Last month, we looked at the various types of management consultants operating in the supply chain management arena, from giant international corporations to one-man or one-woman shops. Now, let's examine, albeit briefly, what they can do and how to find one that fits your needs.
Why do businesses need consultants? There are lots of good reasons—a shortage of internal resources, for example, or a lack of specific internal experience. Sometimes it's a desire for a fresh perspective or advice from someone with knowledge of and access to best practices. Many times, businesses find it helpful to bring in consultants who have experience with specific technology solutions (like analytic and decision support tools) or a specific service provider in order to shorten the learning curve and ease the transition.
Within the supply chain management sphere of operations, there are a number of activities in which consultants— real honest-to-goodness management consultants— can add genuine value. These include:
The list could be longer—much longer—but you get the drift. The trick is to find the right consultant for the right problem. Maybe a consultant can help with that task, too— really, we're serious.
Finding the right consultant
How do you select a consultant? What's important in a consulting relationship? And where do you find one in the first place? We'll struggle to respond to these questions without being too self-serving (we hope).
First, consider what type of consultancy you're looking for. If your organization is culturally welded to a mega-firm approach, it's usually pointless to open the bidding to a lot of sole practitioners. On the other hand, if the organization is confident and secure, the sole practitioner can be marvelously time- and cost-effective. If the problem has some complexity, the small/mid-sized firm, or a team of sole practitioners, can be the right way to go.
As for how to find a consultant, there are many options. One is to use directories. The Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals has one, but it is incomplete.
Another method—actually an excellent way—is to talk with industry peers. Networking in your professional community is also a good way to get the lowdown on consulting professionals.
Yet another option is to go to the Internet, which is currently generating consulting contacts at a level undreamed of just a couple of years ago. Anybody worth anything has a Web site. A cautionary note: Concentrate on Web site content versus gee-whiz site design and graphic effects. Emphasis on the superficial might be more revealing than the firm involved realizes.
But how do you know whether a consultant is any good? Competence can be evaluated from references and from experience. Experience means stuff the actual people on the job have actually done, hands on, not the endless list of organizational qualifications. Cautionary note: IT application experience is not the same as operating experience.
Presuming competency, the final selection will generally come down to cHemiätry, style, and comfort. Typically, you are going to be working with the consultant(s) for some time. Tolerance of a style mismatch wears very thin, very quickly.
There are a few additional points. As you evaluate the possibilities, look for a good listener, one who's more interested in you and your business than in his own credentials.
Take that a step further and try to ferret out whether he or she is comfortable departing from the script when an unexpected comment or subject pops up.
A grim reality
One of the dirty little secrets of the consulting business is turnover, which can only be described as incredible. The average consulting career is shorter than that of an NFL player: less than three years. The mega-firms, particularly, chew 'em up and spit 'em out. It's a tough lifestyle; tough on the individual, tougher on families.
Even the "career" consultants don't tend to stay in one place for long. Most bounce from firm to firm, a few years here and a few years there. Although those who have successful small firms tend to stay in the game longer, very, very few establish long careers at one organization.
So, the odds are good that the consultant you really liked last time is no longer a consultant, and the probability that he or she is still with the same organization is somewhere south of No Chance.
As much as we believe in the value and potential efficacy of consultants in helping clients achieve supply chain excellence, it can be overdone. The average company doesn't need consultants to answer every question. And it might not need large numbers of them, if the consultant is inclined to leverage knowledge and experience through the efforts of internal teams.
It's a bit reminiscent of those interesting people on talk radio's "Dr. Laura" show who answer their own questions before the call is over. The solution frequently lies within the company, and it may only take a little probing and direction to get the organization on the right path.