Consulting Quality: Be Careful What You Say (and Don’t Do)

In a production environment, quality is rooted in infinitely detailed engineering standards and controls. Every process and part is specified, constructed, and measured the product works. Zero defects is the benchmark, and the lowest assembly workers can be empowered to stop the line if they spot a mistake.

With consulting, “quality” is much more amorphous. Quality is judged as follows: Good clients don’t hire bad consultants … and bad consultants only exist when bad clients pin the tail on consultants with a one-sided assessment that exonerates the clients’ own failures.

Most consulting partners take for granted that clients understand this quality dynamic as an inherent characteristic that makes them trusted advisors. That relationship starts at the top and is opposite of production’s mindset – heaven forbid a consulting associate would ever pull the plug on an analysis without first running it up through two or three layers of management.

This quality issue is coming to a head for the largest consultancies, whose path to an outcome-based, product-oriented world is irreversible. The disconnect is even more apparent when some of these global firms seek to position themselves as product companies.

Every firm points to myriad technology certifications and industry-oriented standards (think HIPAA in healthcare, or security clearances for government work). Every firm offers its own twist on methodologies and solution centers. Every firm conducts customer experience and satisfaction studies.

These programs are table stakes for RFPs and contract compliance. But does the combination of these must-do’s and nice-to-haves constitute a holistic approach to quality? Can consulting really operate like the Toyota Production system?

Against this backdrop, clients are starting to question that unwritten quality understanding with their consultants. What is quality? How are engagements really measured? What constitutes acceptable ROI?

Quality is an issue the global firms need to face head on. In doing so, they need to be creative with standards unique to the business and not the product-side extremes. Otherwise, they’ll end up losing their status and facing a new (and uncomfortable) reality – do they really want to be judged as just another vendor?

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Tom Rodenhauser