team.