How to Maximize Your Relationship with a Consultant

May 2011 - Vol.8 No. 5 - Page #38
Category: IT/Automation Consulting

Given the increasing number and type of institutional pharmacy automation and attendant hardware and software packages, sometimes it can be overwhelming to consider a large-scale technological implementation in the midst of your everyday duties as a pharmacy director or manager. Ever increasing regulatory control and doing more with less further escalates the stakes of getting the project done right. Depending on the situation, there are times when bringing in an experienced consultant may provide decisive structure to your project. Certain technologies, such as robotic compounding systems, require a knowledge base, as well as time, to appropriately implement, so an experienced consultant with project management experience can serve as a bridge and can help you avoid common pitfalls throughout the project.

While engaging an automation consultant is a good start, maximizing the relationship will ultimately bear the best results. Understanding the responsibilities of the consultant, as well as your own, will lead to better deliverables and lower project costs by minimizing miscommunications and inefficiencies. By quickly orienting the consultant to your facility, department, and key staff, and making frequent and clear communication a priority, you can empower your consultant to deliver exactly what you need within the agreed upon timeframe. 

Due Diligence
From a distance, the role of an automation consultant may appear to be simply that of an experienced, knowledgeable babysitter; a cool head brought on to ease the qualms of the pharmacy staff and take over the nuts and bolts of implementation. While this is partially true, the basic idea of garbage in/garbage out still applies. In order to reap the best benefits of a consultant, it is important to be involved in the entire process of engagement, and be willing to work with the consultant, not just have the consultant work for you.

The first step in maximizing your relationship with a consultant is to perform due diligence prior to hiring one. If a consultant will be working in your department and/or will have a significant impact on pharmacy workflow, then the pharmacy director should be involved in the interviewing and hiring process. The best way to identify the ideal resource for the project is to develop a project plan first. Regardless of the size of the project, outlining the purpose or goal, and the expected deliverables, is necessary to a clear and succinct vision. The plan may be as short as a couple paragraphs for a simple project, or it may be extensive, as with most large information technology projects. In the case of the latter, an IT representative will usually prepare the plan, but the pharmacy director, or designee, should be recognized as a stakeholder and his or her input should be included in the plan’s development. 

Project Plan Basics 
Developing a complete project plan for a large-scale technology implementation can be very detailed and each one is unique. However, if the plan defines ‘who, what, and when,’ this will provide a solid foundation to guide the project as it moves forward. ‘Who’ defines the line of communication within the project; who will the consultant communicate with and who is ultimately responsible for the project? Designating a single representative for the end-users and stakeholders is imperative. ‘What’ defines the scope of the project; what are the project deliverables expected to be? Defining not only what is expected, but also what can be eliminated or is of lesser importance to the end result is equally important. Lastly, ‘when’ defines the timeline for the project and should be broken into milestones for any urgent and/or mid-to-large-scale projects. 

Once the needs of the project have been identified and documented in the project plan, you will be prepared to interview the consultant to determine if their skill set matches the work and deliverables required for the project. This may require interviewing multiple candidates, but exhausting this process will ultimately lead to better results. Do not simply settle for the first person interviewed unless that person meets both the professional and interpersonal needs of the project. 

Bringing the Consultant Onboard
Once a consultant has been chosen and comes on-site, arrange a meeting with the project representative for the facility to review goals and deliverables in specific detail. Ask the consultant to review the expectations and to provide either an acceptance of the plan or an edited plan with justifications for any changes requested. I have often revised the initial project plan by adjusting tasks or time requirements according to my experience. Keep in mind that experience is what you are paying for, so take advantage of the consultant’s past project lessons. This process should result in a plan that both you and the consultant agree is feasible and achievable within the designated timeframe. 

Keep in mind that during this initial process, the specified project representative for the facility should foster a positive environment of communication and establish his or herself as the go-to person for the consultant. Having one primary contact who directs the consultant’s work, obtains information needed by the consultant, and is routinely accessible is essential to the project’s success. Left undefined, wherein the consultant is unsure as to whom to approach for various needs, it is much easier for project tasks to run off course. 

When the consultant has been fully engaged, and the project plan is agreed upon and ready for execution, it will be necessary to communicate to staff the nature of the project and the key roles. Identify who the point person is in your department, explain who the consultant is and what his or her role will be. It is equally important to ensure staff is comfortable with the new member, and that everyone understands the chain of command should obstacles arise.

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As the project moves forward, it is critical to require routine status updates from the consultant regarding current activities, tasks completed, and planned future work. The most effective projects I have been involved in asked for weekly status reports from me that were distributed to key stakeholders (see Figure 1). In addition, routine meetings should be held to address strategy and progress, clarify requirements, and review obstacles encountered. For example, one of my clients, who was particularly diligent with our weekly status meetings, gave me ample opportunity to detail my progress, and because of this, on several occasions we identified a miscommunication that would have resulted in re-work had it not been caught during a particular meeting. By the same token, I have worked on projects where routine status and review meetings did not occur regularly, which directly led to miscommunications, errors, and re-work. 

Occasionally, it may be necessary to hire a consultant after a project has already begun. For example, a key staff member or a prior consultant might drop off the project, or you may have decided that a specific expertise is required and it is necessary to go outside the hospital to obtain it. In any of these cases, you can still maximize the experience. As soon as it is determined a consultant is needed, or a consultant is assigned by administration or another department, set aside time to orient them and set clear expectations both of deliverables and communication methodologies. Then proceed to communicate frequently through status reports, regular meetings, and an accessible point of contact.

Conclusion
When involving an outside consultant in an automation implementation, ensuring you have a feasible project plan in place ahead of time will establish a sound foundation. By including the basics in the project plan—goals, scope, time, and cost—you will be prepared to identify the right consultant for the project. Through vigorous and transparent communication, you can maximize this relationship to achieve project goals efficiently and effectively. Always remember, that no one ever starts the day by saying, “I want to perform poorly today,” consultants included. At the same time, expecting a consultant to come in and do the work independently, without clear direction, will lead to unnecessary complications. In the end, the idea is simple. If any aspect of the project will involve you, your department, or your staff, be involved. 


Ron Burnette, RPh, MBA, PMP, is owner and president of Pharmacy Consulting Group, LLC, a consulting services company that specializes in medication management with a focus on information systems. Ron has over 30 years of pharmaceutical experience including 15 years in hospital pharmacy practice as a staff pharmacist, manager, and director, and 12 years as a pharmacy informaticist. 

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