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Jim Benson


Consulting and Learning Are Mutually Inclusive

Solving problems and knowing the answers are not the same thing

Published: Monday, March 14, 2016 - 17:43

When you are a consultant, or worse yet, seen as a thought leader, people hire you expecting that you’ll know “the answers.” At best, what you actually know are paths to make sense of problems, communicate them, and then solve them. No consultant should ever arrive knowing the answers. If they do, you could have just asked them over the phone or read their book. Canned knowledge is a commodity. Problem solving is not.

Let’s face it—work is a challenge. We have to not only get along with other people; more important, we need to understand other people. Our colleagues aren’t fungible, and they aren’t machines. They are stuck in the same problems we are. They are just as much a part—and just as much a victim—of the problem as we are.

Digging into issues is paramount.

Since writing Personal Kanban (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011) five years ago, we’ve worked with companies, governments, and individuals around the world helping them get control of their work—but you never do that without solving some problem. They all want Personal Kanban to come in, plug in, and start running.

After nearly 25 years of project management, business ownership, and process consulting, I can state unequivocally that no tool has ever single-handedly fixed a workflow issue.

In an upcoming interview on Dave Prior’s Projects@Work, Dave mostly asked me about how I learn from my clients. He later tweeted, “My favorite part about getting to interview @ourfounder is listening to the gratitude he has for his clients and what he learns from them.” (I’m @ourfounder on Twitter, by the way.) Dave was laser-focused on this topic.

The fact is that as a consultant my only job is to learn from my clients first. Then I take the tools at my disposal and use them with the client—so they learn those tools or ideas and can use them on their own next time.

We’ve walked into situations where:
• The entire company hated each other.
• People were so overworked that they had no idea how to prioritize, estimate, or complete their work.
• Poor quality had created blame cascades so rich that no one could trace the source of the problem
• Bad service delivery had caused a customer riot.
• One toxic person with great power was destroying an otherwise very successful company.
• Growth had taken a successful and focused startup into a sprawling and confused mid-sized company with too many clients
• Great ideas spawned so many projects that nothing got done.
• Bureaucracy had ground innovation and autonomy to such a halt that no one could act.

Every client has had unique elements and predictable elements. No one has ever been mundane.

In no case were these problems caused by people being incompetent or evil. Each time there was a system we could build with our clients to help them see and confront their issues. That would be impossible if we didn’t listen first.

First published in February 2016, on the Modus Cooperandi blog.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller Personal Kanban (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Limit WIP (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013). He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, and the Brickell Key Award. Benson and DeMaria teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. Benson regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.