Free

The old saying goes that free advice is worth what you pay for it. Well, I’d advise that more attention be paid to free advice because sometimes it can be the best money can’t buy.

In the early ’80s, I began a career as a consultant. Besides the typical struggles of learning the trade, pricing my services accurately, and getting paid, I was concerned with giving my clients the best and most accurate suggestions. I had a sailing buddy who had just retired from a successful career consulting for manufacturers. Will’s specialty was solving complex issues in process engineering. He’d sort out snarls in production lines. Clean up schedules, and generally leave clients smiling when he presented the bill.

One day after sailing in Boston Harbor, I asked him what his favorite work methodology was.

Here’s what he told me: the first thing I do is establish my credentials with management. I listen to their concerns; after all, they are going to pay the bill. Then I analyze all their metrics – statistics, cost analysis, and such like that. After that, I am done with the administrative offices. From there on, I’m on the floor watching the organization. I always make a point of being friendly, but not familiar with the line workers. I spend a lot of time watching, not saying much, and not getting in the way. I don’t spend a lot of time with forepersons or line supervisors.

After a while, I get an idea of the actual workflow, not what management says or thinks it is. Eventually, I’ll have built some relationships with the people who are getting the work done. In conversations, they tell me what their perceptions of the workplace are. In my opinion, they frequently have a more realistic view of how to improve things than management. Quite often, I take those suggestions and incorporate them into my report and recommendations.

I asked if management listened. Will replied: My advice and recommendations cost them a sizeable sum. They paid attention because they had invested in what I said. They could have gotten the same information for free if they’d listened to their employees.

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