With all the stuff going around about the bird flu, I am reminded of one of the less glamourous management consulting projects I heard about (in general terms) last year in the turkey business.
Now in many operations projects, key goals are to improve business processes in dimensions such as:
- average throughput
- inventory backlog
- peak capacity
- risk/failure points
A company often has tons of business processes in place. Sometimes there may be a manageable set of predominant process flows, but then there can be a zillion microflows. One way for a consultant to get grounded in a situation in the face of this complexity is to go on a "nickel tour" with the client .
In the case of the management consultant I met with, the goal of current project was to reduce the number of injuries in the processing plants of one of the big turkey producers (I presume to reduce lawsuits, etc.). The automated equipment in certain sectors of the meat business, as I understand things, can be quite scary. Not for the faint-hearted for sure, some of the equipment used can separate the meat from bone (of entire animals) in matters of a few seconds. Imagine what can happen if your arm gets caught in the machine ...
So day 1 the consultant arrives on the scene, and one of the plant workers hands the consultant a pair of rubber boots to go on a "nickel tour" of the plant. I don't think the tour was of the slaughterhouse, but one can imagine that the scene was not everything a recent MBA grad dreams of doing as a consultant.
To generalize, in many nickel tours, the client walks the consultant through the backoffice, introduces sales personnel, has them sit in with customer service representatives, attend working meetings related to information technology user sessions, etc. The purpose is to give the consultant a ground floor view of what happens in the business (plus an opportunity to ask questions). The nickel tour helps to compress a complex view of the business into one short experience. While a lot of the tour can turn out to be a bunch of chit-chat and small talk, I have often turned the nickel tour into a very useful experience. The nickel tour can be a very valuable source for initial checkpoint information for the consultant (e.g., if the consultant sees large piles of inventory, frazzled or distressed workers, disorganized workspaces). A consultant may also meet people on the tour that can serve as useful sources of information later in an engagement.
On the flip-side, a consultant needs to be wary of "stage plays". This is a case where the nickel tour is not a real tour of operations, but a case where someone (within the client operations) has dressed up the situation to be different or better than it really is on a day-to-day basis.
In any case, make sure to think about giving or getting a nickel tour in a consulting relationship. Although it is not always possible or desirable in some cases to give a nickel tour, a nickel tour can really help consultants get a "live" feel for the business at hand.