Flawless Consulting: Consulting Skills for Quality Professionals

by Designed Learning

Quality consulting means partnering equally with clients. Effective consultants have the skills to look beyond the immediate problem to obtain information on the big picture. Their goal is to apply a long-range view and act strategically.

“Companies who are going to be successful truly understand what the customer wants, needs and expects, today, six months from now, and five years from now.” So says John Barr, manager of quality consulting with Xerox Corporation’s U.S. marketing group. “They are constantly improving the quality of their product and service in that direction. These companies must have a cadre of people on the elite edge, consistently steps ahead of the rest of the world. These people must work as true consultants to bring their clients, with all their knowledge and their expertise, to a point five to six steps ahead of the industry.”

Being a true consultant doesn’t just happen, any more than quality just happens. It has to be learned.

Today’s Quality Consultants Work with Entire Organizations

Once upon a time, a quality consultant was seen as an auditor, controller, and policeman, responsible for quality control or quality assurance. Today companies expect quality consultants to go to every part of the organization as advocates for the quality effort. It is no longer a matter of doing it to the organization. Now it is a matter of working with the organization to ensure that quality is a way of life for all who work there. This new approach requires a change in the way people perceive quality consultants. The new perspective sets new expectations about how consultants interact with clients or customers in the organization.

Quality concerns steadily expand and deepen. Technology proliferates; its applications expand. In an era of sharply increased competition, quality reaches far beyond products. Quality today encompasses the performance of everyone in an organization, including support personnel. “Everyone has suppliers and customers. Wherever a supplier/customer relationship exists, quality can be defined and tracked,” says Randy Trombly, an internal consultant with Compaq Computers.

The marketplace constantly redefines quality. “As our customers get smarter,” says Xerox’s John Barr, “they are thinking of new ways of doing business. They are looking for quality in total customer support. Quality is not a buzzword. Quality means conforming to customer requirements. As our customers discover new and unique requirements, we have to be constantly changing to meet them.”

Change is rarely easy. Of course, no one can be against quality: It’s one of those universals, like motherhood and goodness. Yet integrating a philosophy of quality into employees’ productivity is easier said than done. Quality consultants believe in the importance of quality. They have the technology, the tools, and the ability to help. But they are not always met with open arms. Consultants often find that frustrating, if not downright disappointing.

Consultants Need New Ways to Interact

Quality consultants come with different experiences and expertise from line functions or previously existing staff organizations. They are experts in quality methodologies, but few have developed the skills to be effective consultants. Quality consultants need to understand the most effective to interact with clients so that ideas and changes are implemented.

Quality consultants face uncertainty and conflict. Their roles and the boundaries in which they operate are changing. Clients with whom they consult, the organization’s top management — even consultants themselves — may have different views.

Sometimes conflict occurs over turf. Quality issues may be seen as the responsibility of human resources, operations, safety or manufacturing. Sometimes managers in departments not directly related to the company’s products or customers have difficulty viewing quality as their concern. Internal clients may see consultants as advocates for processes driven from above which can lead to assumptions that they are out of touch with everyday operations. Clients may not understand the value of quality technology, wondering what’s in it for them. Reports and programs may be politely received and then left to gather dust on shelves.

The cumulative effect often is that quality consultants suffer burnout. They typically have to influence their clients, higher-level managers over whom they have no authority or direct control. In some cases, they may be called in or sent to a particular client to solve a problem. Other individuals may be needed to achieve success, people who are sources of information or who will implement quality measures.

Consultants must identify these people, gain access to them, win their trust and contract with them as partners to solve problems. By creating relationships in which clients are open to influence, consultants can foster a commitment to change.

Creating Relationships Enhances Quality Consulting

“As staff consultants,” says John Barr, whose company has earned a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, “we need to understand our clients’ motives. Why do they do what they do? Then we use those motives to provide them what they need to achieve their objectives. That’s why we went to Designed Learning’s Flawless Consulting Workshops — to try to get our people to understand how to consult with clients about quality, how to communicate that there’s something in it for them.”

Compaq’s Randy Trombly explains, “The quality consultant needs to answer the question: What will the employee gain by participating in a quality effort? To achieve employee buy-in, quality consultants need to communicate key concepts and let employee work groups define how the concepts will be integrated.”

Dealing with Resistance is an Important Skill

Dealing with client resistance — a predictable, normal, and necessary reaction against the process of being helped — is a key skill for effective consultants. Resistance has many sources, including fear of losing control or of facing up to difficult organizational problems. Resistance to change can cause clients to withhold commitment to quality measures. “This resistance,” says John Barr, “comes about because people say to themselves, ‘I know the rules of the game I am currently playing, but I don’t know the rules of the new game. I’m not sure I can win in the new game.’ As consultants, we constantly try to understand this resistance. We want to help them recognize that it’s healthy and normal. We offer alternatives to this we-can’t-change attitude. We show them how they can change and be successful in a new way.”

Designed Learning’s Flawless Consulting Workshops teaches consultants, first, to understand their clients’ vulnerability. For example, managers might fear that poor quality results will be seen as a reflection of their own poor management. Consultants can be seen as spies trying to find fault. Getting people to talk about these concerns requires compassionate listening skills.

In one company, a consultant was trying to help a young manager implement a change on a manufacturing line to improve quality. The manager said he wanted to improve quality, but he was swamped with customer orders and didn’t have time to discuss the new measures. The next week was equally unsuitable. And the next. Finally, the manager said he just didn’t have time to devote to quality consultants.

This was a clear sign that he was facing difficult realities in his department, painful problems that could require painful solutions. The consultant had to help the manager see that his challenge was not time constraints; rather, he was uncertain how the new quality measures would affect him. Skillfully approached in a way that addressed his concerns, the manager finally confessed to feeling intimidated by an older, entrenched foreman whose role would have to change with the new quality measures. The manager feared he could not convince the foreman that the changes were necessary, making make him look like a bad manager. Once his defensive pretexts were dropped, the consultant could help him deal with these natural emotions. The quality measures were more easily implemented.

“Designed Learning’s Flawless Consulting Workshops help people learn that resistance is not something the consultant must overcome,” says Randy Trombly. “The process of dealing with resistance helps the client move from a position of helplessness, alienation, and confusion to a position of choice, engagement, and clarity.”

True Consultants Act Strategically

The Flawless Consulting Workshops also prepares individuals to contract with upper management and function as true consultants, avoiding roles that can undermine their status. For example, consultants must avoid becoming a pair of hands, doing tasks their clients should be doing. They also learn to avoid assuming the role of the expert who makes recommendations instead of winning collaboration. They learn how and when to say no. In Randy Trombly’s words, “The consultant’s role is to serve the team rather than lead the team.”

At Alcoa Laboratories, quality consultants assist teams in problem-solving. Professional development coordinator Jim Ice says, “Many new facilitators want to help the team, so they own the problem and take that responsibility from the team. The team is now free to maintain the status quo, by rejecting the consultant’s solution. The consultant has to confront the team’s attempt to transfer responsibility. The facilitator must establish the team’s ownership of the problem and thereby increase their energy and urgency to develop and implement a solution.”

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