GKN’s Peter Watkins explores the pros and cons of hiring a consultancy to support your lean journey, looking at his own experience and that of other lean leaders, and gives some practical tips for you not to get lost in the immense ocean of available offers.

Toyota leaders have a sensei to coach them towards the correct lean thinking way, so getting your lean journey started with the right support is critical. One of my favourite lean gurus, Shigeo Shingo, talked about how we need to progress from having a lean tools approach for improvement into system thinking around value flow and then towards a strategy driven by lean principles.

Lean principles drive us to use the Plan Do Check Act approach, by starting any activity with the ‘end in mind’. So we need to be clear about what problems we are trying to solve before engaging external support. Once you are clearer on the problem to solve, you can determine who will provide the right support for you.

In the table opposite I have tried to summarise some thoughts on the benefits and concerns when engaging consultants to support the initial problems you may have when starting your lean journey. This is based on my own experience, and I have also asked other lean leaders from SMEs the reasons why they engaged consultants.

Following lean principles we should always evaluate the alternatives. Here are some suggestions you can think about if you don’t want to use external consultancies:

  • Hire someone to the company with the right lean skills and the ability to create change, who can act as an internal coach to the leadership team.
  • Participate in lean networking or benchmarking activities, like those of LMJ, the Lean Enterprise Academy or AME and of those associated to universities who teach and educate in lean thinking.
  • Just start “learning by doing” from PDCA experiments with your current leadership team. This is not for the faint-hearted, though, as your lean journey will certainly be slower and involve big learning curves – but after all this is how the original lean gurus all started.

Once you have thought about the purpose for engaging an external consultancy for support, you can start to form ideas for selecting and using the right consultancy.

There are literally thousands of consultancies worldwide which claim to be able to support you on your lean journey, so where do you start? Here are some ideas to start your search off on the right foot:

  • Contact companies who have proven sustained results from their lean journey in your industry.
  • Attend/join lean network groups, lean conferences or events.
  • Read lean publication articles on successful deployments.
  • Ask lean support institutes if they can recommend who you can talk to, or ask universities which consultancies support them on their lean programmes.

Once you have made a shortlist of names, you will then need to check their previous work. The best way to do this is by asking for them to arrange contact with firms they have been involved with. You can then ask questions about their approach and results. Did they get sustainable results? Could they diffuse and share their knowledge within the company? Did they solve the problems for leadership but never involve them in how it was done? Did the employees sustain their changes because they are more engaged in their jobs?

Once you have engaged an external consultancy, use the PDCA approach to make sure your current leadership integrates the “lean way of working” into their current management system.

PLAN – Develop a plan on how you are going to internalise their knowledge and share it across your business and integrate.

DO – Assign your smartest leaders and people at the do stage to follow their every move, and learn by doing the techniques and methods.

CHECK – Constantly check the sustainment of implementation results to ensure behavioural change has happened.

ACT – Finally when your leaders feel confident enough to act alone, adjust your approach to spread the learning’s across the rest of your company with your own leaders.

I will leave you with one more quote from Shingo, who said: “The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we do not recognise.” External consultancies can be a valuable support when starting out, they help us to see and act on the waste all around us, but only if they are used with clear purpose and a defined process for PDCA can they be a good catalyst for change.