Episode: 60 |
Joachim Fischer:
Lean Operations:


Joachim Fischer

Lean Operations

Show Notes

Our guest today is Joachim Fischer, a mentor and good friend of mine who was an Expert in the Operations Practice at McKinsey when I got to know him a dozen years ago

Joachim is the only McKinsey alum that I know who started his career as an apprentice cabinetmaker. As he explains on the show, the training he received as a cabinetmaker has been incredibly relevant to his career, probably more important than anything he learned in college. He still spends a lot of his free time building beautiful things with his hands, and that practical, craftsman knowledge informs his professional work driving improvement on the shop floor.

Back in 2006, Joachim and I spent three days together on a quick operations diagnostic of maintenance workers doing A-checks on a 747 at John F. Kennedy airport, which has got to be one of the most fun things I did at the firm.  Joachim started his independent consulting practice ten years ago, and after I started my own practice I’ve regularly called him for advice, and I’m really grateful for all the counsel he has given me over the years.

On the show we discuss Joachim’s three main areas of focus, including lean transformations, operational problem solving, and coaching and mentoring.  Over ten years, about 95% of his business has come from just twelve clients, and he offers a powerful example of building deep relationships with clients that last for years.

I always learn something when I talk to Joachim, and I hope you find this episode helpful.

To learn more about Joachim and get in touch, visit the website of Fischer Advisors.

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will Bachman: Our guest today is Joachim Fischer, a mentor, and good friend of mine, who is an expert in the operation practice, at McKinsey, when I got to know him, a dozen years ago.
Joachim is the only McKinsey alum that I know, who started his career as an apprentice cabinet maker. As he explains on the show, the training he received as a cabinet maker has been incredibly relevant to his career. “Probably more important,” he says, “than anything he learned in college.”
He still spends a lot of his free time, as an independent consultant, running his own firm, Fischer Advisors, building beautiful things with his hands, and that practical craftsman knowledge informs his professional work, driving improvement on the shop floor.
Back in 2006, Joachim and I spent three days together on a quick operations diagnostic of maintenance workers, doing HX on a 747, at John F. Kennedy airport, which has got to be one of the coolest things I did at the firm.
Joachim started his independent consulting practice 10 years ago, and after I started my own practice, I have regularly called him for advice. And I’m personally grateful for all the counsel he’s given me over the years.
On the show we discuss Joachim’s three main areas of focus: including lean transformations, operational problem solving, and coaching and mentoring. Over 10 years, about 95% of his business has come from just 12 clients, and he offers a powerful example of building deep relationships with clients that last for years.
I always learn something when I talk to Joachim and I hope you find this episode helpful.
Joachim, it is great to have you on the show.
Joachim Fischer: Good morning Will. Thanks for having me.
Will Bachman: So it’s really, really a pleasure.
I started independent consulting 10 years ago and you were one of the primary mentors for me, in my first several years, when I’d call you every engagement: you know, when I was negotiating it, or trying to lay it out: and you were so, so helpful, particularly when I got started. It’s really been awesome, getting to know you better, over the past 10 years. So, having one of my mentors on the show, is great.
Joachim Fischer: Thank you very much for your kind words. I keenly remember that and I’ve always seen that as a game that we are together, in, and I’m perfectly happy to share and to help anyone who asks questions, or has a genuine question: I’m more than happy to help.
Will Bachman: That’s really cool.
So, we’ll get into your work, later: the kind of lean operations work and operational problem solving and coaching, that you do.
But let’s start with cabinet making. So you have restored a Mercedes 1958. You’ve restored an Airstream. You build and restore wooden boats. Talk to me about cabinet making and how you got started with all that?
Joachim Fischer: Oh wow. You’re getting right into it.
Yeah, I was born and raised in Germany. And, in Germany, they have this system where they do what they call “a duel education system.” So you have a choice coming out of high school, whether you want to go the academic route and just become an engineer, or a doctor, or an architect, or anything like that. Or, whether you go the trade route and just learn to work with your hands: whether that is as a baker, or a butcher, or a plumber.
For me, I always enjoyed working with my hands and I always was screwing around in my father’s garage. So, it was very clear to me, that I wanted to go into operations first: I wanted to work with my hands. So I decided to do an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker for three years, back in Germany, and tremendously enjoyed that. In doing so, I became actually quite proficient in building stuff and that always has stayed with me, throughout the life.
So I’m restoring cars: I’m building boats: I’m doing Airstream trailers: whatever comes my way. If I find an interesting project I’m more than happy to get my hands dirty and just immerse myself into, typically, a multi-project, and learning new skills and applying what I do professionally, at home, with my own stuff. So, I’m doing what I preach: let’s put it this way.
Will Bachman: So, if we came into your garage, would we find everything, kind of, 5S, and have you practice your own preaching around lean operations?
Joachim Fischer: I would be perfectly happy to show clients two things: one would be the garage, where they would find my tools perfectly being 5S. But also into my closet, where you could find everything even in the dark. If I even have to pack my suitcase on a Monday morning, I don’t have to wake up my wife and turn on the light, I can do it in the dark, because, quite frankly, it’s pretty much 5S, I have to say.
Will Bachman: That’s awesome. And remind us what 5S is, for the folks who haven’t recently done the Lean Academy?
Joachim Fischer: Sure. Yeah. So 5S is nothing else than a system to organize whatever it is that makes you value-add to your clients. So if you are building engines and you’re having 20 tools on your workbench, then you want to make sure that those 20 tools are organized in the best possible way. They are labeled. Everything is in its place. And you do that in the most effective way.
It’s quite simple, actually. I hear a lot of people making a big deal of it but, at the end of the day, it’s one of the most rudimentary tools that you would start a lean transformation with, or an operation improvement process. And it’s also very good because it starts engaging the front line. So they typically say “I need every hammer.” “I need every screwdriver.” But, the reality is, once you’re done with a 5S exercise, typically, whatever you had before in your vicinity is reduced by half, and it’s just more effective to do it that way.
Will Bachman: Yeah.
Joachim Fischer: So in my garage, everything is labeled, everything is in its place.
Will Bachman: You started, and then after the apprenticeship you spent some in the military?
Joachim Fischer: Yes, that’s correct. Similar to, I think, your background, with the submarine and the ‘glow-in-the-dark’ guys.
For me, well I grew up in Germany where we had mandatory service. So, I spent two years in the military, as a pioneer, also working with my hands. Again, I mean, that’s just a very forming experience. In the apprenticeship I learned all around operating systems: how to deal with machines: how to push a broom: how to organize things. But what I didn’t necessarily got during the apprenticeship, is everything around management infrastructure, and this is just where the military is extremely good in conveying that message. You know, how do you inform people? How do you motivate people? How do you train people? How do you incentivize? How do you manage people?
And this experience, for two years, in the Germany military, was just extremely beneficial to me, in learning how to work with people who not necessarily want to be there in the first place. But you, as a leader, still have to make it work. So how do you span this gap?
Will Bachman: Yeah. For me, the military, also, was so valuable. I think before I went into the military … and the impression that a lot of people might have, is it’s all about command and control and giving orders, but I almost never received a direct order, where someone said “Lieutenant Bachman. This is a direct order” And I don’t think I ever gave a direct order, kind of, in that fashion.
Joachim Fischer: That is exactly true. And that is so true, while everyone kind of resorts to that, or thinks about that, that this is the primary mode of operating: that is actually not the case.
The difference between the German military, and the US, is that you have voluntary service in the US, and we have the mandatory service, so everyone does it, or had to to do it at the time. And what that ends up with, is that you are having people in your platoon that are not necessarily that keen to be there in the first place. And, subsequently, motivating a crowd like that is a very different challenge. And a direct order only gets you that far: if you really want to have performance you have to approach that very differently. And it was just very … a forming experience for me, to go through that experience.
I can use those lessons. I have to say, with all the education that we did over the years, with engineering and MBAs and all that kind of stuff, I would argue that what I learned during my three year apprenticeship and my two years in the military, is probably what I can use most on a daily basis when I go on the shop floor.
Will Bachman: That’s amazing. Give us an example of one of those lessons and something that you have referred to, lately, from that time?
Joachim Fischer: When we were doing an apprenticeship, you’re going through a very rigorous process, where you have to get lessons on a weekly basis and then, at the end of the week, you would be tested on whatever the lessons for the week was. Just those small installments of learning: so learning happens over time: and we forget that, when we do performance improvement programs. You basically walk in the door and you say “Okay. I have three weeks of time. I have to turn this workplace around. I give you everything at once.” And swallow, and hopefully it sticks, you know?
The reality is that learning happens over time. And if you really, truly want to transform a place and you want to engage the employees, you have to package that differently. So this whole ‘learning on the job’, this whole notion of having regular weekly installments of whatever the lesson of the week is, and then following that up with performance testing and performance management, was something that we learned back then, and I still do that today.
When we do large scale performance transformations, we have our curriculum laid out at the beginning: what are the 10 or 15 things that we need to convey? In what sequence do we want to roll that out? Who’s going to do it? When? And how are we going to do it? So we very much mirror some of those principles that I learned when I was 15, literally.
Will Bachman: So, we’re getting into your current work now.
I understand from our previous conversations that you have three main branches: lean transformations; operations problem solving; and then coaching and mentoring executives.
Let’s talk about the first one. Lean transformation. Can you give us an example, a sanitized example of that type of project?
Joachim Fischer: Sure. I mean lean transformations is probably a third of what I do. Over the years … I’m now 10 years into running my own consulting business, and while you don’t always have a lean transformation going on, I mean, they could last anywhere from one to three years, typically you’re trying to be at the shorter side, let’s say a year, year and a half. But if you doing those lean performance transformations that’s very much squarely in my wheelhouse: that’s what I do.
So, what we do, typically, is we follow a typical three step [Bow 00:12:27] chart. Originally, diagnosing what the problem is. In a second step, determining what the future state should look like. And then in the third and most important step, executing the heck out of this, to harvest what we put in the ground. So, we really want to get to impact, as quickly as we can.
So, those are the three kind of phases of a lean transformation. And then the approach that I always take and that I’m doing this now for the last, I don’t know, 20 years, I would say, is that we always following the Venn diagram around operating system, management infrastructure and mindsets and behaviors. I think that’s something that we talked about a long time ago, when you were in the operations practice, right?
Will Bachman: One of the first lean ops projects I did at McKinsey, I was paired up with you and you were kind of my coach on it. I think we went and did like an operational diagnostic of some airline maintenance, which was super-fun. We spent a day observing that, and part of that was looking at the operating system, what tools they had, and interviewing folks, think about mindsets. And the management system, we looked at reports and what kind of visual management they had on the floor, and what were the systems. So … yeah.
Joachim Fischer: That’s right. I think you retained it well. That’s pretty awesome, I’m glad.
Yeah, but always start with a diagnostic. We come in and we think we know everything, and it’s, kind of, you almost have to take yourself back because we have seen 200, 300, 400 different organizations, over the course of 20 years of doing this. So, for us, we walk in and we kind of pretty quickly come to a conclusion, “Oh, okay. It’s around 5S. It’s around OEE. It’s around standard work.” Whatever the problem may be.
But the reality is, you know, you have to spend some time. You have to be on the shop floor. You have to observe. You have to get comfortable with what the real underlying issues are. It’s very similar to a doctor: you go to the doctor and you say, your left knee might hurt. And while that is true, the real root cause of that might be that your hip is misaligned. We could treat the knee, but that really wouldn’t do you any good, ultimately.
So, we always start with a diagnostic, which is a fairly rigorous and a very holistic approach, where we look into all different areas of an organization.
Will Bachman: Can you maybe give us a case example? And pick either … sanitize either a real client example, or walk us through one. You’ve been to so many different kind of facilities. Maybe it’s a facility for preparing food for an airline, or just a factory making soap: and walk us through what are the different types of observations and analyses that would be included in your diagnostic?
Joachim Fischer: Sure. Most recently we just finished a major lean transformation for an aluminum packaging organization. They’re doing aluminum cans, aluminum bottles, for premium food servings: could be wine: could be beer: could be anything else, for that matter. And a friend of mine called me up after he received the position as a CEO, of this organization. It’s a private equity owned business. He just recently got this job as CEO and he called me up and says “Look, I think my operations is kind of in need of improvement, but I quite frankly don’t know exactly what to do. Can you come in and tell me how this works?
So we came in for two weeks and basically just camped out on the shop floor. Started … the first thing we always do, is we start with the operating system. The operating system is basically what types of machines are you using? How are they configured? How are they working? What’s the down time? What’s the spare part situation? What is the speed? What are the small stoppages? You are basically trying to figure out what the OEE for the shop floor looks like. And in doing so, you really get your hands dirty. You crawl behind the machine. You are looking in the waste baskets and see how many parts that they throw away. You are going behind the factory and you see, what is the recycling looks like. Do they throw … how much aluminum is being thrown out here? What are the shavings on the floor: where do those come from?
So you really try to get some observations going, that indicate where the waste is and where the improvement potential lies. After … that could easily take two or three days, just to get comfortable with what they do, actually, and how that works. And you have to also do that at all times of the day, I mean this is a 24/7 operation that never stops, so you can’t just do that during the day, you have to … you come during the night shift and observe there, just as well, what are they actually doing?
The second aspect is, after you have a good clue on operating system, you look into the management infrastructure. How are people directed? Do they have daily huddles? Do they have a morning briefing where they are being told what to do and what to look out for? That there is now this consultant running out on the shop floor and that they want to take care of him, safety-wise and otherwise.
You want to identify, do they keep metrics? Do they KPIs? Would they be able to identify whether they had a good day and what actually made a good day? Or whether that was a lousy day and they want to come home and kick the dog? In many organizations I mean they simply don’t know. They go home after eight or 12 hours and it was a good day if no one yelled at you, but they couldn’t point necessarily to clear metrics that says “Yeah. We had 20 minutes of down time. And 30 minutes of training. And 50 minutes of maintenance related issues or safety related issues.” They don’t know that, necessarily.
And then the last aspect and, for me, that is typically something I like to focus on just because of … that I gravitate towards, that is, mindsets and behaviors. So, on that one, it’s the difference between you could have a fast car and you would have a very well greased machine, but if you put my grandma into it, the car wouldn’t go fast because she’s just not motivated to go fast. So, it’s the difference between a warm body, it just shows up for work and a pay cheque, or whether you have someone who is actually really on the team and who wants to make it work. And identifying what type of workforce do you have? How well are they trained? How well are they motivated to make that a great day today?
So those are the three aspects that we looked at. After that, we have a very good holistic view of what the current state looks like, and we can go back to management, and say “Look. We identified in this particular case, that OEE is just very bad. You only have about 30% OEE.” Which for an organization like that, it’s just not sustainable in the long run.
Will Bachman: Joachim, just for listeners that aren’t familiar with the term, OEE … I think that stands for Overall Equipment Effectiveness? Could you just describe what that term means?
Joachim Fischer: Yeah, well sure. So what it does, it basically allows you to objectively assess the operational performance that you are getting out of your equipment. So if you’re having a series of machines, you’re interested in three major topics, or three major losses: one is, how much does your machine gives you regarding down time? If it’s down all the time, obviously you’re not getting the full output out of the machine and it would have to be deducted from your OEE number. The second one is around machine speed. And the last one is around quality. So if you take those three main losses, that have some sub-categories to it, and if you multiply them with each other, you should get somewhere in the … depending on the industry, and depending on the age of the machine, but hopefully you should be somewhere in the 80, 90% range.
In this particular example, with our can manufacturing, we were only in the 30%, which kind of tells you what the upside is, what the opportunity is. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity and it became clear to them very quickly by looking at those diagnostic tools that clearly spelled out where, in which bucket they are losing their biggest opportunities.
Will Bachman: And would you typically … to what degree would you get involved in kind of looking at the supply chain piece as well? So if they have stock outs of key components, of working backwards to figure out, “Well why aren’t we ordering them on time? And how are we planning the production so we know what we’re going to produce, so we can know what we order, so we don’t stock out of the right box or cap or widget?”
Joachim Fischer: Interesting. Interesting. Yeah. So, typically, I mean I do a lot of discrete manufacturing and in those types of industries, what you’re describing is a very common problem.
In this particular one, you know, can manufacturing, the inputs are very, very limited. All you have are raw aluminum, and a couple of drums with ink, and a couple of plastic pieces: so the bill of materials is extremely simple, very straightforward, and that was not necessarily one of their problems. I mean the supply chain was very well maintained.
But you’re right. I mean when you’re doing your diagnostic that is one of the things that you have to test for because, quite frankly, you don’t know where the problem lies. It could be supply chain related. It could be quality related, that they get a whole bunch of rejects, or returns, and they have to do a whole bunch of rework that obviously disrupts the entire operations cycle. So, when you do this diagnostic, you have to make sure that you’re super-holistic and you are testing for all those.
And, in this particular case, the test for supply chain only lasted, let’s say, two hours. A quick discussion with the supply chain manager. A quick look into the warehouse. A quick look at their bill of materials, and you could identify that that wasn’t one of the issues that we needed to address. However, they had plenty of other issues. OEE was one of the biggest one, obviously. A second one that needed to be addressed was employee engagement, where employees just wouldn’t necessarily participate in the problem solving. They might identify that the machine is not running, but they are not participative in how to resolve those issues. So we needed to kind of find a solution on how we get all those people onboard.
Will Bachman: How … The diagnostic for operating system and management system, I can easily imagine that, and it sort of makes sense. I can imagine asking for … looking at the KPIs and asking about the equipment and doing a spaghetti diagram.
For the mindsets and behaviors piece, talk to us a little bit about how do you go about doing that? Is it asking a few workers on the floor a few questions, or is there some standardized process you have, to assess the level of engagement and training, and so forth, of that mindset and behavior piece?
Joachim Fischer: Yeah. So there is actually a robust toolkit behind that. You typically start with just interviews of the key stakeholders: I mean you go to the CEO: you go to all the vice presidents and directors and managers. The further down you go into the organization, obviously, the less interviews you can do, just by the sheer magnitude of the workforce. But you still have a couple of those interactions where you’re selecting data points. The people would give you a pretty honest assessment around “This place is great!” Or, “This is the … I can’t wait to get out of here.” It’s either/or. Through interviews you can get a pretty good assessment of what that looks like.
A second tool that we use is what we call ‘focus groups’. You basically get different departments together in a room, typically about between eight and 12 employees, and we facilitate a focus group that is typically facilitated with pictures. And they are getting about a 100, paper clippings, of individual pictures: could be an exploding bomb: it could be a [inaudible 00:25:56]: it could be a mountain of paper that someone is trapped underneath of: it could be anything: an unplugged power outlet. Random pictures. And they are putting collages together as a team, and then after about 20 minutes, they basically have to present their collage to the team and describe in their own words why they picked those pictures and what does it represent to them.
So they basically identify, “Look. Here’s a lot of red tape.” Or, “Here’s a lot of bureaucracy.” Or, “Here’s a lot of communication hassles.” And it really doesn’t matter which picture they choose, it just allows them to get out of the realm of the shop floor, and out of the typical vocabulary that they’re using on the shop floor, and start to truly articulating what it is that bothers them. Or, what is this that excites them? I mean it doesn’t necessarily have to be fishing for problems, it could be also an eliciting of all the things that go right in the job and organization.
So if you do one focus group that typically lasts somewhere between an hour, an hour and a half, two hours max. If you do one in each group, and you might have four or five different departments, you can pretty much knock that out in a day. You almost talk to at least ten, 20% of the workforce that way. People feel engaged and participative and you get a pretty good handle on, what are the themes? So when do that we are not looking for specific sentences such as “My supervisor, Billy, sucks.” That would be something that I’d listen to, but I wouldn’t necessarily take that down, because it’s just an individual opinion of an individual complaining about his boss, you know? But, as a theme, if I hear three or four different statements that are similar to that, as a theme, I would very much take a note of that and ask the question, what is the span of control? Are we supervising our personnel appropriately? Are we having the right tools? Are we training them appropriately? Those are the questions that you want to service as a theme, not necessarily as an individual observation.
Will Bachman: Got it. And then what would some of the tools or approaches that you use, to go ahead and actually implement the transformation, once you’ve come up with a future state?
Joachim Fischer: Well that’s the trick. That’s the million dollar question. I tend to believe that there is no ‘one size fits all’ because every transformation is different. Depending on the starting point that you identify during the diagnostic, and depending on what the future state design calls for. If there is a call for action and we need to turn this ship around in six weeks, because otherwise we are going bankruptcy, the answer is going to be very different to someone who says “No, I really don’t care for flash-in-the-pan type of improvements. I really want to do a long term engagement. And I really want to go on a journey with you to improve my shop floor, more like Toyota or Honda does it.”
So depending on what the first two phases were, diagnostic and future state design, then you are going into the execution phase. And you have to come up with a customized program where you pull out of a tool bag of, I would say, at least 50 different tools, and you structure a package that is right for the client. Unfortunately, there is not ‘one size fits all’ answer to that, but I certainly can highlight a couple of examples of how I’ve seen it over the past.
Will Bachman: Let’s do that.
Joachim Fischer: Cool.
In this particular case, with our can manufacturer, we identify that employee engagement was a major hurdle. We had 15 different lines. Each line is different. Each line has a different product. And the problems that would surface on a daily basis, don’t necessarily fall neatly into the same bucket: so line one could be down to a very different reason that line three. What we identified is, one of the solutions was that we have to have an engaged workforce that can problem solve problems, on the fly, without much supervisor involvement or management involvement, because this goes 24/7, and during the weekend, overnight, they might not have the span of control that you might want to see.
So we started to implement an A3 approach, where we trained everyone on what the A3 approach is and we, maybe, want to talk a little bit what that is: to … a long story short, we implemented an A3 approach where every line had to develop what their most important issues are, and they had to develop an approach on how to resolve them. They had to do … on a bi-weekly basis, they had to present to the CEO what they are working on. What are the most important issues and how have we addressed them, or how are we going to address them?
And that was an extremely powerful approach because, all of a sudden, we had this competition going on where people say “Hey, I saved already so much money, and how much have you guys saved?” Now our OEE looks so much better than two weeks ago and, all of a sudden, people get into this continuous improvement concept that is driven from within, rather than from a CI team, or from a consultant, or from a manager.
So that was an extremely powerful approach. We had a good team together too. We had two of the Umbrex members on this study. We worked with Tony and we worked with Ray: they did a terrific job in engaging the front lines and in solving those problems.
Will Bachman: That’s fantastic. And what is an A3 approach?
Joachim Fischer: An A3 is nothing else than the description of a European paper size! Yeah. I mean lean is actually quite simply if you think about it. I mean a lot of people just try to make it complicated so they can appear smart, but, at the end of the day, an A3, A0, A1, A2, A3: it’s the description of a large paper size, commonly used in Europe, and in China, or in Asia: and what you do is you solve a problem on one piece of paper. So the thinking behind it is that if you can’t structure a problem and solve a problem on one piece of paper then, chances are, you’re making it too complicated.
So, what that A3 does, it basically just breaks it down on one piece of paper in, typically, five to seven different brackets, where you start laying out, what is the problem, right? In one sentence of less, what is the problem? What are the resources that are available to you? What is the final outcome? What are actually shooting for? What is the goal? What are the different things that need to be true in order to solve that? What is framework that we are thinking here, within? I mean it would be easy to just buy a new machine, right, if the machine is broken, but that’s probably not part of the solution space. You just can’t go out and buy yourself a new machine, or a new factory, or hire a complete new work crew. I mean those are all things that are nice, you know, if you had those as a potential option but, in all reality, they are outside of the solution space.
So you have to describe, what is your solution space? I have to make it work with those people. I have to make it work with less than so much money. And I have to come to a conclusion within three weeks, you know, whatever the time frame is that was given to you. And then you describe, on the same page, what are the activities? What are the action items, tangible action items that you are going to do on Monday morning to actually solve this problem. And then you can present that very easily, to your CEO, or to your superior, and you basically just say “Look. This is the problem and this is how we are addressing it.”
And by us training those … the frontline, how to use that tool … At the beginning you would have asked them “What are you working on?” “Well, I’m doing cans.” “How many?” “I don’t know.” “How many have you tossed away?” “Well, a lot.” You get a lot of those very vague “Um” answers and implementing the A3 approach, all of a sudden, those guys knew exactly “Well, I’ve thrown away 200 cans an hour and that represents 2% of total production. And that lowers my OEE by so much. And in order to offset that I’m now doing those three things differently. And, by the way, it’s already improving.”
So the approach was tremendously successful because we, all of a sudden, had engagement: not only on the one line, but across all lines, and across all shifts. And we could have some competition going, and people were feeling proud of their work, and proud to be solving their own problems, rather than just being told what to do.
Will Bachman: Let’s talk about the second major chunk of types of work you do. So, I think you said that number two is around operations and problem solving?
Joachim Fischer: Yeah. So, not all operations problems can be solved with a lean transformation. I mean it’s a nice thought, as consultants, if it happens, because it just … it’s kind of a larger piece of work that could potentially keep you busy for a year, or a year and a half. But, in all reality, a lot of the problems that we are faced on, at the shop floor, are not falling necessarily into that category.
So I’m getting asked a lot of different questions like “We are merging with this facility over the other … that we just bought, another factory, and we need to integrate it.” Or, “We’re doing a risk assessment and we identified that this new product is a huge risk for us. We want to better understand it and how to best manufacture it.” Or, it could be, cost reduction, you know. “This particular product can’t be produced cost effectively. We need to reduce costs by 20%.” It could be any of those questions.
And, believe me, I’m kind of almost staying away from framing it, because the stuff that is sometimes thrown at us, is sometimes really out of left field, and you wonder where that stuff comes from. But, whatever the problem is … Recently, a client called me and said “Look. We just failed an FDA test,” at their food facility. “Now we need to get back on track and comply to all regulatory rules regarding food production.”
There could be a completely different set of problems on a weekly basis: and I like it, actually, that way. This way we keep sharp. We keep engaged. We keep our own skills fresh by being exposed to a lot of different issues. And I really enjoy working with a whole bunch of clients on very diverse sets of problems.
Will Bachman: So these would typically be, clients that you’ve served before, perhaps? Or, how would you kind of get introduced to a situational relation like that, where they have kind of the trust, to say … call you up and say “Hey. We’re having … the FDA inspection thing …” Just, how does this come about?
Joachim Fischer: Good question. I think that’s kind of maybe unique to the practice that I run. I’m doing this now for 10 years, this March, to the week actually.
Will Bachman: Congratulations. That’s awesome.
Joachim Fischer: To the week, I just noticed that. So, to the week, this is now 10 years of running Fischer Advisors, and over the course of 10 years I only served about 12 major clients. A major client, to me, would be anything that you serve on a continuous basis, right. There are a couple of smaller clients, you know, but that would get the client count higher, let’s say to, maybe, 20 or 25. But the difference between the 10 major, or 12 major clients, and the 25 total is maybe from 95 to 100%. So, all those smaller clients, collectively, don’t really tip the scale that much.
So I only serve a very small number of clients, but I tend to serve those clients over a very long period of time. And I love those relationships, because it allows me to stay away from selling, and it really allows me to engage in problem solving. You only sell the 01 Study: the first one; where you have a proposal; where you have a scope of work; where you have a time frame and all this, kind of … the song and dance that’s goes along with it. The dog and pony: with the presentations, and PowerPoint, and board meetings, and all that kind of stuff. I mean that’s kind of on the 01 Study.
But once they kind of … once clients figure out that “Hey. That was pretty cool. That was good work. And by the way we have this other thing over here that needs some attention too,” then you actually can work with clients without having to go through all this troublesome and time consuming scoping and negotiating. I mean they know what the framework is: your fee rates: or your engagement model: they kind of understand that, after a while. And they just put you on speed dial and say “Hey. I can’t guarantee you a full load of work for the entire year, but if something comes up, guess what? We’re going to give you a call.” And that has allowed me to stay busy for the last 10 years, with serving only a comparably small number of clients.
On the flip side of that, I mean the length of engagements, I have one client that is now in its sixth year, so I mean I really feel proud about it. And you can’t serve someone six years on the same topic. I mean if you do that then obviously something is wrong and you haven’t done a good job in rubbing off your skills. But everyone moves on. The client progresses too. And the problems change, the environment changes and it allows you to kind of track along as a peer, as a thought partner, as a coach, as a mentor, as a consultant: and not just as a hired gun who comes in for three months, does a project, and then moves on to the next thing.
Will Bachman: Yeah. And how does that play into the third chunk of your offerings, around coaching and mentoring and problem solving over time?
Joachim Fischer: That is exactly where I want to be, ultimately. I mean this is where you have a subset of those clients, you know I would say maybe half of them, where you really develop a very deep relationship with the key senior people. And they, basically … I have a couple of those that put me on retainer. And I basically just get those calls, like, “Hey. You know we would like to think about our strategy here. Could you come in for a strategy session for two days and facilitate that process?” Or, “We’re thinking about buying that and we are not sure whether that’s the right decision. Could you help us think that through?”
And you’re really becoming the thought partner and the coach to some … obviously, not all your clients would progress to that deep level of relationship, but I have a couple of clients where I have a very deep relationship where they call you up in the evening or on the weekend. Or they invite you to come out for a day or two, during some board meeting, where you participate in their life and you kind of share your insights and you share how you would address that, or how you have seen that in the past.
To those clients, that seems a great use of their time, because it’s only a phone call, or it might be only a day or two, which they can commit to. But, at the flip side, they get someone who actually understands their business. Who has been with them in the same organization for the last three, four, five years. Who can speak their language. Who understands their problems and can be more thoughtful than if you’re just being called in for a day, or for one workshop, or something. It’s very difficult to provide value if you’re just doing one workshop: it’s going to be tough.
So that’s the last third of my business and that’s kind of where I like to be, because it allows me serve three or four clients at the same time. I don’t have to commit … you know when you do a transformation, you typically have to commit for a significant amount of your time, which kind of sometimes prevents you from doing other things. But with this model of coaching and mentoring and thought partnership, it allows me to have three or four different clients at the same time, and just go in circles. I really enjoy that the most, because it almost makes me feel like I’m part of the team, and I’m not a consultant, or a hired gun.
Will Bachman: How do you see your practice evolving, over the next 10 years, of Fischer Advisors?
Joachim Fischer: That’s a good question. I think that would be qualifying for a second podcast!
Good question. So the reality is that I very much like what I do. I really enjoy the day-to-day activity. As consultants we have two jobs: we have to sell or we have to find work: and we have to deliver work. I very much enjoy the delivery of work. I don’t enjoy as much, the sale, or the sales process, or the business development process.
So I hope that over the next decade I can do two things: one; I can actually throttle back a little bit and be more selective around the work that I take on. I’m lucky in the way that I don’t have to jump on every opportunity and keep myself 250 days a week busy, 250 days a year. And then it’s … so number one is being more selective: and then number two is really focusing on those deep relationships and getting more people on that platform. And hopefully getting more inbound, more people asking for those types of services. I think that’s where I strive, and if I could do that for the next 10 years, I would be a very happy camper.
Will Bachman: And Joachim, you strike me as someone who, when you have some days off, you’re not stressed about trying to bill 250 days a year, but you have a lot of things going. You’ve got your cabinetry and your boat … building boats, and repairing them and-
Joachim Fischer: Yeah, so this is absolutely right. I mean, look, you know, at McKinsey, I loved the work. I tremendously enjoyed the work, but I somewhat questioned the circumstances in two directions: one; was we were basically going out on Sunday nights and coming home Friday nights, and just the whole deliver of work wasn’t necessarily conduce to a balanced life style. And then secondly; often times it was somewhat abrasive; where you had to almost position yourself in a somewhat ‘combative’ style. You know “You are only at 30% OEE, and I’m going to get you to 60 and …” You know. I’d much rather do that in a collaborative style, that has served me very well over the years.
You’re absolutely right. I don’t want to work 250 days a year because, quite frankly, there are so many other things that I’m interested in and intrigued by that I’m perfectly happy if I have a couple of days off once in a while. So I mean, as you mentioned, my wife and I we just started beekeeping. So we have now a bunch of bee hives and we take care of that. We, as a family, raise dogs, as service dogs, so that it taking a significant amount of time.
I’m a father of two boys: 13 and 15. So they take quite a bit of time, and I really want to enjoy that too. I have a fully stocked workshop downstairs in my garage and I have always a project that I’m working on. Right now I’m building a wheelchair for my son. We’re doing marathons and half-marathons with him, and the regular wheelchair that he’s using, wasn’t working any more, for that, so I was just building him a wheelchair from scratch.
And, in doing that, I can kind of deploy some creativity. Our daily work is often very cerebral and working with my hands and being in the workshop and doing something with the dogs or the bees, it just allows you to work with your hands and be creative and do something that kind of gets your mind shifted in a completely different direction.
Will Bachman: Joachim, you are … you’re building a life, with the skill of a cabinet maker. And it’s very inspiring to me, to hear, kind of, the way that you have struck out on your own, and it shows in your work, and shape of your life.
Thank you, a ton, for joining today.
Joachim Fischer: Well, thank you. I enjoyed that very much and I wanted to thank you. I mean it’s … I came here, let’s see, 17 years ago, to the US, literally, knowing not one single person. And you, Will, are one of those people. I mean you meet people early on in your career and, for me, it’s always the long haul. I’m not interested in one meeting, or in one project, or in one thing: for me it’s a journey. And to be on the journey with a couple of people that you track over time, and that you cheer on, and that you hopefully can support and help. And vice versa: I mean you helped me tremendously over they years.
So, this is … I’m looking forward. I’m not even … we haven’t arrived yet, so there’s plenty of stuff that we can do together, and I’m looking forward to that.
Will Bachman: That’s awesome. And hey, where can people find you online? Someone who wants to reach out and learn more about your practice: where’s the best place for them to go?
Joachim Fischer: Well, I have a web page, which is fischer-advisors.com. Fischer with a ‘C’ in the middle, F-I-S-C-H-E-R-advisors.com. My phone number is 714-6795635. I’m easy to reach. Just drop me a line. Drop me an email, which is on my web page.
And I’m looking forward to collaborate and have some fun. Performance improvement … it doesn’t have to be a root canal, you know? While a lot of people make it into a root canal, to me, it’s supposed to be fun. People should be proud of their work, they should be happy to go to work, and if I can facilitate that, if I can help them to enjoy what they are doing on a daily basis, then I feel good and I can ride into the sunset.
Will Bachman: That is awesome.
Joachim, thank you so much for joining.
Joachim Fischer: Thank you. You have a good day.

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