A Valuable Skill That Is In Short Supply in the Procurement World by Charles Dominick, SPSM, SPSM2

Posted on June 3, 2013


Editor’s Note:  Charles is founder, president and chief procurement officer of Next Level Purchasing, which offers the SPSM (Senior Professional in Supply Management) family of certifications.

Be sure to check out Charles’ Purchasing Certification Blog.

My organization provides online training, onsite seminars, webinars, articles, and the like to procurement professionals from companies in virtually every industry.  In our training materials, we provide examples of how certain procurement techniques can be applied.

Now, it would be impractical to have hundreds of different versions of each example – one for each industry.  So, for any particular example, we will pick one industry and illustrate how a procurement technique is applied.

With regard to mentally processing examples in an education scenario, there are three types of people:

1.       The people who can visualize how to adapt a technique from one industry to their own industry

2.       The people who ask “How can I apply that to my industry?”

3.       The people who insist “That won’t work in my industry!”

I have a high degree of admiration for the people in Category 1.  These are people who have the intellectual horsepower to understand a concept and its benefits and make any tweaks necessary to make that concept work under different sets of circumstances than the ones described to them.

As someone who has worked in multiple industries and was able to generate unprecedented value by applying techniques from one industry to a new one, I don’t have much sympathy for the people in Categories 2 or 3.  Obviously, people in Category 3 are too stubborn and closed-minded, plain and simple, to experience much success in business.  You can always find ways to adapt ideas to new applications.

If you think about it, you really don’t have to look far to find examples of practices that originated in one industry that were successfully adapted to another industry.  The drive-through window originated in the fast food industry.  Today, it is used by a variety of industries, ranging from the pharmacy industry to the banking industry.  Now, I’m sure that, when a drive-through window was originally proposed in these other industries, there were plenty of people who retorted “That won’t work in our industry.”  But the creative thinkers made it happen.  They ignored any perceived boundaries.

The vending machine concept is another example of a technique applied to other industries.  While vending machines originated in the snack food industry, they were later successfully applied to industries such as consumer electronics, industrial supplies, and even fresh cut flowers!

I’m not quite as harsh in my judgments about the people in Category 2.   At least they acknowledge that the application of a technique from another industry is possible.  I just wish they would try harder at applying critical thinking and/or creativity to arrive at their own solutions, rather than insisting on having solutions spoon-fed to them.

The procurement professionals who will be wildly successful in their careers are those that have the valuable skill of identifying ways to adapt techniques in new ways.  While there is no formal “training” that I know of for developing this skill, you can develop it on your own through practice and even playing “make believe.”

The next time you see an innovation – new or old – that’s different and working well in one industry, take a few moments to daydream about how that innovation could be applied to another industry.  Not necessarily the industry you work in, but any industry.

I’ll illustrate this on-the-fly…

Right now, I am working on my laptop at my desk.  I look at what’s on my desk and I see a water bottle.  That water bottle has an attachment to the lid that can be frozen in order to keep the contents of the bottle cold.  Now, I have had this bottle on my desk practically all day, so my water is room temperature – yuck!  I also see a cable attaching my iPhone to the USB port of my laptop.  This cable enables power to transfer from my laptop to my iPhone so that it can charge.  Could a bottle be invented such that a USB cable connects it to a laptop so that the power from the laptop can continuously refrigerate the contents of the bottle?  Perhaps!  Who cares if no other bottle manufacturer has ever created a USB-cooled water bottle?  Just because it’s never been done doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be done!

I also see on my desk a half-full packet of Sugar In The Raw.  I use 4-1/2 packets of sugar per cup of coffee.  Rather than throw away a packet that is half-full, I will save it for the next day, when I can open only four – rather than five – new packets and get exactly 4-1/2 packets worth of sugar in my coffee.  Now, a problem happens when I may not have rolled up the half-full packet enough and then bump it.  Then, the sugar spills.  Boo!  That scenario made me think about a bag of chocolate covered pretzels I bought at a hotel on a trip I was on last week.  I couldn’t eat all of the pretzels in one night but, fortunately, the bag was resealable so I could eat the rest of the pretzels the next day and they’d be protected and fresh when I was ready for them.  Could Sugar In The Raw be packaged in resealable pouches?  Perhaps!  Who cares if no one ever packaged sugar in resealable pouches!

Now, I’m not saying that these are the greatest inventions ever in the history of the world.  And I’m not saying that these innovations don’t already exist – they may, I just haven’t researched them.  But what I am trying to do is to illustrate how easy it can be to come up with ideas for adapting techniques to new applications.  I came up with these ideas literally as I am typing this post, right off the top of my head.  Imagine what you could come up with if you spent some time seriously pondering how to apply techniques in new applications, if you actually tried to come up with a truly industry-changing idea.  The sky’s the limit, right?  You bet it is!

I'm an idea man Chuck . . .

I’m an idea man Chuck . . .


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