Five Reasons Why the Best Solo Consultants Are Inherently Lean
By Katherine Radeka
As a solo consultant, I unabashedly claim that I am inherently leaner than my colleagues at large lean consulting firms: I deliver more value for the client’s investment of time and energy, with much less non-value-added activity (waste), through helping my clients solve problems permanently.
The business press usually defines lean as “eliminating waste” but this is only one part of the picture. The original lean companies, Toyota and Honda, developed systems that maximized value. In fact, the famed Toyota Production System (now lean manufacturing) includes many practices that look wasteful at a local level, but maximize value across the entire business, such as short production runs and frequent tool changes.
Independent consulting is a little like that: it may seem wasteful for a company to contract with several independent consultants to gain access to the expertise that the company needs. Isn’t it more efficient to work with a large firm that can handle a wide variety of client needs?
Lean manufacturing overturned our assumptions about economies of scale, and this is no different. The truth is that a large firm is only more efficient for the accounts payable and purchasing departments. In the rest of the business, a world class solo consultant with a value-based fee structure can usually deliver more value for less investment of time and energy, even if the fee is the same. Here are five reasons why:
1) We have a vested interest in solving problems permanently and expeditiously. There is no incentive for the independent consultant to take extra time, add extra people or create unhealthy dependencies with clients. Instead, they both benefit from achieving the client’s objectives with as little friction as possible: The client receives immediate benefit and the consultant is free to move on to the next challenge.
2) We leverage our experiences across multiple clients to create systematic approaches to problem-solving. Along the way, we develop analysis tools, working models and process visuals that help us resolve future problems more effectively. The more we use and improve the models, the more value we create for our clients. Large firms do this, too but for a solo practitioner, the models get updated and adapted in real time, since they arise from direct experience.
3) The client gains access to a deep pool of reusable knowledge that they could not replicate internally. For example, I’ve now formally engaged with over two dozen companies to get better products out faster, and I’ve informally helped dozens more through my networking, speaking and writing. Every client benefits from my experiences—all the things that I can explicitly communicate through words and models, and all the tacit knowledge that I share through personal interactions. My client gets all of that knowledge directly from me, with no information loss through hand-offs to associates.
Large firms do this, too—in fact, I know of at least one that has sophisticated knowledge management tools for capturing and sharing explicit knowledge. But there is no substitute for working with one person who has a wealth of relevant experiences and a deep pool of tacit knowledge to bring to bear on a challenge.
4) We ruthlessly eliminate non-value-added activities from our businesses and our lives. We constantly seek to reduce “labor intensity” as Alan says, without compromising on the value we deliver. We reduce labor intensity by eliminating non-value-added activities, such as travel to meetings that we can handle quite well by web conference and formal status reports when frequent informal communication with our clients keeps them better informed. That frees up time and energy to focus on the thing that does add value: improving the client’s condition. We don’t have to get anyone’s approval to eliminate 80% of the waste in our businesses, and for the other 20%, it’s not hard to get the client to agree that eliminating excess work is a win/win.
5) We bring in additional help only as needed, and all of our associates’ time directly adds value. Many of the solo consultants that I know have the ability to work on large projects by pulling together virtual teams of trusted assistants to share the workload. The overhead required to support this structure is minimal compared to the amount of structure that even a small firm needs to manage permanent, full-time employees, and there is no pressure to keep them busy or to add them to client projects simply to provide development opportunities for the associates.
At the root, independent consultants are inherently lean because client value and consultant value are aligned: achieve objectives quickly and permanently, leverage knowledge and experiences effectively, and eliminate unnecessary activities. As a result, the best independent consultants deliver increasing value for their clients over time.
© Katherine Radeka 2009. All rights reserved.
Million Dollar Consultant® Hall of Fame inductee Katherine Radeka helps companies use lean strategy,technology and product development to launch products that delight their customers and outrun the competition.