‘Consultants deploy skills most firms simply don’t have’

Mike Turner, Managing Partner of Oakland Consulting, describes 2015 as buoyant. “We had a very strong 2014. This year, growth hasn’t been quite as marked. But that’s partly due to the phasing of some projects. Each of our markets remains strong.” Mike expects this to continue in 2016. “We have new clients with ongoing needs. We’re leading large-scale programmes for multi-nationals. Our prospects are good.”

Reinforcing this is a resurgence in demand for Oakland’s core expertise. The firm specialises in operational excellence and quality. Increasingly, Mike suggests, clients want to embed quality in their operations. “Differentiating on price only gets you so far and may prove impossible, especially for established market leaders facing cheaper, faster insurgents. Incumbents need to link recognised brand values to quality products and services, as well as reliable, reputation-bolstering systems and processes.” Mike adds that Volkswagen’s emissions testing scandal and Toyota’s numerous product recalls illustrate what happens when firms lose focus on quality.

Mike identifies phases in the history of quality management in business. Responding to evidence that British business had fallen behind competitors in quality and reliability, the ‘quality profession’ took off in the late 80s and early 90s. “There were lots of programmes, some supported by government initiatives, and they made a real difference.” During the Blair years, as firms grew rapidly, they accented big systems projects and diversifying into new markets. Quality work plateaued. “Some organisations became complacent. They had done their quality programmes once. They had a quality manager, systems and processes in place. So they assumed they had cracked it.

“But business cultures are not static. They changed radically in the last decade and are changing even more fundamentally now. If I’m honest, the quality profession itself didn’t always keep up with this. It didn’t adapt its assumptions. The realities of business and the quality agenda diverged.”

Oakland have led debates across the quality community to combat that complacency and change perspectives on what quality means today and what skills are needed for it. “We’ve made real progress. Now we are reaching out to clients, who need quality management more than ever, telling them quality professionals are on the move and can be deployed differently.”

In discussing how consulting can make a positive impact on growth, Mike focused on manufacturing, an area critical to ‘rebalancing the economy’ and making UK growth sustainable. “Growth is often about developing new offerings. In doing so, manufacturers face increasingly demanding end-users who want highly tailored but reliable products. More technology than ever is now embedded in manufactures. A successful product’s ingredients are many, dispersed across a business’s disparate groupings and interests. Independent consultants deploy skills most firms simply don’t have to integrate and manage these cross-cutting and complex programmes effectively.”

Mike suggests that rapid product mobilisation in the Digital Age has not changed the fundamentals of successful projects. “But for consultants it has meant deepening our understanding of clients and getting smarter, not least as a new innovation’s value chain may span numerous geographies across the globe.”

Consultants can also help with the other geographical challenge facing manufacturers: exporting into new markets. “This isn’t just about setting up the supply chains to get the product out there, but deciding on jurisdiction-specific or cultural variations in the product itself – at the very least in labelling and support documentation. We can help clients manage these challenges effectively and profitably.”