The Purchasing Agent as a Change Agent
One of the first things that we learn as new purchasing professionals is that we are empowered to act as agents for the entities that we represent. The law of agency means that we are empowered to legally represent our entities and to enter into legal contracts with third parties on behalf of our entities.
Over time, we grow accustomed to the idea that we are agents who represent our agencies, and we act accordingly. However, there is another role of agency with which we might not be as comfortable. If we choose to assume that role, though, we can make a great difference.
Last fall, the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing (NIGP) Board of Directors issued Resolution No. 1026: “Resolution on Strategic Sourcing in Public Procurement.” According to the resolution, “Procurement professionals are uniquely positioned within their agencies to facilitate and encourage the use of strategic sourcing.” I maintain that while this is true, it also is true that purchasing professionals are uniquely positioned within their agencies to facilitate and encourage certain types of change.
The perspective that we have of our bureaucracy and of our processes – along with our view of industry and the marketplace – is unique within our entities. The challenge is to use this perspective to help bring about change, whether in the form of strategic sourcing, e-commerce, automation or any number of other areas that reduce cost and effort or more completely meet the agency’s needs.
The following suggestions are not steps to be followed sequentially. They really are components of change management, and many of these components will be in progress at the same time. Changes to one component may cause changes to others, and many need to be constantly reviewed and updated. They never are static. My objective is to lay out and define a process to help facilitate and drive change in an organization from the position of a purchasing professional.
Know What You Are Doing – and Why
Although this is not meant to be a step-by-step approach to managing change, knowing what you are doing and why you are doing it absolutely should be the No. 1 step, as the what (your vision) and the why (your rationale) will drive everything you do. It is imperative that your vision and rationale are well-developed, as these are tools that will be needed time and again through the process.
You need to be able to articulate your vision and rationale in as few words as possible. It is very helpful to develop buzz words and phrases to make your points quickly. Some examples are:
- “Our goal is the least effort required to purchase, receive and pay for goods and services.”
- “We want processes moving at the speed of electricity.”
- “We need to do business like the world does business.”
- “More control, less effort.”
These phrases should be specific to your organization and well-supported. While they are designed to make points quickly and effectively, be prepared to elaborate if requested. They should be repeated like mantras to drive home your points.
Seek the Highest Level of Support Possible
It always is best to have an endorsement from the highest level of the agency. However, that level of endorsement is not always given. Seek to get the endorsement at the highest level possible. An endorsement from your direct supervisor is necessary. It is almost impossible to move forward without that level of support.
Once your supervisor is onboard, enlist him or her to help achieve the level above them. Don’t just work vertically in the organizational chart; also work horizontally. Make appointments with supervisors in other departments and show them how the change would benefit them. This also might help in the selection of pilot sites.
Change cannot just be for change’s sake. It has to be based upon value gained. What are the outcomes that make it desirable to change? Is it increased security? Reduced processing and lead times? More effective management? Employee empowerment? Reduction in effort and transactions?
Once you have identified your goals, make them measurable. If you believe that you can reduce the number of requisitions processed, state that as a goal in a measurable form. For example:
“Once fully implemented, this solution will:
- Reduce requisition volume by 50 percent.
- Decrease average processing times by four days.”
Once you have established such goals, they provide a basis for comparison to the status quo. For example, if someone questions the cost benefit of making a change and you can respond with the cost savings of eliminating 50 percent of your requisitions, you are making them take the defensive. Let them argue the status quo and defend continuing to spend the potential savings.
Identify the Land Mines
Land mines are any number of hidden things that can jeopardize a project. They include, but are not limited to: technology issues such as an insufficient infrastructure or a lack of technical support; people issues such as turf battles and resistance to change; and issues related to control and authority.
Some land mines can be identified up front just by reviewing the requirements of the systems, the numbers and types of transactions processed and the approval paths for transactions. Identifying these up front can help determine if the technical infrastructure is capable of handling the processing and data transfer needs required.
For example, if the Internet connectivity at an entity is so slow that it takes 10 minutes for the screen on an e-commerce site to load, that is a land mine. If a certain person or department has to approve a large volume of transactions, and the person or department is known to be resistant to change and/or a technophobe, that is a land mine.
Obviously, some land mines are easier to identify than others and some will remain unseen until you step on them. Some will be easy to identify but very difficult to deal with. They can be: technical limitations of infrastructure or software functionality; incompatible software; limitations of human or other resources; political or turf issues; and other possibilities too numerous to list. While it isn’t possible to identify every land mine or even every type of land mine, it still is valuable to identify those that you can and to be aware that others may pop up at any time.
Build the Team
While most projects of this nature will require cross-functional teams, it is highly advisable to start with the purchasing staff. These staff members will be the first key to success. Cast the vision before the purchasing staff over and over again. Give each individual time to ask questions. Provide examples. Set up tours of other entities.Get them onboard.
The success of any change initiative driven by purchasing will be in direct proportion to the level of buy-in and ownership of the purchasing staff. Remember that criticism or negative comments from internal staff to customers
carries a lot of weight with those customers and can cause damage and setbacks to the project. Encourage your staff members to keep their comments constructive and positive and to direct them internally instead of externally.
Be sure to share success stories with the entire staff. Kudos expressed to staff for a successful project can be contagious and can create an environment of friendly competit-ion as other staff members desire to be part of the initiative.
As your initiatives begin to have an effect, share the data showing the effect with your staff. Once you go beyond the purchasing staff, be sure to continue to share successes and data with all team members.
Most projects lend themselves to being tried as a pilot on a small scale before being implemented on a large scale. Hand-pick pilot sites that will work with you and that are receptive to change. Be sure to give pilot sites a lot of attention on all levels; overwhelm them with support. Listen carefully to what they say, and respond quickly. They either will become your biggest cheerleaders or your harshest critics, and they will have much more influence on their peers than you do.
Develop an Ongoing Strategy
A strategy is much more than a timeline. It is a plan to deal with land mines and resistance to change. An effective strategy emanates from your vision and rationale. Why you are doing what you are doing and what you see as the completed product will shape your strategy.
Think strategically! How do you best address or combat resistance? What are the answers to concerns expressed? What are the costs of not changing? How do the proposed changes improve upon the existing way of doing things? How do they improve security? What are the potential savings in time, effort and money?
Don’t get frustrated – get committed. You have to strongly believe and understand that what you are doing is the correct and right thing. Stand your ground and know your facts and data.
Establishing measurable goals only will be effective if you in fact perform the measurement and report it accordingly. Document the results of your efforts toward your goals. For those goals that lend themselves to such, develop graphs showing progress toward goals: for example, processing times; numbers and types of transactions; dollar volume through purchasing; and number of transactions and total annual dollar amounts spent on the Web ordering contracts.
Documenting and reporting such results will help move the project forward and also will encourage your team as they see the process and share in the success.
Promote, Promote, Promote
Self-promotion is something that is not natural to many procurement professionals. However, promoting changes that will better our agencies is not self-promotion. It is part of our jobs and is a skill set that we need to develop to be effective. Once you have established your vision and rationale, promote what you are doing at every opportunity with every group in your organization.
Get on the agenda for staff and leadership meetings. Use internal and external publications. Write an article for a professional journal and, once published, send copies to stakeholders.
Obtain testimonials from the pilot sites whenever possible. Quote them in your internal newsletter or on your intranet site. Nominate your staff, your department and your project for internal and external awards and let it be known if you win.
If you can establish that your project is a model that other agencies will seek to emulate, that will establish a credibility that will go a long way toward reducing internal resistance.
Attack From Multiple Angles
There truly is more than one way to skin a cat, and part of developing a strategy and identifying land mines is thinking about how to address them. The key to a department’s cooperation might be the supervisor of that department or it might be a clerical worker. Get input from your clerical staff members on their peers in other departments. Pay attention to personnel changes and promotions in key departments. If the person who is the primary reason that you tagged a certain department as a pilot site is transferred, re-assess the situation before proceeding.
When problems come up that wouldn’t exist if a department members would cooperate with you, don’t hesitate to bring those problems to their attention. In our agency, a department often complained about how much its employees were “out of pocket” for travel expenses, but the department refused to allow us to implement our procurement card program. The department was constantly reminded that if it used procurement cards, its employees would not have to pay for and then seek reimbursement for travel expenses.
If change were easy, everybody would be doing it. Successful and beneficial change always is the result of a lot of hard work. Don’t forget to celebrate your successes. Share kudos with your staff and always give credit where credit is due.
Don’t forget to show the impact by displaying progress toward your goals and promoting and sharing all savings in time, space, effort or money. Don’t forget that success breeds success and that the first successful effort lays the groundwork for future efforts.
The benefits and the value that we can bring to our entities go well beyond cost savings on the goods and services that we procure. Achieving such savings might require that we be both a purchasing agent and an agent of change.
About the Author
J. Kevin Beardsley, CPPB, CPPO, is the director of purchasing for the Virginia Beach City Public Schools. Beardsley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.