Friday, October 30, 2009

Consulting: Technical Training pitfalls

A recent post by my friend Tim Stephens (i bet his filtrbox is ringing right now) brought up one of the problems with the way many conduct technical training (software training, skill trades training, maching repair, etc). If the training does not prepare the student to DO, then it is useless. Training where the "instructor" piles on technical details and trivia that don't support the NEEDED activities, are of no value.

For example, in a training class for a software tool, that will remain nameless, the "instructor" provided a dissertation on the underpinnings of the software. Aspects of the software, that had nothing to do with the operation of the program or the completion of a job. In fact Tim will probably remind me that much of the discussion focused on the way the prior version used to handle something, that was automated in the new version. Yes, hours of class were spent discussing features that did not exist anymore. How did that help the student do his/her job?

Training that does not focus on what the student needs to be able to do, and does not require them to apply knowledge serves only as ego stroking for the "instructor". The students need to feel free to try things out, make mistakes, and it is OK for them to leave knowing that there are things they don't know yet. Don't try to cram their heads with every little nugget of information, they will leave not knowing which to use in getting the job done.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Consulting: Failure is an option!

Pretty poor paraphrasing, but still on point. When outlining a project with your clients one must ensure that any "failure" is, in fact, success. A common mistake that dooms many engineering consulting projects is the failure on the part of the Techni-HO in question from recognizing that sometimes they may successfully arrive at an answer of "NO".

This is different from prior discussions on the concept of "Shooting the Moon" Guarantees earlier mentioned here. But instead a need for you the Techni-HO to be able to recognize a no-win situation long before it ever happens.

For example, a common engineering problem in my other life as a Self-Proclaimed-Die-Expert is Formability and Springback. I'll pick on formability since it is the easier one. Some of the early tricks in my career relied on my forming "expertise" to identify and correct forming issues. These forming issues were usually automotive sheet metal parts (big body panels, exterior and under body) that split. Of course, producing fenders for Cadillacs and hoods for Oldsmobiles that had big splits in them was totally unacceptable.

The idea was to make the splits go away. It was our roll to make them go away, but here is the trap, what if the splits can't go away? What if there is no solution to fully resolve the failure? We always had to be careful not to take too much ownership in the absolute execution of the solution. For if the suggested solution does not resolve the problem then what do you do next?

We tell them that to make the splits go away they need to reduce the strain in that area x%. By definition in sheet metal the split is an indication or symptom of excessive strain. It would be a mistake to point out that they need to increase or decrease some specific variable to fix the split. (unless you are very good at recognizing the "moon-shot" opportunity).

Carefully craft your solution. The good news is that many of your customers won't recognize restatement of the problem, as a failure to solve the problem.
Return to profitability, by bringing revenues and expenditures in balance. (no shit!?!)
The "HOW" is for the process stakeholders (your clients) to decide and implement. Help them use process to identify potential solutions, help them to implement, then be ready to be the one to measure the success of the change. Just be smart enough to say, "that didn't do it, but we are headed in the right direction. Or that was wrong, now we know it is not related to [yada yada yada]."

I hope you never promised that a specific implementation would achieve the required end. After all, a plausible solution might not exist for their given parameters. However, we may eliminate a plan that did not work, and that has value.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Consulting attitude: hired guns

Quite often the consultant is hired because the client already knows what they need to do, they just did not know how to get it done or in some cases could not risk the political capital. Lean consultants don't get hired unless the client already knew they were running "fat". HR consultants often get hired because the management does not have the fortitude or strength of will to do the onerous head-chopping that the "efficiency experts" will eventually proffer as a solution.

As a Techni-HO you are often sought out because you are an outsider, you are not mired in the details for the day-to-day business and will have hopefully the insight to see what people in the company have blinded themselves to and to follow through with relatively distasteful action.  You are the hired gun, there to do the job that they themselves won't do.

A manager at one of my contracts once told me--very insightfully--that he appreciated that we were there since we paid attention to the details and the follow through that they for purposes of self preservation did not like to bring to light. We had the dirty job of recognizing potential for growth in their process (which if they admitted it would have appeared to be weaknesses in their process).

Too often the voice of the outsider is feared by the in-house staff, they were threatened by our presence and undermined us at nearly every turn, but when it became clear that we would carry these unpopular messages to the forefront and champion their cause we found unlikely allies.

The story I hear often is this "a consultant is hired to tell the manager what time it is in the plant. The consultant walks around the plant checking everybody else's watches takes the readings and then communicates that time back to manager." Many who hear this story think, "how stupid, why did not the manager just do that himself?". The answer to that is if the manager did, he would immediately appear weak in front of his people. He would seem poorly informed, and when he declared the time many whose watches did not correlate would be angry that he did not take their word for it.

Instead by hiring the consultant to do the tedious data collect and present an answer, he removed that risk from himself. He also gained the benefit of an expendable resource he could turn on if the number was not correct (for this reason he could not require this task of one of his internal resources). Techni-HOs serve a purpose they are the needed muckrakers that every world needs but many are unwilling to admit they need.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Consulting tips: drink the kool-aid, believe and practice what you sell

As a Techni-HO you probably from time to time will have to advocate strategies and practices that in previous life seemed abhorrent to you. After all, you collect fees from clients to serve them and not yourself. Similar to the power of "we" "drinking the Kool-aid" is a highly necessary and powerful consulting tool that one must develop with prowess if one is to succeed.

The easiest thing is to only do and support the ideas that you believe, however if life was that easy we wouldn't need "blood sucking parasites" like consultants in the first place. So the next best strategy is to find the little things that work and apply them to your consulting work whole heartedly to the point of near fanatacism. One example for me was 5S and the visual workplace. I am a sloppy person I thrive in a certain level of chaos in my desk and car. So when the project I supported started promoting 5S it really was a moral dilemma (I ran work shops teaching the methods that I could not truly support personally). The work became painful, dull, and irritating.

In order for me to get through I started 5Sing (not really a word?) Everything; fanatically- my desk, the drawers, my car, my entire on project existence (I went so far as to mark out a place for my mug and the cord of my phone) once I was fully entrenched into the overzealous application of the method, I found humor and fun in my madness. Since the coffee cup could never make it back to the right spot, I glued a coaster with the green boundary around the base and properly labeled "Kam's coffee mug".

This mis-application of the method showed a very entrenched knowledge of the system to my "trick" and taught me to believe in what was useful about the method and where to draw the line. I started to believe, after that the training was better for them and me. Drinking the Kool-aid required the leap of faith on my part and in doing so - gained the trust of my client. Which was truly the problem at the beginning they could see I did not practice what I preached and may have been flogging the flavor of the month.

Now the world is filled with more systems (lean this and that, green initiatives, and new flavors of the month) take a step towards the edge, embrace the dark side, and drink the Kool-aid. Otherwise you are merely "whoring".

Eric Kam, broadcasting from an undisclosed location via BlackBerry