Choosing a Consultant? What to Consider and How to Consider It

Every apparel manufacturer is under pressure to improve financial and operational performance. Cutbacks by suppliers and demands at facilities have required many to compromise due to a lack of qualified personnel on the manufacturing line and quality has been damaged by poor performing suppliers and internally weak processes. To avoid offshoring, which is popular in the garment industry but never as cost-saving or efficient as we like to think, supplemental support often becomes necessary.

By bringing in consultant help -- it becomes possible to improve processes and get manufacturing to the appropriate level of production while reaching profitability targets. What are the best questions to ask and considerations to make and for whom? And, how should the review team determine if they should engage a full scale firm or an individual be best? What factors make for the best consultant for the stated objectives and growth plan? Below are a list of factors to consider when considering an outside consultant for your manufacturing process.

Choose an independent consultant – or a consulting group?
There are advantages (and disadvantages) with both choices. With an independent consultant, the old adage, "what you see is what you get" completely applies. There will be no first-year college graduates deployed to your site for initial assessments. On the other hand, if the scope of the projects within your facility becomes too broad or beyond the competencies of the individual consultant, you'll need to obtain additional consultants and then employ management resources to ensure their results are congruent.

Reaching out to a large consulting organization will get you access to the most broad competency packages, but will often come with an abrasive price tag and, unless you're a top customer, little access to the primetime players from their organization. Often a smaller boutique firm that has more than one consultant and relationships with external resources to broaden scope is the best alternative for many manufacturing concerns.

Education, experience, and credentials – is there a complete package?
When selecting a consultant for process improvement, it's important to consider the education, experience, and credentials that the consultant brings to the table. Does the individual have competencies beyond those of your organization – or would he or she be “one more member of your team?"

For process improvement within a manufacturing organization, it's likely that both business and technical education and experience are important. This will give the consultant a balanced, operationally minded outlook on the process of improvement. Too technical – or too commercial – and you risk skewing the performance of the organization with technically-superior commercial failures or commercial ideas that lack the technical credibility needed for buy-in from your engineering and operations leadership.

Case studies and numerical guarantees – do they apply?
All too often, we see process consultants who wave shiny case studies in testimony to their certain performance. Some will even tie their compensation model to the outcomes of the exercise – without seeing the process. While it's important to consider case studies – it's critical that we look at them in the right light rather than be wowed by tremendous numerical outcomes. What position was the firm in when the consultant started and is it similar to our position? What process did the consultant follow – would it work with my people and processes? Did the consultant take the time to learn about the organization and its special aspects before conducting process improvement exercises – or was it a boiler-plate process with a special name the consultant thought up?

Making the choice
The selection method and criteria should reflect your priorities and the priorities of your firm. Most importantly, the consultant of choice should feel right for your organization. Be comfortable talking with the consultant – and interested in what they have to say. The consultant should have a process that has enough rigidity to be effective, but flexible and robust enough to handle the specific needs of your manufacturing operation. Perhaps most important, the consultant should take a holistic business view even when dealing with your medical and healthcare-related manufacturing process.

Jason Piatt has served as president of Praestar Technology Corporation, the leading provider of Lean & Six Sigma consulting and training services  in the Mid-Atlantic region.

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