How Much Standardization?
post # 431 — September 12, 2007 — a Managing, Strategy post
Here’s what I hope will be an interesting question for many people. A correspondent of mine wrote in as follows:
I work for a firm of about 20 people (15 consultants.) We all work independently, the consultants rarely meeting up – if we do, it’s for training sake. We are sole practitioners at the client site, coaching and leading client teams. Our projects get little or no oversight, as long as the client is happy and we are getting results. We do have “standard methodology”, a standard project roadmap, some standard analysis tools, and some standard training presentations and exercises that we use, or at least they are available to us.
Compliance to the standard methodology is low. The tools are typically used, but there is huge variation in the exact project sequencing/schedule and the training presentations. Many of us in the group were hired in from different companies and we have different backgrounds and we all bring something different to the table.
Most of us personalize and adapt the training material based on what and how we like to teach. I think some of the training material is either incomplete, inappropriate, or unprofessional. So, I spend time customizing the slides, sharing some of them with co-workers in an informal way, but, again, nobody is really watching to see HOW I do my consulting work, just to see if I’m delivering results (which I do).
Recently, we had a very frustrating week-long offsite meeting as a team. There was a lot of contention and confusion about this idea of standard methodology, namely who defines it? How much standardization is enough?
A team of four people volunteered to look at the issue of standard methodology — but those of us who didn’t volunteer (or weren’t chosen) didn’t realize how much power this group would have. Instead of looking at ALL of the variation and the ways some basic training presentations were crafted and delivered, they picked one version and made edits to it, basically ignoring the input that the rest of us would have given.
In our consulting, we preach that standardized work can’t be dictated to people — yet, we’re doing the same thing within our group. Can we ever get 15 diverse people to perfectly 100% agree on what material should be presented and in what order? There are too many diverging opinions (and too much history of not being perfectly standardized) for us to all just suddenly get on board.
We’re getting very inconsistent and schizophrenic “direction” from our leadership. On the one hand, they’ll say “the standard is the bare minimum of content, you can add to it” and then later saying “you must all do the work exactly the same way.” Is it enough to have a standard framework that we can all customize to our personal tastes and client needs? Or, do we have to be “consultant-bots” who follow a perfectly scripted program, for the sake of consistency?
I fully believe “nobody likes to be told what to do” and that it applies equally well to assembly workers, nurses, and consultants. If I am told to perfectly standardize on what I consider to be sub-par material, I’ll most likely look for a new firm (or start my own). I understand the need to deliver a consistent experience to our clients, but how standard is standard enough from their standpoint? I can handle standardizing to the level of “here’s what you must accomplish in a 16-week project and here’s what you should be doing each week, if all goes well.” But dictating every single slide seems like overkill, like standardization for the sake of standardization. If we’re all getting good results with slightly different methods, isn’t that ok?
What are your thoughts? Is this a common problem in a consulting firm?
My first instinct is to share the view that no-one like to be dictated to on HOW to do things. In general, as you suggest, the key is to have very solid accountabiity for outcome effectiveness, and then let people do it their own way “on the day.”
But let’s think about this. Under what circumstances might you argue the opposite? If you’re not involved and can look at it in a detached way, then you could observe that standardizing the process is exactly what businesses have done for centuries to capture efficiency and get things done with lower cost workers. Does MacDonalds let each outlet decide how to do things? Should they? What about a steel mill?
Now, I’m not arguing that fits your situation. I merely observe that I know consulting operations whose entire business model is built around getting lower paid people to deliver very effective standard methodologies. You and I might not want to work there, but it’s not inherently a dumb idea.
The business model used seems to almost require standardised work – I’m guessing that your correspondent has matured through the pipeline of the business and is now perhaps a little too senior in experience to stick around. This is probably also a natural consequence of the model they’ve adopted – attrition of more senior people when they are very comfortable with the standard material, completely autonomous and have better ideas about how to do it.
It’s a real shame that they haven’t leveraged the experiences of the team – it could have really raised the level of the new ‘standard’.
posted on September 12, 2007