I had no clue what the consultants were talking about.
And that was a problem given my job. I’d been seconded to a project team. The team was working with the consultants to re-engineer the organization. The consultants were flown in every week and put up in a downtown hotel. Even though they lived out of a suitcase, they were always very well dressed.
Meetings were long and many. Every meeting included a super-sized PowerPoint presentation stuffed with charts, graphs, facts and figures. Sometimes, the names of past clients were accidentally left on the slides.
My job was to turn those PowerPoints into a weekly newsletter and to make sense of what I didn’t fully understand. I was half-way fluent in consultant speak and knew enough (KPIs and FTEs) to get by.
I’d also been deputized as a change agent. I took the role, and myself, a little too seriously as I sold the benefits of change and transition to staff who’d been doing their jobs for longer than I’d been alive. I’m ashamed to admit I may have even reminded coworkers that “one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” I’m lucky I wasn’t tossed overboard.
Support soured as staff realized the project was less about getting rid of the boring and repetitive parts of their job and more about eliminating jobs altogether or finding someone to do more work for less pay.
This was my first rodeo so I believed the growing resistance was misplaced and futile. Sure, the old guard had institutional knowledge and common sense. But we had spreadsheets and algorithms on our side.
Eventually the consultants were sent packing. The project team disbanded. I can’t remember what, if any, changes stuck or how much money was saved or spent.
But at least no one died. That tragedy fell on the families of Charles Kremke, Jonathan Arrizola and Marcelo Torres. Kremke and Arrizola were electrocuted at U.S. Steel’s plant in Gary, Indiana. Torres was crushed to death on a ride at Disneyland. Both companies were clients of McKinsey. The consulting firm had advised the steelmaker and the happiest place on Earth that cutting maintenance costs was a good idea, according to prizewinning New York Times investigative reporters Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe.
“U.S. Steel and Disneyland could not have been more different – one a vestige of a once great blue-collar company, the other a sunny fantasy powered by the latest technology,” say the authors of When McKinsey Comes to Town.
“They were not McKinsey’s most lucrative clients or most controversial. Yet they did exemplify the cold cost-cutting advice that turned the firm into the godfather of management consulting.”
Bogdanich and Forsythe expose a rogue’s gallery of McKinsey clients, including Purdue Pharma. The authors report that McKinsey pitched a plan to turbocharge OxyContin sales even as families and entire communities were being laid to waste. “To boost sales amid the strengthening opioid epidemic, McKinsey had to cook up radical new ideas. One suggestion was to promote OxyContin as a drug that gave patients ‘freedom’ and ‘peace of mind’ along with the ‘best possible chance to live a full and active life.’ OxyContin could also reduce stress, making patients more optimistic and less isolated, McKinsey said.”
If that’s not bad enough, the authors say McKinsey was an advisor to both Purdue and the Federal Drug Administration at the same time. “At least 17 of the contracts awarded to McKinsey by the FDA between 2008 and 2021 – worth more than $48 million – called for the firm to work with the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. That division was responsible for approving certain drugs, including prescription opioids.” McKinsey denied there were any conflicts of interest.
While the firm closed ranks and refused to talk with the reporters, Bogdanich and Forsythe still managed to conduct hundreds of interviews and got their hands on tens of thousands of closely guarded internal records. “We became the first outsiders to peek inside McKinsey’s secret vault of clients and billings – information off-limits to governments, clients, competitors and even some of their employees.” Their book has 45 pages of detailed notes.
“McKinsey’s laissez-faire style of management has allowed its consultants to reap big paydays promoting addictive products, recommending policies that expand income inequality, and serving bad actors on the international stage, including major polluters.
“There is no questioning McKinsey’s desire to do good, to give back. But, as one former consultant said, McKinsey should also find a way to do less harm.”
If you’ve ever wondered if there are any limits to what people will do to make a buck and chase wealth without guilt, the ugly and unfortunate answer is apparently no.
Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. He still refuses to this day to refer to employees as full-time equivalents.