By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO
Change is certain in every aspect of life. A major change or transformation may present some complexities particularly when resources are scarce. In my 27-year government career, I had a chance to test a few strategies. There are some strategies that worked for me whenever I went to a new agency to lead a procurement transformation. These became my “go to” strategies to initiate the process and show progress in critical areas. The success of their implementation helped me gain the support for resources needed down the road and accelerate the momentum in the transformation process.
Interestingly most if not all of the transformations that I led shared a similar vision: to become a trusted partner in the entity. That vision was certainly a very lofty one given the starting point of each transformation initiative. In most cases procurement was considered a roadblock to the operation and/or had the worst customer service record. My task was to substantially improve the role and performance of the procurement team within the entity. Common objectives included enhancing the quality of the interaction with end users, which generally related to concerns about speed, quality, customer service, and the ever-changing process. The success would be measured in each case by significantly reducing end user procurement-related complaints that were brought up to high level executives.
At the other end of the spectrum, procurement personnel attributed the process delays to understaffing. There were reasons to believe that. Almost every organization had experienced the loss of personnel due to massive layoffs, retirements, high personnel turnover, or the lingering effects of budget cuts several years before. It’s not easy to recover from the loss of positions. This is particularly true when the organization attempts to continue operating in the same way as it did before the budgetary reductions. Reductions in personnel will inevitably exaggerate the much talked about length of the procurement process.
To make significant progress quickly, I tried to focus on the root cause(s). Over time, I developed my ABC strategies. These helped me follow a path that would positively impact the most pressing issues and score some wins in the transformation process. When higher executives task a new hire with transforming a department, they don’t generally trust that it is possible with the current staff. No transformation happens overnight; therefore, dealing with root causes of the most pressing issues is essential. The goal of the ABC change strategies was to do just that.
A first step in the assessment of the situation was to determine where was the brain power being allocated. Data, when available, is very helpful to support findings and measure the extent of inefficiencies. But I found that some of these issues were obvious to an outsider because as someone said: “it’s hard to see the picture when you are in the frame”. It didn’t surprise me when data showed that 80% or more of the effort was being directed to activities that did not add value to the process. This meant that only 20% or less of the effort was being directed to advance the more complex solicitations. In other words, personnel were busy taking care of repetitive, low value add work, while the large and/or complex projects waited for procurement expertise and attention. Even when the group appeared busy all the time or productive, the apparent productivity was not producing the desired return for the entity.
To complicate the matter, some of these organizations reacted to the symptoms of the problem by replicating procurement infrastructures at the end user level. In my opinion, the strategy created additional budget demands overall and greater inefficiencies because personnel in these end user procurement groups were rarely offered formal procurement training. It also exacerbated the problem because it disproportionately increased the number of people demanding time and attention from an already understaffed central procurement team.
The A is for Automation. One of the first strategies that I looked at was to automate repetitive tasks and shift the brain power to procurements. I considered short term and long term strategies in the area of technology. The success of a short term strategy would help accelerate momentum in the transformation process and gain support for long term strategy later on. Good will accumulated early in the process comes in handy when you are seeking funding support for long term comprehensive technology. The objective was first to maximize any existing technology to reduce manual work and repetitive tasks. In each instance, I was able to garner support for a lower dollar plug-and-play strategy to make significant impact particularly in the areas of speed and/or quality. The short term strategy varied from agency to agency as it depended on what was already available. There is a short window to obtain resources in a transformation process and time is of the essence for requesting needed resources. Any investment is looked at more favorably when it is presented as an opportunity “enhance the buying experience of the end user”.
The B is for Believe in the capabilities of the team. When an organization is set up to execute tasks, it will take some time before personnel feel empowered to think critically. It is a major shift. Routine is disrupted and people have to unlearn and relearn their jobs. During this transition, it’s not uncommon for people to feel alone. There is no comfort in knowing that others are going through the same process. Self-doubt and the feeling of inadequacy kicks in. The leader must believe in the people and encourage them through the growth period. Offering training, personal development, coaching, and mentoring are essential. The leader cannot be indifferent to the struggle of each person in the team. Some are going to struggle more than others of course. But once the first person breaks through some of the barriers that kept him or her performing at the task executor level, others will also be encouraged. The key is to help people believe in themselves by believing in them. In the end, critical thinking will help in the quality of the interaction with end users. Trust will start to develop one project at a time. The increase in trust will give room for a more collaborative relationship with the end user and this collaboration will enable better customer service. This collaborative approach along with the training will also help improve the quality of solicitations, which will enable higher quality responses from suppliers. There is a high return on training and empowering the right personnel.
The C is for Consistency. This third strategy may seem simple and it should be. A strategy for consistency is necessary up front, at least in all the transformations that I lead. Part of the reason why there was distrust in the process was because end users received a different answer depending on who they asked. The root cause of the inconsistency varied, but in all cases the variety in approaches had been considered acceptable and became the practice. This was a consequence of people working like “islands” instead of a team. Achieving consistency required a sequence of internal communication, the progressive standardization of processes, and implementation of best practices learned through professional training. The adoption of best practices was an opportunity to get everyone one the same page and working as a team. As end users started receiving consistent guidance, their trust in the process increased. Gaining that trust was important because it also helped gain support for other changes later in the transformation process.
To conclude, there are three issues that I focused on early in the transformation process: speed, quality, and consistency. Using my ABC approach helped me focus in areas that made significant impact early in the transformation process and enable the support of other strategies by accelerating momentum in the process. Reaching that point of momentum is important because buy in becomes easier and people tend to be more forgiving when a strategy doesn’t go as planned.