I recently had a chance to catch up with an old colleague – my first boss, in fact – who is now a senior executive with a Midwestern manufacturing company. He bemoaned the fact that his company has engaged three or four different lean consultants over the course of the last ten years, or so, yet the bottom line of the company is not much different than it would have been without them. The benefits these ‘experts’ brought from lean techniques just about broke even with the cost of the experts. I don’t think that story is unusual.
Seemingly unrelated, but perhaps very much related, is the fact that one of my closest friends is a lawyer. It is a great joy in my life, and the bane of his, that I have found and passed on an outstanding collection of lawyer jokes over the years. Lawyers are easy targets, as a brief perusal of the NAM website makes obvious. Their reputation for ethics and competence wallows around that of used car salesmen. As a manufacturing consultant, however, it seems more and more hypocritical to me to harass my good friend with continual sniping about his profession’s reputation for sleaze and chicanery. At least the lawyers have a code of ethics and a self-governing mechanism to set limits on just how far down at the bottom they can dwell and feed. I think manufacturing consulting is overdue to establish the same sort of control.
At the Lean Accounting Summit I shared a good laugh with a guy from an investment banking group who was in attendance. The topic, again, was the consulting community. It struck us both as humorous that, while every consultant bandies about a long list of lean successes, the same well known, few companies that are truly lean keep coming up at conferences such as the Lean Accounting Summit. We wondered where all of the thousands of companies the consultants claim to have ‘leaned’ are. In fact, they do not exist. Some are like my old colleague’s company, in which some consultant ran a few kaizen events, then proclaimed the company to be ‘lean’. Many are pure fiction.
Even hairdressers, literary agents and cab drivers have professional standards they must meet in order to do business in their chosen fields. It is high time the manufacturing consulting folks ponied up and did the same. We need a sort of Manufacturing Consultants Association that sets member standards for billing procedures, the honesty of the claims we make concerning our backgrounds and qualifications, as well as the veracity of the track records we make on our web sites, literature and proposals. It is hard enough for our customers struggling to make it in a tough manufacturing world to select a consultant without having to worry about whether we are remotely close to what we say we are.
In 1887, Mark Twain wrote, "Adam was not alone in the Garden of Eden, however. Much of the credit should go to Eve, the first woman, and Satan, the first consultant." If we are not careful, people will pick up on Twain’s cue, and consultant jokes will overtake lawyer jokes in American culture.