This past Christmas I was watching one of my favorite holiday season movies "Love Actually" and was watching the part where Hugh Grant (playing the British Prime Minister) is giving a press conference following meetings with the U.S. President (played excellently by Billy Bob Thornton). In these meetings the President has said that he will give the Prime Minister anything he wants unless "it is something he doesn't want to give". In the press conference Grant's character calls the President on his bullying tactics saying that the formerly special relationship between their countries has become a bad relationship for Britain. From now on the Prime Minister will make his own demands clear and stand firm on issues that are important to Britain. Go Hugh!
I was reminded while watching this scene of my time as a procurement practitioner in one particular company when I was often invited by user departments to provide assistance with sourcing activities. My relationship with this department was considered "special" from the department's point of view so long as my involvement was limited to providing general guidance on procurement best practices such as RFP procedures, contract templates and the like. On those occasions, however, where I challenged the rationale behind a supplier selection decision (especially when it involved an incumbent vendor) it was made clear that I was going outside of my area of responsibility. So, in effect, the relationship with procurement was only special from the department's point of view if I did not ask for something that they would not give.
What had happened in this instance was that the relationship was not "special" at all but had become a bad relationship for everyone - the user department, procurement, and the company. The user department was making supplier selection decisions based on entrenched histories with certain suppliers rather than an objective evaluation of total cost of ownership. Procurement (in this case, me) was not being assertive enough in challenging user departments with data-driven arguments for considering alternative supply options. And the company was suffering from the relationship because ultimately there were sourcing decisions being made that were not necessarily in the best interests of the organization or its shareholders.
So if you are a procurement practitioner facing the same issues I did how can you turn the relationship you have with your user departments from bad to truly special? Take a leaf out of Hugh's book and hold a press conference. Step out into the spotlight and tell your user departments and your company's senior management that the relationship you have with your internal customers is currently dysfunctional. Tell them that for your company to realize maximum value from its supply relationships there must be open and honest evaluations and communications about the relative merits of alternative vendors. There must be crucial conversations about whether incumbents still offer the most compelling value propositions for total cost of ownership, quality, service and supply risk. There must be a global recognition among internal customers, procurement, senior management and suppliers that the correct sourcing decision is not necessarily the most popular.
For sourcing insights that can be gleaned from "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation", stay tuned for my next post.
In the 1982 Boston Marathon, world record holder Alberto Salazar outsprinted fellow American Dick Beardsley to win the "Duel in the Sun", one of the most memorable races in marathon history. Interviewed years later Beardsley said his undoing had been "taking a breather" immediately after he and Salazar had negotiated notorious Heartbreak Hill, the last of the four Newton hills just four miles from the finish of the grueling Boston course. Beardsley recounted how he glanced to his side as the two men crested Heartbreak and saw his rival coasting down the hill, obviously recovering after the tortuous climb through Newton. Beardsley likewise "eased off the gas" in his words until the two men reached the bottom of the grade. At that point both runners kicked up the pace and began the frenetic two mile sprint through downtown Boston that culminated in Salazar pipping Beardsley at the tape in Copley Square. In his interview Beardsley told how in hindsight he should not have relaxed after scaling Heartbreak Hill but should have kept his "foot on the pedal". By doing this Beardsley believed he would have built an unassailable lead on Salazar and would have won the duel in the sun.
Would history have been different if Beardsley had kept his foot on the gas? We'll never know. It does however conjure up an interesting parallel with today's economic landscape and, specifically, the reactions of different business organizations to changes in this landscape. For example, throughout this most recent economic downturn supply chain executives in private sector companies have faced tremendous pressures to protect profits in the face of falling sales through the aggressive pursuit of reductions in all supply chain-related costs. In the public sector it has been a similar story as state governments, faced by steeply declining tax revenues, have needed to drastically curtail expenditures on many state programs. During this period numerous supply chain organizations have delivered outstanding cost savings results that have helped companies stay profitable and states avoid the need to eliminate many essential government services. These success stories have been due to the effective implementation of a broad range of supply chain best practices including strategic sourcing, demand management, and process improvement to name just a few.
As we emerge from this recession and rebounding customer demand eases margin concerns it would be natural to assume that organizations could safely "ease back" on the cost reduction pedal (just as Beardsley did after Heartbreak Hill) and redirect effort towards the customer-facing activities that impact quality and service. Companies making this assumption, however, may be missing a golden opportunity to achieve unassailable competitive advantage over their competitors. By continuing to apply cost management best practices during economic growth periods a company could potentially accelerate away from its competition in terms of operating margin performance. The company with superior operating margin will, through its increased contribution to retained earnings, be able to invest a greater proportion of its revenue in product development activities. Since product development dollars as a percent of sales is a metric that has been empirically associated with share and profitability growth, any strategy that accelerates a company's operating margin advantage relative to its competitors will also accelerate its overall competitive advantage in the marketplace. By keeping firm post-recession pressure on the cost management pedal an organization gives itself an excellent chance to build a healthy lead over its less enlightened competitors in all key areas of strategic, operational and financial performance.
Likewise, public sector entities can also enjoy the benefits afforded by a continued focus on cost management in the post-recessionary period. State governments with procurement departments that maintain a strong strategic sourcing focus, for example, will be able to do "more with less" and expand the reach and effectiveness of their current programs and services without the need to automatically increase tax revenues.
Just as Dick Beardsley can never be certain that doing things differently would have secured him the Boston Marathon in '82, no company can take any business strategy to the bank until events have played out. Numerous other bumps in the road can rise up and unseat the surest rider. But by placing bets on strategies that have empirically yielded superior returns - and those based on maximizing product development investment fall into this category - you will undeniably reduce the probability of ever having to look back and regret your own lost duel in the sun.
Interesting piece in the Pharma Times this week about how the UK's National Health Service (NHS) recently discovered it was paying widely varying prices for the same equipment and supplies. In NHS procurement waste “costs £1 billion a year” John Neilson of NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS), an alliance between the NHS and IT services firm Steria, reveals that a new NHS SBS database identified up to 19 different prices for the same pacemaker, and 22 different prices for a surgical tool. The article goes on to suggest that one of the biggest barriers to the NHS achieving significant cost savings in medical equipment & supplies procurement is that physicians are reluctant to participate in initiatives such as strategic sourcing because they fear they will have to compromise on quality and performance.
What jumped out at me from this article was the basic question: did anyone even know the NHS was paying all these different prices for the same product? To be fair, the article does not make it 100% clear whether the different prices being paid are for products with identical manufacturer brand names and specifications or only equivalent specifications from different OEMs. I read it as the former, for example the cardiology department in an NHS hospital in London might be buying a Boston Scientific Altrua Model # S404 Pacemaker for one price while another NHS hospital in Manchester could be buying the same S404 pacemaker for 10% less. This would be a totally believable situation with all the hundreds of NHS locations in the UK that could be buying this and other products with no coordination or communication between them.
If it is indeed the case that the new NHS SBS database has unearthed the previously unknown fact of multiple NHS buyers purchasing identical products at widely varying prices (and often I'd bet from the same supplier) then questioning the willingness of physicians to embrace the principles of strategic sourcing best practices is premature. What has been stumbled upon is actually one of Procurement 101's most basic but also most productive source of quick win cost savings - find out who in your organization is buying this product at the lowest price today and get everyone buying at that price, or "Buying at BBP (Best Buyer's Price)" as some purchasing veterans call the practice.
Buying at BBP is completely non-strategic but in some cases can deliver levels of early savings sufficient to fund the truly strategic investments required to create and sustain value over time such as strategic sourcing, supply chain optimization and demand management. In my opinion it's overlooked in many cases because it's so simple and, well, because let's face it we didn't go to business school to create value for our customers with such trivial solutions.
In the case of the NHS (and the same could apply to any mid or large-sized organization with multiple decentralized buying locations) I would be concerned that nobody is considering the Buy at BBP approach. Someone should be getting hold of those new database reports and identifying the name, rank and serial numbers of the buyers that secured the lowest pricing for those items with the highest annual combined usage across all NHS locations. Two things should then happen. First, these buyers should all be sent generous denomination Marks & Spencers Gift Cards. Second, someone should be assigned responsibility and authority to negotiate with the BBP suppliers to have the lowest price extended to all other NHS buying locations that are buying these same items. Suddenly, simply, almost magically a windfall of hard savings will have showered down upon the NHS without a single physician being asked to consider another brand or back down on a specification.
And one last thing. A new enterprise-wide database is not necessary to identify BBP opportunities. The same outcome can be achieved by pulling accounts payable vendor disbursement data from different locations and consolidating the data into one file. Look for those vendors being used by the most locations within your organization - these will likely be the vendors selling the same products to different buyers at different prices. You can then go the locations those vendors are selling to and pull item level usage and pricing data to identify specific pricing discrepancies and the savings available from buying at your organization's BBP. Sure, this approach requires a bit more manual effort and legwork but do you really want to wait around for one of those enterprise data warehouses to be built before you can create the cost savings? Besides, to quote Booker T. Washington: "Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work."
There's been a joke going around for a while now that some of you may have heard already. It goes:
Question: "When are consultants not consultants?"
Answer: "When they're hired by Thames Water."
Referring to the outsourcing deal won by Efficio last year to manage $500M of the British water utility's procurement spend the joke is at the expense of Thames procurement head Simon Rutter. Rutter's detractors - and there's been a few of them - criticize him for not knowing the difference between outsourcing and a 5-year consulting engagement. Hmm, now I don't know the specifics of the Efficio agreement but neither does anyone except Thames and Efficio (Thames Water is a private sector company so doesn't have to make it's vendor contracts public) and that's why I think Rutter's critics are at best presumptuous and at worst disrespectful to assume he's been Jedi mind-tricked into gifting the procurement consultancy with a multi-year time and materials goldmine. Having structured some (admittedly smaller scale!) projects in the last few years existing in that neutral zone between outsourcing and consulting I and the customers in question have come to realize that several approaches are available to ensure such arrangements are genuinely mutually beneficial. For example it clearly doesn't make sense to pay a consultant $200/hour for 40 hours a week for five years to do the job a company employee would have done for $100K/year no matter how skilled the consultant. It doesn't compute. What you have to do is pay the consultant a significantly lower rate but top it up with bonus compensation tied to some form of created value that can be measured, like perhaps contract price reduction through sourcing. Smart customers will also cap the bonus pay at levels that provide incentive but don't end up paying the consultant five times what you would have paid them under a fixed cost structure.
And what about the seemingly interminable length of some of these deals? From the press release soundbites it would seem an Alpha Centauri round-trip could be completed before Efficio and others relinquished their sweaty grips on the procurement throttle of those who would outsource it all. Well even here there's a route to sanity. It comes by way of a telling little term spilled by Simon Rutter but ignored by those who assume the man with responsibility for leading the procurement function of the UK's largest water utility knows only how to throw a heavy set of keys over a high wall. In Supply Management this week Rutter spoke of having consultancy capability on tap. What he probably meant was that one condition of the deal with Efficio was that he have the flexibility to turn that tap off if and when the situation warranted. This is another lesson I've learned working with companies looking to augment their organizations with external resources, that is that they want to take advantage of the variable cost feature of outsourcing. What's the point of having experts on tap if you can't turn the tap off? I'm flooded with consultants here people! Of course you should give the provider a fair notice period that you intend to downsize (or even terminate) the support - say at least 90 days if the services firm has to restaff 15-20 consultants - but at the end of the day the customer must have the flexibility to offload cost structure in response to the market.
So, again, I know no details of the deal in question other than what has been released into the public domain but I would be most surprised had Mr. Rutter not built some common sense language into his outsourcing contract to prevent it becoming the gift that keeps on giving for Efficio. If not then I suspect the time may come at some point in the future when it'll be all hands on deck trying to turn off those taps at Clearwater Court.
1 Procurement Place
Non-spin commentary on the world of procurement, supported every now and then by the occasional piece of factual information.
Mark is Founder and CEO of SpendWorx LLC, a provider of spend analytics services. Prior to SpendWorx Mark co-founded Treya Partners, a boutique procurement consultancy. Earlier in his career Mark held various positions at Accenture, GE Aviation and Rolls-Royce.