Time for a consultation

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Consultancy has played a key role in the development of supply chain strategies. But how do organisations make the most of the resource? Malory Davies asks some industry leaders.

Consultants are people who borrow your watch to tell you what time it is and then walk off with it, according to business guru Robert Townsend, who came up with the aphorism in his 1970 book “Up The Organisation”. Needless to say, the notion finds little favour among consultants. And there is no doubt that consultants can bring expertise and experience that might not exist within an organisation. There are many reasons a consultant may be required by a supply chain organisation: significant change in a business; shortage of internal resource; or a need to call in specific expertise or capability in undertaking the type of project under consideration. But, says John Perry, managing director of Scala: “More often than not, it’s a combination of several of these factors that leads to the requirement. Bringing in a fresh face, unencumbered by past decisions, could provide the right level of support.” It may also be that, complete objectivity is needed, points out Sid Holian, managing director of Bis Henderson Consulting. “A business may require a totally new perspective, or a clearer view that isn’t clouded by long-held opinions on how things should or should not be done. Then, if it’s about improvements, rather than strategy and growth, it may be that the business doesn’t necessarily know what stone to overturn next to realise the benefits and value they’re looking for.” Martin Palmer, senior partner at Davies & Robson argues that more forward-thinking companies use consultants to help them look into the future to work out what their supply chain needs to be like in the future and help them set the strategy of how they are going to get there. What is vitally important for the organisation, is that the consultants they choose to work with bring new ideas with them, so it can really innovate and change the way of working, says John Lockton, partner at BearingPoint. He highlights the way that Argos worked with consultants to help re-invent its customer offering as part of its transformation into a digitally-led retailer. “It set-up a collaborative team from Argos’s Commercial and Supply functions and BearingPoint to design, develop and implement an innovative hub & spoke supply-chain management capability. Following a successful implementation, Argos (now part of Sainsbury’s Argos) remains the only UK retailer to offer same day delivery across more than 90 per cent of UK postcodes, seven days a week. At the same time, the enhanced network and inventory flow modelling have greatly improved Argos’ offer economics,” says Lockton. Good preparation is key. Perry says: “A business should outline a clear understanding of the problem to be addressed, with initial thoughts on the scope of the project and identification of a potential consultant.” Lockton agrees: “The first step is for the senior team to have a very clear view on what are the key questions that they want the consulting firm to answer. These should then be developed with the consultant, using the consultants wider perspective to bring value even at this early stage. “Then it’s the tendering process. We are presently finding that most major consulting projects are competitive. This is as a result of the development of more professional services procurement functions. “Despite having more of a formal tendering process – clients need to make sufficient time for face to face meetings with the consultants that are tendering for the work. This is because the expertise of the consultants will shine through in these meetings, and true experts will also provide the organisation with an immediate view on the different ways of tackling the project. This will also allow a better understanding of where a particular consulting firm is coming from, and what they can really bring to the table. “This approach is a two-way thing. It allows the organisation to understand better what the consultants are like, their views, and their unique way of working. “This also allows the consultancy to tailor its approach to the specific requirements. The more that the client can do this – the better the solution it will receive from the consulting firm and then select the right partner,” says Lockton. Martin Palmer points out that it is always best when the client senior management team are agreed on the issues so that each project can have a clear flow of activity and desired outcomes can be easily set. As with all issues in the supply chain data is at the heart of all the analysis that is done so having good access to high quality data from all company systems (and increasingly supplier systems) is key. This can then be overlaid with the practical knowledge of the consultant teams to make sure there is the correct interpretation. Sid Holian also highlights the importance that key information needs be gathered and pre-worked. “Your project can only go so far without data. But it’s clarity on scope that is absolutely vital, and defining what the deliverables are. We believe it’s absolutely essential to offer our clients quantifiable answers to clearly defined deliverables,” says Holian. Client expectations have also been changing and often companies are more demanding in what they expect from consultants than in the past. Those that have used consultants to good effect in the past recognise the value that they can bring, says Lockton. “So they are more demanding on the consulting firm to design, develop and support implementation of a solution. The time has passed when client organisations expected only a view and a report. They now want something that is clear, meets the business needs and is actionable,” says Lockton. Holian says: “These days, organisations require increasingly sophisticated supply chains to remain competitive. Generally, most businesses have already done many improvements, and so to get further benefits and value they are having to turn to more complex solutions – and that could be looking at the total end-to-end supply chain, from source to final mile, or it could be considering the use of hi-tech warehouse solutions, automation or artificial intelligence. Many are reviewing the use of robotics to reduce dependency on a dwindling labour resource. And, interestingly, now many of our clients are placing warehouses away from their centre of gravity in favour of where labour is more abundant.” Chemistry is key for Martin Palmer. “Companies realise that engaging a consultant is about finding the right chemistry with the people they will be dealing with. Companies no longer want to have young graduates with little real-world experience doing the bulk of the work, they want experienced partners who can add real value at each step of the process. Timeline expectations can be quite demanding so both parties need to be sure they have the right level of resources to deliver a good outcome so selecting a partner with sufficient scale is important. There is a greater expectation now that consultancies will have the accreditations, disaster recovery plans and that there is some genuine infrastructure behind the consultancy group, but in the end it’s about the engagement of the people in both organisations.” Perry points out that some companies have more experience than others of working with consultants. The absolute key is to agree what the scope of the project is from the outset. A tight scope ensures that the consultant is very focused and is not distracted by other factors. On the other hand, if the scope is too tight, significant factors – which may be relevant to the successful implementation of the project – may risk being overlooked.”


This feature first appeared in the August issue of Logistics Manager.

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