Advice On Managing Service Providers – From 1800!

I was in the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading University recently – a much more interesting place than I expected, actually, and well worth a visit.

My eye was drawn to a book on display in one of the cabinets  – the New Farmer’s Calendar or Monthly Remembrancer for all kinds of Country Business.

When we say “new” this was published in 1800! But the page that was on display got my attention for its current relevance. The heading is “Threshing” which as you all know, is process of loosening the edible part of grain (or other crop) from the husks and straw to which it is attached. In 1800 for most farms this was still a very laborious and exhausting process of beating the grain using a flail, although the first machines were just coming into play around that time.

I managed to track down the book on Google, and this is the relevant text.

In every county, this labour is performed after a twofold method, according either to standing custom, or the particular inclination of the farmer; that is to say, the labourer works by the day, or by measure. Whichever method may be adopted, the eye of the master, or some individual of his own family, or of a faithful bailiff, is required, to be a constant watch on the conduct of the threshers; to ascertain, that if they work by measure, they make clean work; or if by the day; that they not only clear the straw perfectly, but that they do not lose their time”.

In that one sentence above (a very long sentence to be fair), we have the perfect summary of the dilemma we face when deciding which reward mechanism to use when engaging many types of service providers, from cleaning firms to management consultants or similar professional services providers. Do we use time and materials, and risk the provider “losing” their time, or do we do it by measure (output), but then risk that output being of poor quality?

In terms of consulting, the answer is “it depends” although in general time and materials is used far more often than it should be, even today. Contracting for deliverables, outputs and outcomes is generally the right way to go whenever that is possible.

The New Farmer’s Calendar goes on to explain how a dishonest thresher will exploit their boss in different ways, from just focusing on the easier to reach grain (“cherry-picking” as it were, something else we still come across in certain service contracts today) through to outright theft. The book suggests a very direct method of contract management, as we might put - watch them at all times basically!

However, we haven’t found a lot else of interest to us in flicking through the book; unless we take Spend Matters in a very different direction. But it’s interesting to see that some of the issues haven’t changed much in 200 years and concepts around managing suppliers’ quality and performance are not something that we have invented recently.

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