You’re the CEO of a small-to-medium-sized company. Or you’re heading the committee charged with maximizing output and minimizing mistakes in a much larger organization. You’ve heard about Six Sigma and you think it might work for your firm. You make the leap – you decide to hire a consulting company to help you implement the methodology. But whom do you hire? From the hundreds of choices, how can you hire a consultant who is right for your company? What should you consider in making your selection?
Representatives on both sides of the fence – two consulting companies and two client companies – offer views here in a virtual discussion on how to make the best selection. David Silverstein, CEO of Breakthrough Management Group, and Joe De Feo, CEO of the Juran Institute, speak from their positions heading up consulting companies. Steve Ford and Ed Kratzer of AT&T’s Center for Excellence, and Mike Tretola of Intuit’s Process Excellence, speak from their experience as clients who have “been there, done that.”
They all agree that before even beginning to look at any consultants, you need to first look inward. Joe De Feo says that knowing your own firm and what you want is the key to finding the right consultant. You should ask: How do we satisfy customers? How do we refine our processes? Mike Tretola thinks that any firm considering hiring a Six Sigma consultant should perform a careful self-assessment. What do you want or need to achieve? Should you establish an executive team to oversee the process? Do you want full services in implementing Six Sigma or could you do some of it yourself? Steve Ford and Ed Kratzer endorse forming an in-house executive team of no more than five people to decide when Six Sigma would be right for your firm. Timing is critical, they say. Implementation must be based on sufficient interest within the firm, and it should be given the highest priority and support.
The Right Fit
David Silverstein warns against shortchanging the selection process. Too often selection is “done on paper,” he says. The people in charge pick 10 consulting companies and ask for a proposal. Of those 10, they then pick three to come in for a presentation. “Marketing is marketing, and hype is hype,” Silverstein notes. To see through the ad copy and catchy web site design, you need to get some real information from people you trust, he says. His advice is to first talk to your peers in other companies. You are far better off, he declares, if you get some background information from those who do what you do, who have been through the process before you.
“The process is like peeling away the layers of an onion,” he explains. “You have to be willing to dig deep enough to find that perfect fit.” He further advises not to rush things. Be thorough in getting to know a company. When asked by a prospective client to give a presentation, consultant Silverstein asks for a full three hours to tell what his company can do. He also suggests that you speak to three or four of the consulting company’s Black Belts or managers. “This is a people business,” he says, “Make sure their people are people you can work with.”
De Feo says you should ask yourself what you are looking for in a consulting company. Do you want full services or do you need training only? Silverstein echoes that, saying the fit you need is all important. If you need simply training and not all aspects of Six Sigma implementation, look for that. If you want full services, you need to look further for your consulting “fit.” He warns not to fall back on thinking that because some of your employees have worked at other companies during Six Sigma training, you can take shortcuts and let them handle things internally. This is a mistake, he says. “Your company is not GE.” He advises companies to focus on the commitment needed from middle management. Do not delegate, and do not assume that Six Sigma will work the same for your firm as for a giant company, he suggests.
Mike Tretola adds that if you want to outsource the Six Sigma implementation completely, you will need to go deeper in the references to check for satisfaction. Ask them about their experiences. Were they happy with the complete approach? Were they pleased with the quality of the training? On the other hand, if you want your company to do some of its own training, you must ask other questions. Are there long-term licensing fees involved? What about updating? Your company may require “coaching,” Tretola says.
Steve Ford and Ed Kratzer of AT&T think that finding a good consultant involves knowing who the company is and what it has done. They recommend that a known quantity, such as a firm with more than a few years’ experience in Six Sigma, is an obvious way to get over the hurdle of “Whom do I pick?” One major advantage to picking a known quantity, they say, is that your people – your Black Belts and Green Belts – are then known outside your industry, and outside your firm. The training they receive “is both immediately recognizable and transferable.”
Consultant De Feo thinks that asking the question “How long has your firm been in business?” is a way of getting at the heart of the issue. A reputable firm should be able to stand on its history, he says. Satisfied clients will do the marketing. Silverstein agrees. He advises that instead of “that magic number three,” you ask for 10 or even 20 references. “Anyone can produce three clients whom they worked well with…and didn’t upset,” he says.
As to whether a consulting firm should have prior experience in your specific industry, Ford and Kratzer both think it is worthwhile. But what is critical is to know that they “speak your language.” Familiarity with a particular product or service is not essential, but familiarity with the field is, they say. De Feo agrees that the consultants need to speak the language of your industry or service, but thinks you should not be concerned about industry-specific experience.
Breadth of Service
A critical factor in deciding which consultant is best for you is the breadth of service offered. Ford and Kratzer both stress the customization they required. “We were not interested in a sort of ‘off the shelf’ implementation. We wanted someone who could tailor (the implementation) to fit our needs.” Being up on the latest materials also is of extreme importance, Ford notes, and staff size is crucial. “We wanted to know that there would be enough people to stay with us.”
De Feo emphasizes that the consulting firm should have experience in a variety of industries and services, and should have the staff to back it up. He advises you to ask if some of the staff is part-time or on contract. This could have an impact on how promptly your problems will be solved and queries answered. Stability of staff should be a concern, he says. “Ask how long these people are going to be around. Will they be here for the whole process?”
Other questions he advises you to ask consulting firms are: Do they own the training materials? How long have they been using them? Do they have elearning? And if it is applicable: Are these materials available in other languages? Is there multilingual capability within the firm? Is their staff trained in correct etiquette for other countries and cultures?
Mike Tretola of Intuit says you should be aware that there will be questions and problems which arise at each level of training/implementation. He suggests you think of the consulting staff as “a sort of ‘help desk’ for when these things occur.” You want someone who remains “engaged” with your firm after the initial period, he says, and not simply a “hired gun” who will leave after the first wave. You should feel certain that you are an important part of the consultant’s business, not simply “one of 50 clients.”
As with any business decision, cost is a factor in choosing a consultant. “But it should not be the biggest factor,” Kratzer says. Tretola agrees. Location, travel, materials – all these will impact the price, he said, and firms must take these elements into consideration. But pricing should never be the sole deciding factor, he stresses.
Silverstein has some cautionary advice. Beware of companies who want a long-term commitment from you, he warns, or who expect financial commitment up front. That should be a red flag to the potential client. And he adds, “Don’t be fooled by big numbers. If someone claims to have improved productivity by 40 percent, ask to see the data. Six Sigma is all about data, and if the numbers are that good, they should be willing to show them to you.”
The conclusion: With careful self-analysis and assessment, commitment from management, and willingness to look at all services and processes, you can find the best Six Sigma consultant for your company.