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Bare-assed Consulting 1.0: Sick's Sigma

Even bare-assed consulting turns dicey when a client sets his mind on some process improvement scheme. It never really matters what the scheme might be, you can be certain only that it’ll fairly quickly produce the opposite of the attracting intention. Whether by initial interpretation or the influence of organizational antibodies, that true north veers due south. ’Twas always thus.

And the timing of the consultant’s arrival won’t much influence the outcome. The tariff, as Peter Block once noted, on imported method inevitably exceeds the expected return.

These initiatives always start as bright ideas,”I know, we’ll just put on a show!”-quality fantasies, laden with invisible externalities. Whether a Senior VP read some article in an airline magazine or transferred in from a company that had fully integrated some scheme, the mandate comes from the top down. The suits arrive shortly after the announcement, mustering a committee of ... cough ... cough ... volunteers ... chartered to change the company’s culture from the bottom up.

Therein lies the disabling paradox, a version of the Be Spontaneous paradox. We’d be wise to wonder whether bottom up can be demanded from the top down in the same way we might question if any demanded act might qualify as spontaneous.

I’ve never personally seen a company’s culture, though I often hear executives talk as if one existed. When I ask for a crisp description, I receive a wilted one that discloses much more about the observer than about the organization he describes. I’m learning to interpret any aspiration to change an organization’s culture as clear evidence of delusion, like reorganizing serves as a tell for executive insecurity.

Yea, I know Toyota pioneered a radical new way to build cars: three parts context, four parts PR, and two parts common sense. How might that be applied in a different context, without the PR budget, by starry-eyed true believers? The answer seems to be upside down, backwards, and inside-out, retaining little more than the label. Six Sigma becomes Sick’s Sigma in practice.

And no one seems more surprised by the outcome than the initiating executive, though the innocents convinced that their method certification would actually turn them into black belt process ninjas might well be the most distressed. Nobody needs a bare-assed consultant to coach them through any process-improvement initiative, though they might benefit from one who might help them awaken from the soon-to-be-terrible dream. Reality doesn’t usually settle in before the suits have made a decent hash of the initiating enthusiasm and punched a sucking chest wound in the operating budget. Then bare-assed consulting might help, when reality seems, finally, thankfully, inescapable.

Time, then, for some authentic conversations to replace the dominating dormatives; for someone to question the premise and the purpose, an act previously considered a capital offense. Time then to clearly define the aspiration and craft some thoughtful response rather than applying some pre-chewed convenience food advertised as ‘best practice.’

I recently visited with an executive who was mustering a committee, literally labeled the “Process Improvement and Culture Change Committee.” The evening before our meeting, I visited the local Home Despot (sic) and bought a small can of red paint. As we sat down to chat, I removed that can of paint from its bag and ceremoniously presented it, saying, “Your committee is very likely to excite the organization’s antibodies, and organizational antibodies almost always prevail. I recommend using this paint to stencil targets over the vital organs of your committee members, so the antibodies can get clean kill shots. Nobody needs a bunch of disfigured culture changers reminding them of an unfortunate experience.”

The client laughed, said he’d put this can of paint on his credenza to remind him, and then went on to muster his committee and march forward. How could have he done otherwise? The CEO had mandated the initiative.

©2012 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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