Sustainable Savings

Today I’d like to welcome Eric Strovink of BIQ who, in his contribution, reminds us not to overlook the importance of verifying we actually achieve the savings we negotiate, because that’s the foundation of a sustainable business. Even though this might not be the definition of sustainability that most of us have in mind, the fact of the matter remains that any business that is not financially stable can not contribute to sustainability from an environmental or social perspective, regardless of where it’s collective heart is. Thus, sometimes its important to be reminded of the basics.

P. J. O’Rourke’s Circumcision Principle states that you can take 10% off the top of anything. That seems to be true for sourcing many categories, true at least if you’ve never sourced the category before. However, it’s irritating to listen to (some) sourcing consultants’ confident claims about “10% savings,” when they clearly have no visibility into what may have been very competent internal initiatives that have already taken place.Can one keep taking 10% off the top, year after year? At some point, no matter how much fat was on the carcass originally, there’s nothing left; and even if there is, 10% of it can’t amount to a hill of beans. Conventional wisdom would seem to mandate that there’s a limit to the savings that can be achieved, and that there is diminishing value to sourcing over time.

Of course, this has not been the case historically — after all, if it were, sourcing consultants would be out of business. What happens in practice is that sourcing initiatives either fail to achieve their objectives, or they erode over time. For example, suppliers know that in order to win business they must compete in auctions and see their margins slashed to zero or even to negative numbers; but they are not foolish. They will find a way to restore those margins, either over time, or almost immediately, by raising prices that aren’t in the negotiated contract, or, in some cases, by ignoring the contract entirely. How many office supplies sourcing endeavors have returned zero actual savings? Answer: a lot of them. Of course, if suppliers are pushed to the wall, they may simply walk away; or worse, if they are a key supplier, go bankrupt and take you down with them.

Furthermore, some sourcing initiatives that appear to generate theoretical savings can’t be implemented in practice. If there’s a management change, and new management are unaware of (or dismissive of) the efforts of the previous regime (human nature means that they usually are), that same initiative is “discovered” all over again, fails once more, and it’s lather-rinse-repeat. Each new group of consultants or sourcing staff that’s brought in has its own ideas and agendas, but the underlying infrastructural problems that prevent the implementation of the initiatives remain.

Even when a sourcing initiative is implemented and a contract signed, there’s still no guarantee that savings have been achieved. As Jack Welch once asked an over-enthusiastic buyer who was claiming huge savings (I wish I could find the original quote, this is a paraphrase from memory): “How do you know you got the price?” Stammers ensued. Buying from an e-procurement system doesn’t mean you’re getting good prices, and negotiating a good contract doesn’t mean anyone’s paying attention to it. I saw a contingent labor invoice analysis a few months ago where not a single contractor — not one — was being billed within the price ranges negotiated.

Wendell Phillips said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” — and it’s the price of sustainable savings, as well. Economics mandate that suppliers will try for the highest prices possible, and that any means necessary to increase revenue probably be applied, despite all the fancy talk in this blog (and elsewhere) about “supplier collaboration.” Tariq Hassan has said, “Trust, but verify,” which is probably the most accurate summation I’ve seen of the attitude one should have.