What Experience Do You Have in My Industry?

“What experience do you have in my industry?” I heard this again today for the nth time, with n being a number sufficiently large such that n x $1 would buy a nice lunch for everyone who reads this today.
The “industry experience” objection to taking help from consultants is a common one, but not a very good one. There are many more important questions you should be asking when evaluating consultants. At best this question relies on the individual experience of the consultant in question being sufficient so that you don’t lose valuable time educating the consultant about your business while paying their exorbitant fees. A better question would be:
“What processes do you have in place to insure that you will not lose time in becoming familiar with our processes, terminology and unique conditions of our business when you first start working with us?”
Even if I had experience in your industry, business changes all of the time. Is my experience from 5 or 10 years ago as relevant as the experience and knowledge of your people today? Is it more valuable that the consultant already knows it, or that they are good listeners? Do you really want the Lean or process improvement consultant as a change agent (as opposed to technical or industry knowledge consultant) challenging your best people on their company-specific industry knowledge?
Another related question that should be asked, but isn’t, is this:
“How much and what type of things do your learn with each new client?” You would be amazed at what this can tell you about the person you are considering hiring as your teacher and coach.
Perhaps the most valid reason the “industry experience” question is asked is when there is doubt that Lean or the consulting service in question applies to your industry at all. If you have concrete doubts as to why Lean might be challenging to apply to your industry, ask specific questions and evaluate how the consultant is able to respond with specific, relevant examples, not generalities.
The half cousin of the “industry experience” objection is the “we’re different” or “our business unique” comment. Of course every business and every institution is unique. That is a truism, in that no two are exactly alike. However, unless you are trying to create an exact replica of another organization, this point is irrelevant. A better question to the consultant would be:
“What evidence do you have that your processes or products can deliver the results you claim to businesses similar to my own?” If the evidence can’t be provided, the meeting is over. If you’re not prepared to consider and accept evidence that comes in response, you shouldn’t be wasting the consultant’s time asking.
A process is a process is a process. Just as the human body is composed of 60% to 78% water (this varies by age, weight and sex), over 95% of any process is wasted time, space and energy. This is easy to measure, and the evidence is scientific, so long as you can agree on a definition of value, and that everything excluding value is waste. With numbers like that, it doesn’t matter what industry you are in. Lean still applies.
As a consultant, it’s tempting to ask the non-consultant customer “What experience do you have in my industry?” but that would be the wrong question.