Mission in overalls

Special consultants implement their ideas and concepts in factories and offices – together with the workforce

Lutz Bergmann and Simon Wörpel 

The milling machine builder Chiron in Tuttlingen, Baden-Württemberg, wanted to convert its assembly line. So the company called in Porsche Consulting for assistance. First, twelve selected employees were supposed to fold big and small cardboard boxes, then nest them, close them and finally frank them. In a first round, the employees perform the task any which way. In the end, there's a load of small and big cardboard boxes, but only very few are completely finished. After one lecture and three simulations, the process changes entirely and is hardly recognizable: Now, the Chiron staff needs only 15 seconds for one cardboard box — and one person less. The team is baffled.

What sounds a little like a kid's birthday party actually is a confidence-building measure. "Just like an experienced mountain guide, a good consultant will need the faith of all in the group so that everybody will follow without doubting him", says Gregor Grandl, Divisional Manager of Porsche Consulting. After all, the consultants will want to work closely together with their client's workforce over many weeks; Porsche Consulting relies on implementation consulting. Its main difference versus strategic consulting normally used by companies like McKinsey and others in major corporate groups: While they will leave after their problem analysis has been completed, the others will stay on and implement, together with the workforce, the improvements they had discussed. That's especially a trend with small and medium-sized enterprises.

"Small and medium-sized enterprises have come to realize that they need ever more external support and assistance", says Klaus Reiners from the Bundesverband Deutscher Unternehmensberater (BDU – Federal Association of German Management Consultants). According to a study by his association, nearly 14,000 consulting firms in Germany realized sales of close to EUR 19 billion in 2010. Actually, it's difficult to tell the percentage of implementation consultancies thereof because many large strategy consultancies also offer the service.

And that service works best when there are, for instance, problems in the client's organization, work flows or IT projects. If a client needs a new home page system, for example, the consultants hire programmers who will install the new system together with the company's IT specialists. Reiners sees that as a decisive reason for the method: "Small and medium-sized enterprises calculate so closely that they cannot assign personnel for weeks on end for the implementation."

But it's not only due to tight money or lack of know-how that small and medium-sized enterprises would prefer that type of consultant, says Torsten Wulf, Professor for Strategic Management and Organization at Leipzig Graduate School of Management. "You can talk better with people in the field if you speak their language. It's the same with consultants who adjust to their clients. Instead of consultants coming across as being sophisticated with suit, tie and PowerPoint presentations, clients prefer to see, in practice, consultants in overalls being determined in lending a hand and taking action. To convince those responsible in small and medium-sized enterprises, it would take a lot of know-how in the subject matter. Also, the expected added value would have to be definitely realizable, says management expert Wulf. After all, such consulting would cost at least EUR 1,000 per day and sometimes continue for months on end.

The three consultants from Porsche Consulting seem to have been worth their money. Together with the Chiron staff, they have lastingly changed the company: Before, the fitters had been working in a box in the center of which the milling machine was produced. The material for its assembly was lying around inside the box and outside of it. Today, the machine is assembled on a long production line; after their delivery, individual parts are immediately used for the assembly so that no warehouse will be necessary. The team's main walk ways are marked by yellow adhesive tape on the floor, and team work routes have thus been reduced by one third. A milling machine is now produced twice as fast as before.

Aside from production areas, purchasing departments especially are a frequent target of implementation consulting. This is the specialty of Kerkhoff Consulting in Düsseldorf. For a long time, Managing Director Gerd Kerkhoff himself had been the managing director of a medium-sized enterprise. Now, he and his staff try to improve the procurement chain of small and medium-sized enterprises. Consultants observe the enterprise in an analysis phase. According to Kerkhoff, nine out of ten companies also have the consultancy implement the subsequent improvement suggestions: The implementation will take up to half a year. Three to five consultants per company are assigned to the task. Once the new concept is established in the business operation, regular controlling days will follow. After all, says Gerd Kerkhoff, how good a concept really is would only become evident after its implementation.