Is Bad Procurement Responsible for the Proliferation of Snake Oil?

Once upon a time in China, medicine was based on ingredients found in nature. One such ingredient was snake oil (from a water snake) that was used to treat joint pain (which we now call arthritis and bursitis) because it gave relief when rubbed on the skin at a painful site. This is because real snake oil contained a lot of omega-e fatty acids which not only reduce pain but also reduce inflammation. While not necessarily a powerful medicine, it is a medicine nonetheless.

When the Chinese worked on the first transcontinental railroad (in the US), they introduced this medicine to fellow workers (which included native and working class Americans) who had never had such a medicine. They were, naturally, impressed by it … as were salesmen looking to make a quick buck with this “miraculous pain cure” which, at a time when western medicine was relatively weak, was desired by the population at large. So, long before the creation of the FDA (1906) when anyone could sell anything they wanted, these salesmen created fake snake oils (which often didn’t contain any oils from snakes) that they hawked as “cure-alls”. These roaming charletans, who often paid assistants (who would travel separately, act sick and injured, take the cure-all, and immediately exclaim cure), did well, until people who bought the tonics realized they din’t work. But by then they were on to the next town.

However, people did travel and eventually realized that all these salesmen and untrained / unlicensed doctors were, as we still say today, quacks (which is short for the Dutch quacksalver who would use home remedies to “cure” everything, whether there was any real basis for the cure or not), and gave a name to these cheaters and the product they sold. Because the first cure-all tonics were called “snake-oil”, any medicine with a ridiculous claim was “snake oil” and any peddler of such a ware was a “snake-oil salesmen”. However, these salesmen and products are not restricted to the consumer world, and soon those claiming to have the ultimate solution to all of a business’ process, sales, or cash management problems, etc. were deemed snake oil salesmen, selling processes or products that didn’t work. And we still have these salesmen today, often pitching great investment opportunities (especially in high tech, which we call silicon snake oil) that don’t really exist.

But to make matters worse, we don’t just have snake oil salesmen to deal with, we have snakes in our business (which the snake-oil salesmen claim they can deal with, but we’ll get back to that). What kind of snakes? KPI snakes. As the procurement dynamo explains over on, most enterprises are chock-full of Cobra KPIs.

Why Cobra KPIs? Blame the British for that and their folly of offering a bounty for every dead snake the locals brought them in 19th-century Delhi. If you were an enterprising, but struggling, vaishya, and you received rupees for every dead snake, and the British were handing over rupees by the snake, you’re going to want to get your hands on as many snakes as possible. What’s the easiest way to do that? Breed them in droves, and kill them in droves.

As the British discovered, Cobra KPIs are those that eventually rise up, strike, and inject you full of poisonous venom. All the British got for their efforts were drained coffers and more live snakes then they wanted (when the merchants released them all on the streets when the bounty was cancelled). And if your organization has Cobra KPIs, all it will get for its efforts is loss — lost time, lost money, and lost opportunity.

Organizations, including Procurement organizations, are chock-full of these Cobra KPIs. Like FTE per dollar of spend, supplier count per category/region, p-card spend per total spend, sourced spend over total spend, etc. (Why? It’s not how much is spent on Procurement resources, it’s the value they generate. It’s not how many suppliers, it’s the right number of suppliers, which varies by product, region, and numerous other factors. It’s not how the bills are paid, it’s whether or not the bills are for the right stuff. And sometimes it’s best to renegotiate with incumbents and seek out value-add innovation versus unrealizable or unsustainable year-over-year cost reductions.)

But even worse, because organizations are sometimes too obsessed with KPIs, they overload themselves with overly intensive tracking, scorecarding, and reporting initiatives that take time away from value-generating sourcing activities. And then they decided they need a solution to automate this or reduce the stress. So they go to market. And who responds? Snake-oil consultants who offer their next generation tracking, scorecarding, and reporting platforms that, for a “very reasonable” one-time set-up fee (in the tens or hundreds of thousands, depending on how big the organization is and what they think they can get), and an ongoing “expensable” license and maintenance fee that just fits under the P-card limit on a monthly basis, the organization will be provided with an automated system that will do all the data collection, normalization, integration, scorecard generation, trending, and reporting the organization needs. And if needs change, changes can be made for a “modest” daily consulting fee (of only a few thousand a day). It’s the KPI cure-all! And it’s snake oil. Snake oil that the organization proliferates by defining too many KPIs, which always contain too many wrong KPIs, that entail too much work that needs to be automated.

In other words, don’t define KPIs needlessly. And don’t define any until you not only understand what the goal of the KPI is, but how the KPI will help the organization achieve that goal. (With reference to our examples above, it’s ROI per FTE above a threshold, it’s a supplier range for each product-region pairing determined by way of stakeholder collaboration and analysis, p-card spend under management above a threshold, and spend under management — where spend under management is any spend where a conscientious decision was made to tackle the spend that way after an analysis. Now, the ROI calculation will have to carefully thought out and reviewed regularly, the supplier ranges revisited regularly, and the threshold reviewed to make sure it doesn’t trigger a red light on emergency spend, but at least these metrics are designed with a value focus in mind.)

(And if you’re not careful, you might end up with real snakes! Just ask the airline industry, that, just two days ago, made Samuel L. Jackson’s nightmare of motherf*ckin’ snakes on the motherf*ckin’ plane a reality for some passengers of the Air Mexico Torreon-Mexico City flight! [One Source!] If you have too many useless KPIs, as Douglas Adams tried to warn us years ago [as you can wait forever for lemon-soaked paper napkins and never get enough], the attendants will be too busy running through time-wasting checklists rather than making sure that only authorized, paying, passengers are in the cabin!)