Every business leader knows that process is the key to keeping costs down, pleasing customers and staying within the boundaries of regulation. But fixing broken processes or staying on top of them in a rapidly changing world requires fairly specialized skills. So it is not surprising that many organizations turn to outside consultants. But how do you choose a process consultant? What are the signs you are going to get value for money and not be left with a bunch of BS and a big invoice?
It’s best to approach hiring a consultant of any kind just as you would hiring an employee. After all, just like an employee, your team is going to be working alongside them and you are expecting them to make a significant contribution to the performance of your organization. So that means the same criteria apply: competence, fit and cost.
The first indicator of competence is obviously track record. Trying to find someone with direct experience of your industry sounds sensible but in fact will narrow the pool of candidates to a handful. It is also unnecessary as you already have people in your team who understand the details of your industry. It is more important to choose a process consultant that knows how to help your team negotiate the repair and improvement of their processes.
But experience of the kind of process is important. Let’s say you find someone whose main experience is with insurance claims processing where there is a high volume of low variability transactions. This does not make them the ideal candidate in a creative department where the processes are highly variable and the issues are about prioritization.
Ironically, the best indicator that you have someone who is competent is if they express any doubts and uncertainties about the possible outcomes of a consulting engagement. Right there that tells you that they are honest and realistic. A process consultant who does not understand what the risks are does not know how to avoid them.
Are they limited by a one size fits all solution or are they prepared to see your organization as unique? Will they adapt what they know and how they operate to your environment and challenges? If they come across as super confident about their particular way of tackling things, be wary. For some reason Six Sigma black belts are particularly prone to believing that all work can be reduced to a process, measured, and improved. But they are lost when they discover that your processes are so messy and unpredictable that they defy systematization.
The people side of process is crucial. Successful consultants will tell you that the secret sauce is 10% knowledge and 90% communication skills, particularly listening and asking good questions. Sometimes you come across consultants whose technical knowledge is superb but whose so called “soft skills” are so lacking that they are worse than useless.
The ideal candidate is someone who wants to teach rather than be an expert so avoid anyone who comes across as a sort of high priest of process. While having justifiable pride in their knowledge and experience is good, a process consultant must be able to communicate well. If your hired gun rides off into the sunset without passing on enough knowledge for the team to continue to smoothly work on their processes, you are no better off.
Like every other consultant field there are tiers of price and prestige. As a rule of thumb a sole practitioner process consultant costs about the same as high end IT consultant. Bear in mind you will need a consultant over a period of weeks rather than a few hours. Frankly, there is no way to do anything of lasting value without some extended onsite time.
Consulting firms are more expensive but sometimes easier to justify to the CFO or CEO. At the very high end you are looking at Big Firm fees. Good luck with that.
What ever you do please please don’t choose a consultant based on the lowest hourly rate. What takes one consultant an hour might take another four. A better way to judge the value you are going to get is to ask for an estimated return on investment. While that kind of calculation can be more about precision than accuracy, it will at least give you an idea of what you are going to be able to justify. Now, there may be many less tangible benefits like improved morale and increased customer satisfaction but there are also some pretty big assumptions built into ROI calculations. It kind of evens out.
If you can get a fixed price, then do so. That will tell you that the consultant is going to bear some of the risk here and that your risk is at least limited. And don’t forget that you will probably have to pay reasonable expenses. It’s always worth trying to cap that.