Come the Revolution! From Ideas to Outcomes…That Stick

Accenture’s CEO, Pierre Nanterme, recently told the Washington Post that consulting and professional services firms are undergoing a massive revolution. They’re moving from ideas to outcomes.

“When you think about consulting you think about advisor services,” Nanterme told the newspaper. You think about delivering papers, PowerPoints, ideas,” he said. “I think the revolution is that consulting is shifting from ideas to outcomes.”

There’s huge value in new thinking. It leads to innovation and continuous improvement. But ultimately, I’ve always believed that consultants should be in the business of improving clients’ results.

Creating sustainable outcomes has been core to my consulting approach, not only during my 20 years at Towers Watson (formerly Towers Perrin ), but also since launching the Jim Shaffer Group 15 years ago.

Over the years, we have focused on creating improved outcomes at companies such as Owens Corning, FedEx Express, ConAgra Foods, ITT Corporation, Honeywell and Abbot Laboratories, among others.

Here are a few of the results:

  • Increased productivity by nine percent with a 700 percent return on investment
  • Safety improved by 82 percent, productivity by 11 percent, cost-per-pound by 8 percent while increasing return on net assets by 14 percent
  • Generated a 23 percent increase in revenues and a 1,500 percent ROI
  • Replicated the work in five other locations and generated $6 million in new business and a 1,600 percent ROI.

What’s remarkable about these outcomes? On the surface, very little.  We used tools and processes that are available to any other consultants and clients. But why, in almost every case, did these performance improvements stick? Why were they sustained over time? Why didn’t they go by the wayside as so many programs do in companies with short attention spans?

What made these improvements sustainable? Here are four key reasons:

Strong leaders. If they weren’t there when we arrived on the scene, we built them or moved people into key leadership roles. We made sure leader expectations were clear. We assessed and developed leaders and held them accountable for improving performance. We introduced it as a way to improve the way work gets done, not a “Create our Culture” program with cute stickers, posters, brochures and rah-rah meetings.  We didn’t try to make the program fun. We tried to make serving the customer and beating the competition fun.

Involving people on the front line early and often in problem identification and solution implementation. I’ve said it a thousand times: “If you want to know how to improve the way something is done, ask the people who do the work every day how to do it better.” They know! They will tell you! They will help you implement their solution. And they will make it sustainable because they own it and they don’t want the work to revert to the antiquated ways of the past.

Changing the systems so they communicate what’s important. Communication, measurement, leadership, rewards, recognition, work processes, and learning and development all communicate what’s important. What counts is what you count. If you count productivity, you’ll get productivity–sometimes at the expense of quality. What gets rewarded gets done. How we manage these systems communicates what’s important. Align them to produce better results and keep them aligned. Many improvement efforts fail because the systems are misaligned. This enables the culture to snap back to the way it was before the change effort started.

Implementing control mechanisms that foster continuous improvement. Disciplined continuous improvement processes move the organization forward, preventing the organization to recede.

I welcome the “massive revolution” Pierre Nanterme foresees. It’s good for clients. It’s good for consultants.

It’s about time.

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