8 “lies” companies tell before starting a consulting engagement

(Format shamelessly stolen from Guy Kawasaki’s Blog “How to Change the World”, check it out!) Okay, so they're not dirty big “lies”, more like the white untruths, miscalculations, obfuscations and poor judgments that companies (we’ll call them “clients”) generally say just before starting on a large scale initiative. If you have ever been involved in an ERP system implementation or any other sort of project with a big organizational impact (As a consultant or a client) then it is likely that you have either heard or used these at one time or another. 1. Yes, we will make sure that all of the documents are ready for when you arrive Like most of these “lies” this one is very well intentioned; just wrong. The people making these statements have often never seen the technical documents, nor do they have any idea if they even exist, neither would they know where to find them if they needed to. The people who do know where they are often would not make these claims because they were lost years ago, or they are spread out in several peoples desks and offices or they have never been seen since Noah was a boy! Sometimes companies do have good technical libraries, but this is beside the point. Don’t take any assumptions about this one. If the project is planning to have these and doesn’t, it can upset the entire time line! 2. Providing office space and administrative resources for the team will be no problem at all. Correction, this will probably be the hardest thing you will have to do! There is almost never any free space, or if there is it is in an isolated part of the company’s estates that nobody has seen since the entire division was downsized. (And even then it will be a fight!) This is a good example of how project sponsors or managers tend to over estimate the importance of their project. (The operations, plant and maintenance managers) And when admin assistance is needed it is often some poor overworked clerical assistant or secretary who cannot possibly meet all the demands of the project and her day job! Get commitment first, and then work out how to deal with this one! It is easier to deal with this problem before you get a room filled with egotistical consultants and megalomaniacal project managers. 3. We will take care of the communications issues. Well intentioned and probably something that you thought you could do. My experience has been that when this is run wholly internally, meaning by the client alone without assistance from the consultancy, it often ends in tears. Why? Because of one small miscalculation, the people carrying out the communications and trying to change the culture of the company’s employees are often the same people that they have been working alongside for many years. So they have the same workplace culture anyway, they are familiar with each other and know each others faults and histories (not always great). Also there is a need to get very serious about this. The project is often in the millions, sometimes even in the tens of millions, and you want to entrust the change of workplace culture (and communications of these changes) to an ex-division manager who worked through a couple of big projects like this before. Okay, sometimes it works but we should be realistic. This can’t be amateur week if you are spending that kind of money. Cultural change is the bedrock that will ensure the success or failure of the initiative over the long term. Understand what the challenges are (really understand it) check out your options and if necessary spend the money to get it right the first time! 4. Don’t worry, if we tell them to be there for training they will be there! Um...no, they probably won’t. This is a standard sort of line that project sponsors and managers give. Why? Several reasons, they overestimate their ability to get things done (this is after all probably a big step both for the company and for this person specifically) or they have underestimated the workload that the sites and departments that have to implement this are already facing. Organizing training is a pretty intensive and difficult thing to do! What about:
  • Turnaround schedules and when people are likely to be busy doing other things?
  • Heavy vacation periods? (August and December for example?)
  • Other initiatives that are on the go at present?
  • Work rosters?
  • Current workloads and the ability or otherwise of the department to spare that person for one to three days of training?
  • Resources for training and their availability? (Rooms, projectors, flip charts etc)
  • Are they even interested? (The people or the plants / departments?)
Face it, they probably won’t be there unless you organize for them to be there beforehand. (Project pre-planning) Doing it after making the commitment (as in 99.9% of projects) means some of the best resources or a large number of ordinary ones, will not get to be involved. 5. This is important to us; we will make sure you have a dedicated team of top level resources to implement this. The guy making this statement often doesn’t “know” this, but he does believe it! Again, do we really believe this project is so important that the key resources that should be “at the coal face” are going to be taken off line to do it for an extended period? The reality is often somewhere between a range of possible outcomes. One, this has happened to me sadly, the guys you get are the people that the company is intending to elbow out once the project is over. Great motivational symbol that one! Two, you do get a small core of disciplined and seasoned professionals who are overwhelmed by the workload they have to do to get this done for the entire corporation, often leading to frustration and resignations. Three, you get the people who can be spared. More likely than not this will be the guy who is often quoted as a “hard worker” but everyone realizes they are not really very sharp. But, “he deserves a break!”, so they give him to you to ruin your project. Four, they give you good core resources, supported by a good network of satellite resources, and once the project ends they go back to what they were originally doing. Conclusion, some small gains followed by business as usual. Five, you get nobody, but have to get the work done anyway. This last alternative is sadly the way that many projects are done today in our field believe it or not. Meaning that there is absolutely no chance of realistic knowledge transfer or of the entire thing becoming permanent in any way at all. 6. We want this to be a knowledge transfer process so that we take over the implementation during the handover period. He is right, he does want this, his company wants this, and sometimes they actually get it. But most times the time allowed for transferring a lifetimes worth of knowledge to somebody who has been running operationally for their entire career is nowhere near enough. More to the point often the program for realistic knowledge transfer, including post training mentoring, skill audits, reviews and updates of training as well as the role support mechanisms are often not even considered. Sometimes there will be one or two “knock-em-down-drag-em-out” types who will get the bit between their teeth and take this on as a personal mission, regardless of the support they do or don’t have. But these people are the exceptions, those who will get the most out of the training and then embark on their own personal self improvement to get the rest of the information they believe they need. But most times it all ends in tears with the client being left with a half implemented initiative, moderate to useless resources to continue the implementation, and a rapid downward spiral of interest once the baton has been handed to their own people. 7. We will make sure you get full access to our existing system for any data you need. Unless the guy telling you this is the head of IT and can change their policies regarding information, data and its manipulation then this step will be like pulling teeth! Data, its management, storage and use is the realm of the all seeing, all powerful IT department. And they see themselves as the guardians of the company’s future in many cases. If you want to get access to something as privileged as asset data in an asset-intensive company; then prepare to be met with restrictions, difficulties and outright refusal. While this can be done through diplomacy, horse-trading and other not-so-enjoyable activities; it is far easier to include them in the project planning and execution from the very initial stages. 8. We have full management support for this Wrong, wrong, wrong! You don’t have management support; you have their authorization to spend money! Management support is a whole different thing. Thinking that you can crowbar this into the organization just because you have “the big guy” standing behind you giving out threatening looks is never going to work in the long run. What it will do is get you compliance, but not acceptance. Think about what you are doing here. Taking something from the center of the company and pushing it out into all of the departments, sites, plants or companies that are associated with it. What do you think they were doing before you and your project turned up? Waiting for you? No! They were making do, building their own systems, finding their own solutions and applying hard-earned experience to take care of the headaches of their day to day operations. Sometimes they have done a great job at this, oftentimes it could be better. But it’s theirs! It wasn’t imposed on them by somebody they have never even seen (but have read their names on fliers). So they are going to view the project with suspicion. Worse, if you haven’t got the communications right at the beginning they will be hearing rumbles in the distance, feel threatened, and raise the defenses. If management really supports what you are planning then “the big guy” will be out there selling (not pushing) the project to the department heads, plant managers or company presidents. There will be financial linkages for them to the success or failure of the project, and once they are convinced they will also start to evangelize their senior management and decision makers. If you are going to spend several millions of dollars changing the way that the company works, then platitudes, strongarm tactics and sheer bloody-mindedness is not going to cut it. There needs to be a sense of mission and everybody needs be on it!