The Consultant Within

The state of the US economy notwithstanding, retention of talent is a major issue across many organizations these days. Operational Excellence, Six Sigma, and related disciplines are no exception, with a lot of the mobility fueled by the same high standards for training and certification that are intended to attract folks in the first place.

Indeed, that sucking sound you hear just might be the vacuum created as Black Belts bolt one manufacturing company for another. Or perhaps they’re leaving for jobs in healthcare and finance, both of which seem to be consuming experienced practitioners at an alarming rate. And if you are in China or other similarly hot economies, that sucking sound is probably closer to the wail of a hurricane, as the best talent ricochets from employer to employer with all the subtlety of a midnight freight train.

For the organization suffering defections, there are many downsides to this churn. Consistency is hard to maintain. Standards are hard to enforce. Long-term projects and initiatives are hard to complete. Relationships suffer. Departments break down. And organization memory shrinks to a pinprick.

Priority number one in this environment is, of course, to hold on to your talent. I won’t go into that lengthy topic (others could probably do it more justice anyway), nor will I tarry for an admittedly interesting discussion about why a lot of technical folks feel the need to hop employers to get ahead in their careers (although I do think that is a fascinating phenomenon).

Instead I want to talk about the flip-side of the phenomenon, and why it can actually be a good thing for an organization. Even the best organizations lose people sometimes, and those people are generally replaced with people from other good organizations. So there is a constant stream of people and knowledge going back and forth. All of which means that, big or small, you probably have a lot of “outside” knowledge resident in your organization. This is old news, and I’m hardly the first one to point it out. But I think its especially true of continuous improvement professionals, and in my experience there isn’t a whole lot being done about it.

This is in part due to a love affair with outside consultants. Many of us were initially trained by outside consultants, and out first instinct in new situations is to look towards them. This is a familiar mode for all involved, but is very expensive and results tend to be mixed at best. What if there was a way to get exactly the same benefits with virtually no cost and very little risk? With as much cross-fertilization as there is going on between companies these days, the best consultants are probably already colleagues just waiting to be consulted. That’s always been the case, but it is exacerbated as the flow of talent is becomes ever more fast, furious, and global.

Like I said, this is hardly an original thought. But even so, I see a lot of consultants engaged for jobs that could very well be done just as well by internal employees. The missing link is a high degree of communication and organization, especially across geography and business functions. For example, if a large company needs 5S help in a plant in Chicago, it is very easy to go out and hire a consultant. But if the company is large enough, there’s probably a distribution center in Warsaw that has already been through a 5S journey and has plenty of expertise and experience to share. The trouble is that the folks in Chicago almost never know about the people in Warsaw. And even if that connection is made, doing something about can look pretty daunting. Getting the domestic consultant in is a lot easier. It may cost more, but it is the kind of cost that the organization is used to paying.

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All of which means that in an environment where talent and experience are migrating both in and out of the organization – like they are right now in Six Sigma and related areas – having the infrastructure and processes in place to identify and leverage expertise globally is at least as important as any other task a deployment executive has. You’ve got people coming in with new skills and experience all the time, and you need to be learning from them and leveraging what they know. You can be victim to the sucking sound, or you can profit from it. Setting up to do that looks and feel a lot different than a traditional deployment, but we’re no longer living in a world where big companies don’t have Black Belts or Continuous Improvement specialists. The question isn’t whether you have them, it’s what you know about them and what are you doing with them.

Comments 8

  1. Stephen C. Crate


    This is exactly what the State of Maine did. Instead of hiring a bunch of consultants to come in and facilitate one or two Value Stream Maps then leave, our management trained about 20 continuous improvement professionals who volunteered for the training in addition to their current jobs and now can facilitate projects within state government.

    The project called “Bend the Curve” has another training for 12 more. We now have an internal team that can be directed to a problem area, complete a map and make immediate recommendations to Management on what steps can be taken to reduce waste.

    There is still some internal cost transferred but not nearly what it would cost to bring in a set of consultants. This keeps some continuity in operations. This is a great idea that may give rise to concern from outside consultants but in the end it is much better for the bottom line of the company.

  2. Andrew Downard


    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your experience, and think that the situation can be even more beneficial if you already have people "hanging around" your organization who have been trained or otherwise gained useful experience elsewhere. The trick is to set up the program to identify and leverage those folks. Regardless of where you find them – through your own training program or as a side-benefit of churn – making use of their expertise in the context of a cohesive larger program is easier to talk about than accomplish. But the rewards and savings make it worthwhile.

    Thanks again,


  3. Stephen C. Crate

    Identifying those folks should be a function of the human resource department. A well run HR should know the talents of every employee and when management says they need something HR should look within first. Good HR management should have some database of employees to query all employees by skill sets. Accounting functions do this well. HR understands this but most organizations do not give enough resources to HR to achieve this up to a practical standard. A simple survey of all employees identifying skill sets, set up in an Oracle or Access database could achieve this easily. A wonderful idea, but implementation must have top management support.


  4. Ian King

    I liked this article. Unfortunately my company has embarked on a Six SIgma program but then ignores the internally trained people when it comes to large projects. They go for the McKinsey or Accenture option and use the internal people as gofers on the project. One day the thinking may change!

  5. Andrew Downard


    I don’t disagree. I’ve also had good success in the past with a simple survey sent out to the entire organization via email. 3-4 questions, less than 30 seconds to complete. This quickly generates a database of who is out there and what skills they have.

    If you want to get fancy, you can build some logic into the survey. For example, if folks self-identify as Black Belts, you can have them answer a few more detailed questions…like where they were trained, whether they were certified, what projects they worked on in the past, etc. If not, they don’t see those questions. This is easy to do out-of-the-box with various online survey tools.

    You don’t get responses from everyone, but you do tend to hear from the people who are most interested in getting involved. That turns out to be a nice bit of self-selection. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is trivially easy and gives you 90% of what you need to know. Best of all, it works the same and requires the same amount of effort (not much) whether your organization is 30 or 30,000 or 300,000.


  6. Andrew Downard


    Take comfort in the fact that you are not alone! What you have described is not unusual.


  7. Andrew Downard

    Hi Sue,

    I think a lot of it is driven by metrics, and particularly by headcount. I have seen plenty of organizations where adding a single permanent head is absolutely impossible, but spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to complete the same tasks is relatively easy to arrange. I do understand that taking on permanent employees entaisl risks and hassles not present with consultants risk, and that the cost of salary is only a fraction of the total cost of taking on a new employee. But I do think perhaps the pendulum has swung to an unhealthy place.

    As for what to do about it, I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I do think a crucial first step is to become organized – find the internal experts, formally identify them, and acknowledge them. Maybe follow up with a gap analysis, stating clearly what is resident in the organization and what is missing. In essence this is measuring something that usually isn’t measured. Once you have some data to work with, paths forward become easier to find. And deciding where consultants are truly needed becomes less of a guessing game.


  8. Sue Kozlowski

    Andrew, you’ve described beautifully a phenomenon that I’ve observed in lots of organizations.

    In a sense, it’s comforting to know – like becoming aware that you’re not the only one with a dysfunctional family – but I am challenged to think how to address the issue, because I see more and more companies with "outsource fever." They will spend far more on external resources than internal, and be happy with a result that they would not accept from employees.

    You’ve raised a great discussion point – thanks for your post.
    –Sue K.

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