I spent this past weekend at an organic farm about 30 miles outside of Madison, Wisconsin. In the heart of cheese country, Little Sugar River Farm, as it is known, is a great get away for anyone looking to relax in a rustic but refined setting (especially foodies who don't mind waking up @ 7:00 AM to gather the ingredients for their breakfast from the garden, greenhouse, and hen house). While I set off on the trip with my wife as a quick weekend getaway, I came away thinking about the metaphorical implications for procurement executives that I learned on the journey. This was not my plan for a restful weekend, but I could not help myself.
I'll start with a rather simple metaphor gained from the trip. While we had been to the farm before, this was the first time making the trip with a navigation system in the car. And I've got to say, it was worth every penny, especially when the closest interstate is 25 miles away and most country roads are named "W" or "E" or "EE". In a similar vein, having the ability to constantly understand the "you are here dot" based upon historical analysis and future forecasting in Spend Management is essential -- as is knowing that there are multiple ways to get to a desired destination. But far too many procurement leaders drive by the seat of their pants, trying to read a map or find a signpost to understand where they are today, or where they need to go next. It's far easier -- and more effective -- simply to call up the address or coordinates of where you want to go, and let the system calculate the optimal means of getting there, adjusting for missteps or corrections along the way in a real-time manner. Talk about cruising effortlessly in unchartered territory!
The second metaphor from the weekend I will leave you with is the importance of getting back to the basics to become a better manager and executive. Right before leaving for the trip on Friday morning, I cleared my consulting and blogging plate to help out during a bidding event for my wife's sourcing firm. Even though I usually work on a higher level than helping with surrogate bidding, answering supplier questions, or thinking through category strategies, the fact that I can go into the trenches during a reverse auction or competitive negotiation helps me better understand higher level issues. This example carried through into the weekend, less than 24 hours later, albeit in a different field.
To wit, many friends and colleagues know that I fancy myself a bit of a foodie. And at the farm, I was able to literally "pick my menu" before cooking it, rather than tossing it into a shopping cart. Now, even though it was Pheasant season and I'm not a bad shot, I kept the menu to the vegetarian sort (except eggs) to simplify things a bit and not to disturb the neighbors (besides, Honda does not yet make a factory shotgun rack, as far as I know). Even so, being able to go to the greenhouse or fields to figure out exactly what you want to serve -- and knowing what you want to pick -- helps you to think through the actual cooking process further down the line, avoding waste and highlighting the ideal outcome to engineer (and the logical steps necessary to ensure it).
In a similar vein, Spend Management executives should understand as much as they can about the specific activities of their officers and even their troops. The more they know -- and can do on their own, if called upon -- the more it's possible to understand the risk elements of executing a strategy. And the stronger one can become on the management side of the house. At Caterpillar, a manufacturer that I consider to be well run, it is not surprising that all of the white collar workers (including managers and executives) can also work in a factory production line if the union goes on strike. But this "back-up" capability goes far beyond providing insurance. That's not the primary point in my view. Rather, it's the ability to roll-up one's sleeves to learn about the consequences of different activities throughout an organization -- how they relate, work together, and ultimately join to create, sell, and service a widget or virtual good.
The third metaphor from the trip was the importance of leaving some things to the true world-class, domain-specific experts. On Saturday night, we dined at one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, L'etoile, which is located in Downtown Madison. Now, L'etoile is not close to being 1/5th as refined as a Taillevent nor as elegant as even an upscale Las Vegas chain restaurant (i.e., a transplant from New York). But what L'etoile is amazing at is serving the best local, seasonal, organic ingredients that explode one's taste buds while sensitizing them to the potential of a single region to provide the makings of one of the best meals to be had anywhere. L'etoile can take, for example, a rather simple dish like a traditional risotto, and transform it into a seasonal masterpiece that smells, tastes, and looks like a blustery fall day. And they can do this without compromising on texture or consistency -- the key market of an amazing risotto -- adhering to tradition, and meeting the expectations of even a discriminating Northern Italian palette.
In a similar fashion, I believe that even the most advanced procurement organizations can stand to benefit from outside input and council -- especially when it comes to domain knowledge and expertise, be it on a category or process level. There's a certain nuance to say, having the best possible market expertise around what a particular market like castings is doing, or understanding the change management implications of moving to a centralized structure. It is areas like this where only a handful of individuals and providers are truly world class. Sure, one could hire a cadre of additional staffers -- or eat at a different restaurant with similar promises, I suppose. But there's no substitute for working with true third-party experts who know a subject better than anyone else, and can translate seasonal ingredients (i.e., what's in front of them at the time) into a desired -- or perhaps even unknown -- outcome better than anyone else on the planet. Now that's cooking.