And we thought the opinion of management consultants in the U.S. was low. From across the pond comes an article in The Times on the evil of consultants in the United Kingdom. Of course The Times isn’t exactly known for it’s balanced perspective or depth of research, but in some respects this article even shows a counterbias by suggesting that legislation created by Republicans in the U.S. be borrowed to solve the supposed problem.
The article itself deals primarily with management consultants embedded within the British government, and specifically with cases where healthcare-related computer systems were being upgraded. Why is always computer system upgrades that become major fiascos… on both sides of the Atlantic? Probably because the wheel keeps on getting reinvented instead of simply streamlining the underlying process, sharing best practices, and the like. Regular readers know we often go after those that worship the false god of the almighty algorithm. Apparently their consultants also kept their soldiers from getting body armour, created dirty hospitals, and instigated riots at job centers.
There are the usual horrors of consultants that don’t know what they’re doing, supposedly costing taxpayers more than the original problem was worth, and inbreeding themselves with civil service employees to in effect create cabals of silence. That of couse leads to whistleblower heros who are somehow surprised they are blacklisted and can’t find a new job.
But there are some interesting tidbits that make you wonder what they heck they’re putting in their lemon lime bitters. How about this:
[The whistleblower Neil Glass] works for a consultancy called the Best Practice Group, which advises clients how to avoid using consultants.
A consultant to advise on how to avoid using consultants. I should have thought of that!
But perhaps more important is the astonishing blurring of the lines between consultancy and government. Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, was head of research at Accenture when it was known as Andersen Consulting. Ian Watmore, head of the Downing Street Delivery Unit, was UK managing director of Accenture. David Bennett, chief policy adviser to the prime minister, is a former McKinsey partner. Richard Granger, head of the NHS IT programme, was with Deloitte. And so on. Meanwhile, moving in the other direction, Sir Michael Barber, former head of the delivery unit, has gone to McKinsey. After his fall, David Blunkett went to Indepen Consulting. Lord Filkin, a Home Office minister, became an adviser to Capgemini and a director of Accord. Derek Scott left the job of economic adviser to the prime minister and joined KPMG as chief economist. And so on. This mutual interpenetration is not restricted to the people at the top.
Follow all that? Me neither, but it makes our K Street fiasco look like Boy Scout meeting. One thing that came out of it are a couple words that I am now challenging myself to find a use for in polite conversation. Those Brits!
The article spends an absurd number of paragraphs providing a lengthy history lesson on the scourge of consultants. James McKinsey is apparently next-of-kin to Stalin… actually the article implies this pretty explicitly. But the author does correctly surmise something that Bill and I have been saying for a long time:
Somehow the idea had been born that consultants would know how to run a business. This is demonstrably wrong, because one of the strangest things about management consultants is they seldom have any expertise in running businesses. Indeed, the majority have no business experience of any kind. This oddity was identified by Chris McKenna of Oxford’s Said Business School. He noted that two-thirds of graduates leaving Harvard with an MBA – the gold standard of business qualifications – did not, as they were intended to do, go into large companies, but into consultancy or related professions like investment banking. Even among the remaining third, few went into the kind of management jobs for which they were meant to be qualified. This remains true on both sides of the Atlantic.
But then the author starts smoking something again while continuing his history lesson…
A series of management fads swept the business world. The big ones in the 1970s and ’80s were “lean manufacturing” and “total quality”. These fads were created in response to fears that the Far East was out-competing the West. Companies like Toyota were producing more reliable cars with lower stock overheads. Kanban, the system of just-in-time manufacture, where each component arrived only at the moment it was ready to be used, was the cool business aspiration. “Lean” is a word still used to describe efficiency programmes in the civil service. And Kanban was the system that, when adopted by the MoD, deprived troops of body armour. In the 1990s came “business process re-engineering”, an idea that means very little but did at least give the consultancies a new product.
Lean manufacturing was a fad of the 70’s? Kanban is responsible for British deaths in Basra? BPO means little except that it’s a new product for consultants to sell? Well perhaps that last one has a small element of reality. But if lean is a fad, then what have I been doing the last few years? Where have those improvements come from? Why did I bother to attend last October’s record-setting AME conference? Well like we mentioned in the beginning, The Times isn’t known for its depth of research.
Consultants get a pretty bad rap on both sides of the pond. Much, if not most, of it is well-deserved and predominantly self-inflicted, and most consultants are over-rated. At the same time there are cases where consultants are needed. When an organization doesn’t have the specific internal talents and doesn’t need them for the long haul, to jump-start specific transformation processes, and to learn and share best practices without reinventing the wheel. The good ones, those with clear and deep industry experience who focus on real-world objectives measured quantitatively and have a history of delivering – while truly transfering knowledge, can create rapid and sustainable value.
Even with that passé fad called lean.