Confessions of a Quality Manager  

Being the adventures of four jet-setting quality consultants who like to talk shop even more than they like good food and drink.

This is fantasy consulting. For the real thing, go to Fell Services' Quality pages.

I'd got out of Bombay just in time. The taxi drivers were threatening to go on strike, I'd eaten nothing but rice and yoghurt for five days (normally very nice, but my stomach, traumatised by the monsoon rains, the intermittent drainage failures and the contrast between the air conditioning inside and the warm humidity outside, couldn't keep anything else down). Besides, I wanted to see people of the opposite sex at the gym again. I know that burning off calories should be sufficient motive, but it does help to see some attractive masculine eye candy occasionally.

Also, Julio was being distracting. I needed to concentrate on mission statements, with two parallel deadlines looming far too close for comfort; he'd lost a girlfriend. Again. He didn't understand why, and he was hurting, wanting sympathy. Regardless of the airport traffic all carefully not looking at him, he was slumped in a heap, tears streaming down his face, mindlessly creasing the embroidered silk sari he'd bought and - unfortunately - occasionally touching the battery powered soft toy cobra, which burst into a snake charming roar at the most inconvenient moments. Horace and I had ordered Earl Grey for him to drink, but that couldn't be expected to mend a broken heart by itself. Personally, I had a latte with tiramisu syrup, knowing that soothing a wounded Latino is a long and laborious process.

For the thousandth time, he asked just why he'd chosen to be a quality consultant. It is a well paid job, true, and it does provide a wide range of experience (which translates as: you don't know what's going to happen next). But, against that, you lose your freedom, your social life has to be so flexible that it could happen in Dresden or Katmandu, your family will have to get used to seeing more of your laundry than of you and if you don't like airports, then don't become a consultant.

Juran defines a consultant as being 40ish, male, with 15-20 years' experience. His idea is that this guy starts preparing for consultancy well in advance - up to 5 years in advance - and networks to the hilt, creating a high profile public image. I'm not sure I agree with this, totally. Yes, a consultant has to be objective, thick-skinned and financially stable (because there might be 6 months between jobs, especially at the beginning). But I think that it's more important to be ingenious and imaginative, able to think out of the box. The very fact that a consultant has been hired means that the company is admitting to some degree of defeat. The company has found something which either it can't deal with or does not have sufficient resources for. So a consultant has to come in and deal with people who are quite ready to be un-cooperative and who are - at best - thoughtless. After all, who wants to show this new hotshot where the toilets are? Or the canteen?

Getting back to basics, the first thing is to define just what a quality consultant is supposed to be and what he - or she - is supposed to do. Juran would say that it's a person who gives professional expert advice. I'd be more humble and suggest that it's more likely to be a person who actually completes documentation, flowcharts processes, implements cost saving changes and efficiencies, trains the people who will be doing the work after the consultant has moved on and - most important of all - is a member of the re-engineering team.

Juran and I would agree on the remuneration rate: as a rough rule of thumb, three times the salary of an equivalent employee. Remember, consultants don't get holiday pay, pensions, sick pay, insurance or any of the boring benefits which get taken for granted until you don't have them. Consultants don't have regular jobs, though they do tend to cherish repeat clients. Juran, who has the security of fame and a couple of good selling books, can suggest that a consultant can give a preliminary survey and advice at no charge and he goes on and on about how the potential consultant and the family must come to a meeting of minds (he seems to mean that the family has to do what it is told). Then Juran gives a few tips on how to suss out a good consultant - Juran would have made a good wartime interrogator, I think. If he gave me the works, I think I'd decline the job. But then, I'm not a Juranic quality consultant. For a start, I call myself a quality researcher. I use three main techniques of experience: the memories of successfully finding books which people hadn't realised they wanted to buy; the ordered hierarchy of the Civil Service, where things were just so; and the quality knowledge of increasing efficiency while decreasing costs. Horace started life as a lawyer, and found he preferred benchmarking; Julio got into teaching quality when he was doing his National Service, and found he liked the clarity of the lifestyle. None of us really had a big plan on how we'd all become consultants before middle-age. Somehow, the culture - and the jobs - crept up on us, though, I guess, we already had the benefit of being soaked in continuous improvement environments.

Actually, I find that the research is the most important thing in finding a new client. The first a new or potential client may hear of me is the covering letter, but I will have investigated his company so thoroughly already that I'll know what's in the company newsletters and what brand of tea is served in the canteen. What I tend to do is put down clearly who I am, what I'd like to do, what the possible effects could be, what will be involved and what the timescale for the initial project is likely to be. That thousand words will be my open sesame - at least I hope it will be. Juran doesn't quote his failure rate, but I reckon on getting one out of every three jobs I bid for. Which all explains why if a consultant works (that should be in inverted commas, I think) for a hundred days a year, he's doing well. Because the other two hundred and fifty five or six will be spent in paperwork, preparing reports or analysing them and working out what went wrong.

I can feel this entry coming to an unsightly end. That's ok, because that's just typical of a quality consultant's life: loose threads all over the place. So you didn't get that job: tough, just move on to something else, but keep the records just in case they change their mind at a future date. It's great to have friends to discuss cases with - and Julio, Horace and Dietrich help a lot - just so long as the potential consultant realises that friends can be competitors too. I've taken clients Julio had taken for granted; he's poached some of mine. But we're still sitting together, and I'm still giving him the support he needs right now. I'll keep the sari, I think: it's very attractive. But the soft toy cobra: that's the sort of thing which was made to be abandoned in airport coffee shops as the owner comes to his senses and realises what a hideous sounvenir it is. I'll just give the cobra a gentle kick, and let it stay under the table, awaiting some other unsuspecting mug.

  posted by Dovya R @ 12:05 AM : discuss

Tuesday, July 30, 2002  
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