In Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3, Polonius advises his son Laertes, “To thine own self be true.” This advice is just as true today as it was when Shakespeare wrote it around 1600. Or perhaps you prefer the Latin, caveat emptor, which means buyer beware. In both cases, the message seems to be to look out for your own best interests as no one will do so for you – even though many will adamantly profess to do so. Trust is a wonderful thing but blind trust is potentially devastating. I am speaking of the relationships we have with the ever burgeoning hordes of consultant who are methodically dismembering our best companies in the name of “continuous improvement.”

Before you dismiss this as a rant, it is important to point out that not all consultants are charlatans. The consulting model once was that you would hire someone who was a proven expert, someone who had amassed great expertise and knowledge, and bring them in to advise you on how to better your company. They were proven experts with thousands of hours of hands-on application of each principle and tool they sought to teach you. I don’t wish to talk about those firms today. In fact, if your consultant meets the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour definition of an expert then you should hire them with no reservations.

Instant Consultants

The “expert” I want to talk about today is the “instant” consultant; those people and firms that self-proclaim themselves to be continuous improvement experts through publication, education or association. Often these firms are experts in another field and see continuous improvement to be a valuable line extension. Unfortunately, they don’t see the value in investing in actually becoming experts; it’s easier to simply define yourself as an expert. The problem, of course, is that the expertise of these newly minted consultants is superficial and often over branded. Their approaches are formulaic and limited and their branding hinges upon renaming tried and true tools or approaches. This is a toxic soup for continuous improvement because it devalues the real seminal work of others, it consumes real productivity and ultimately destroys future growth and innovation.

McKinsey & Company reports claim only a 30 percent success rate when engaging in significant business transformation. Independent sources acknowledge the high failure rate but put the success rate around 65 percent to 66 percent. That should tell you something – you are twice as likely to succeed without McKinsey as you are with them. Why is that?

Don’t be fooled. The people at the top 5 consultants are very smart. They are capable and they work hard. It’s not the people, it’s the system. The environment in which these consultants work dictates and restricts their success rate. No amount of hard work, superior know-how or luck is going to overcome this. If you want better results, you need a better system.

Two Camps of Quality and Improvement

There are two camps when it comes to quality and improvement. The first is the traditional accounting and quality audit types who favor ensuring that form is perfect. Their argument is that form defines function and this is a pretty good system for maintaining the status quo. The other camp is the engineering and scientific types who favor deep understanding and mastery of the fundamental drivers of a system. Their argument is that function defines form and this is a good system for driving changes. So ask why you hired your consultant: was it to reinforce the current system and become more like your competition, or was it to make significant changes to the current state and create breakthroughs? Whether function or form dominates, form is still important.

Expertise is, however, what mathematicians call necessary but not sufficient. In order to be a leader of change, people must willingly follow you. When you circumvent your in-house staff, when you discount your internal experts, you are effectively banking on self-interests. If your consultant delivers tangible results that are independently sourced, that self-interest may be enough; but when your consultant leverages internal expertise or makes recommendations but does not follow them through to results, your team will become demoralized and ultimately fail. This will also occur if you place your trust in an outsider and that outsider fails to generate results or merely makes recommendations and then moves on. What it really boils down to is whether all the parties, and especially the consultant, care about the outcome of the transformation you are undertaking. If they don’t, no amount of expertise will overcome this obstacle.

The real litmus test for whether your consultant cares is whether they think about your company and your problems after the solution has been proposed. There are consultants who feel their responsibility ends with recommendations. They focus on your issues for a short while, do the job and then move on. If things work, that’s great and if not, then you must have either misrepresented the issues (causing them to make poor recommendations) or not followed the recommendations. There is no commitment to seeing the issues through to completion; it’s just a job. The real expert consultants, on the other hand, focus on ensuring the work they do has an impact either because they care about your company or because they care about the product they deliver. In both cases, there is a commitment after the sale. Being true to one’s craft means having pride in the outcome and application – not just making the sale.

Finally, there is the issue of knowledge transfer. It is human nature to protect one’s source of power. After all, this is how we make our living. But true experts derive their value from sharing, and thus enhancing, their expertise and experience. They are not threatened by people challenging their recommendations. Challenges simply set them up to explain and defend those recommendations, actually enhancing their cache and position. They are secure in the knowledge that by teaching their customers and constantly expanding their knowhow.

Compare this to the self-appointed experts who are constantly defending their position and power. To share and transfer this diminishes their cache and so they guard it jealously. These are the advisors who, when their recommendations are challenged, focus on the challenger. They have no security in teaching – only in indoctrinating. Since they can only be sure that problems that follow the model upon which their expertise is based will be properly solved, dogma must prevail. Deviations from this dogma are a serious threat; if others know all the details of the process, the advisor has no future role.

Dogma in and of itself can be a good thing if it is accompanied by competence. When competency is high, dogma becomes a set of guiding mileposts or checkpoints to keep the program aligned. When competency is low, unfortunately, these guiding checkpoints are turned outward.  Rather than being a positive guide and helping the process, these same guides now become blinders limiting how problems can be solved, these same guides become bludgeons to defend why recommendations must be followed. It’s a toxic combination. Dogma with low competence stifles buy-in, destroys confidence (both for the consultant and for those receiving their recommendations), and effectively disenfranchises the local expertise (who often leave) making future success uncertain and unlikely.

What to Do

So what are we to do? Clearly you wouldn’t be hiring outside help if you knew all the answers and had all the solutions in an acceptable form. You have a need, you need help and the choice of who helps you will make all the difference.

Be aware and beware. Know what your consultant is selling you. Know where their expertise is sourced and how they will use that expertise to improve your business. The good guys won’t hesitate to tell you. They know they have something to offer that transcends the first inquiry and they will be focused on building that expertise in your organization so sharing is never a problem.

Hire experts. And make sure those experts are working on your problem. If you are going to spend money to train someone, spend it on your internal people – they are more likely to stay. You want people who actually know how to solve your problems, not people who are using you as a case study to prepare them for a bigger career.

Know what motivates your consultant. Do they truly care whether you succeed or fail or is your contract just another job? Are they bringing you expertise or are they harvesting the knowhow from your internal people so they can share it later with someone else? Be careful of the assumptions.

Learn to recognize form versus function. Different people think in different ways. Make certain the problem solving style you choose is consistent with the type of problem you have. Hire a form-over-function consultant for your ISO9000 preparation and they will be great. Hire that person for you continuous improvement team and they will be a disaster. The opposite holds true for your function over form people – great continuous improvement, lousy at ISO.

Ensure knowledge transfer! You have a problem. Most likely you lack expertise and that is why you hired a consultant. If they don’t transfer that expertise to your company, how will you deal with any recurrences of that problem?

Understand that knowledge transfer is different from training. Training focuses on information transfer and behavior modification and this is part, but not everything, that is needed for knowledge transfer to occur. Your goal in bringing in an outside consultant rather than hiring a new employee should be to build the wherewithal internally to solve similar problems to the one you have now. This includes the technical, social and managerial aspects Teams need training but they also need coaching to ensure that the knowledge transfer has occurred.

Take care of your internal experts. Yes, they are probably the people who got you to the point where you need an outside consultant but they are also the people who will manage your processes after your consultant leaves. They also, most likely, know what your consultant will do to solve the problem.


Managed well, a consulting engagement is a fast and effective way to bring expert knowledge and experience into your firm and rapidly change an organization. Managed poorly and that engagement will do more harm than good.  It is up to the business executive bringing that consultant in to make sure the engagement is managed well. Never turn over the keys to your business to someone else. Take the time to understand what you are buying and make sure you get what you pay for.

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