Thinking outside the box on procurement

The industry’s cumbersome procurement processes means that long-term inflexibility gets baked in. Urgent change is needed, argues CPC’s Nick Mansell.

There’s a famous story about a production line worker at the Swan Vesta match factory who one day approached his manager and told him that in return for a finder’s fee, he could instantly save the company thousands of pounds a week. Management were dubious, confident that their processes were already rigorously efficient but decided that there was no harm in agreeing to the proposal. As soon as the fee was agreed and the deal signed, the enterprising worker told them: “You only need sandpaper on one side of the box!”

It’s a story about the dangers of familiarity. Processes and assumptions can become so deeply embedded they seem natural, inevitable even. But once you refuse to accept that the way things have always been done is necessarily the right way to do them, a world of opportunity can open up. It’s a lesson that project managers in big infrastructure projects - people like me - need to start to take more seriously.

Take procurement processes on a large project, for example. So dense and complex are the regulatory requirements that it can take six weeks just to prepare the invitation to tender. Another six weeks can be spent waiting for submissions and then maybe four more weeks assessing tenders and appointing the contractor. That adds up to four months waiting for work to begin. And that’s not the worst of it. 

The complexity of the process squeezes out smaller, perhaps more agile organisations, narrowing choice and opportunity. Even worse, it means that the there is a huge disincentive to changing course if we get it wrong. Long-term inflexibility gets baked in. We can talk about learning cultures, future proofing and innovation all day long, but if every procurement is as slow and cumbersome as turning a supertanker, we are kidding ourselves.

Of course, there are good reasons behind some cumbersome practices, but routinely spending four months procuring a new company? That can’t be right. So often I hear the old cliché ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t mend it’ offered as if it were a piece of eternal wisdom rather than a recipe for complacency and inertia. Broken things, you know, can sometimes keep moving, if they are rolling downhill. 

We can’t keep doing it like this, it is not working. We need to say it and say it loud: we don’t need sandpaper on both sides of the box.

Nick Mansell is a project manager at CPC Project Services.

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