A group who shares ideas and experiences employing innovative acquisition practices, collaborative methods and use of Web2.0 technologies to transform federal acquisition.
Streamlined Acquisition: Is Faster Really Better?
August 9, 2010 at 2:17 pm #107647
So it seems like this Washington post article is getting a bunch of energy on Twitter – a sure sign that we should be talking about it here on GovLoop!Excerpt:
As winners of the “Apps for the Army” competition were named last week, key military officials said the five-month contest demonstrated a faster, more nimble acquisition process that will alter the way future business is conducted.
That means civilian developers could soon find more opportunities to create and profit from apps that they build specifically for the military without having to trudge through the typical acquisition process.
“Having spent a number of years in the acquisition community, we have a very laborious process,” said Lt. Gen. Jeff Sorenson, the Army’s chief information officer. “The whole point of doing this contest was to see if we could somehow acquire capability without having to go through that type of process.”
And yet it could be even faster:
“To put this in perspective, once we had the go-ahead from Vivek Kundra to launch Apps for Democracy, it took us six days to build and launch the program,” [Peter] Corbett wrote in an e-mail. “With the Army, it took us about three months to dot all of our i’s and cross all of our t’s from a legal and technical perspective.”
A couple questions:
1. What are your ideas for “Acquisition Apps”?2. Is the faster acquisition process they describe necessarily/always better?
August 9, 2010 at 3:17 pm #107691
1) FAR mobile app for BlackBerry, iPhone and Android as well as a mobile-friendly site (i.e. http://www.m.farsite.gov or something similari)
2) As long as we understand what we’re buying and we speed won’t screw up the acquisition, then yes, fast is usually better…unless you find out your delivery needs to be delayed (more training on new tools or weapons before they’re delivered). This can mean unexpected storage costs in warehouses.
August 9, 2010 at 6:40 pm #107689
The problem with focusing on doing acquisitions faster is that people often assume that all of the steps in the current process are necessary, so they simply look for ways to do the current steps in less time. But what if the process is broken? Speeding up a bad process is definitely not an optimal solution. It’s a band-aid, at best.
For instance, I’ve started analyzing our procurement processes and have identified over 30 data points that our Office of Procurement Services (OPS) requires. Of those 30 data points, most are captured in more than one place, and some are captured in 5 different documents! Redundant or duplicate work is WASTE.
When I was questioning the need for one particular form I was told, “We need it for the paper trail.” I asked who needed it and was told, “The auditors look at it.” I stated that what I wanted to know was why this form is needed for the acquisition? Here was the eventual answer: no one knew what it was for. Filling out the form is not necessary for the acquisition. Unnecessary work is WASTE.
Our shopping carts go through a series of approvers before they even reach OPS. Oftentimes a shopping cart waits for days in an approver’s queue before it’s approved and sent to the next approver. It doesn’t take the approver very long to actually review it, so the cart is simply waiting for the approver to act upon it. Waiting is WASTE.
I’m sure you get the idea. There is so much WASTE in the processes that I’ve seen, but people seem to accept it for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s because “it’s always been like that”. Other times it’s because “THEY said we have to do it.”
I think the biggest problem is that no one truly owns the process from end-to-end. And when I say “own”, I mean that they understand every single step of the process, who does it, why it’s done a certain way and at a certain point in time, and why it’s necessary to the overall process. With that level of understanding, we can start make improvements. Can we combine steps? Can we perform an activity more efficiently if we do it at a different point in the process? Can we eliminate a step by eliminating the reason for it or by meeting the requirement in some other way?
A focus on good business analysis and process improvement will get us to the point where we truly understand the value of every step of the acquisition process… and then we can more easily understand any ramifications — both positive and negative — of removing steps and/or simplifying the process.
Speed is not always the most appropriate metric. We must focus on doing only necessary, value-added work as efficiently as possible. Do that, and most of the complaints around speed will go away.
August 9, 2010 at 8:02 pm #107687
Off the top of my head, I think we have something like 30-40 steps in my organization. I can’t imagine all are necessary.
There’s a good article titled There’s a FAR Better Way by Joe Bedar in Contract Management (July 2010) showing how so many steps actually violate the FAR.
August 10, 2010 at 12:19 am #107685
Due diligence is required up front. The destructive cycle we get into is to take shortcuts with acquisition planning, then exacerbated by the mindless levels of review and bureaucracy that unnecessarily prolong even simple acquisitions. There is no doubt that the process needs to be streamlined and improved. However, properly developed requirements, business cases, and cost/benefit analyses require effort, then should enter a properly developed process to rapidly acquire the product or service. Is faster really better? If done properly, no doubt. Just ask the end-user.
Here is the link to the article Sterling mentions: There’s a FAR Better Way
August 10, 2010 at 12:52 am #107683
Great job finding the article Jaime. I think it’s a great piece.
August 10, 2010 at 12:54 pm #107681
Awesome response, Harlan…and you’re absolutely right on the fact that government needs to work hard to ensure that the solicitation is clear and has specific performance parameters – a process that should occur in tandem with industry…which is the goal of the Better Buy Wiki – to streamline the process of ensuring that all stakeholders in the procurement process are moving forward in lockstep…without having to pass a document back and forth 7 times before submission and award.
Thoughts on using a technology like a wiki or similar doc sharing tools to speed up time to award without sacrificing due process?
August 10, 2010 at 1:40 pm #107679
I’m not sure about anyone else, but when I advocate a faster process, I’m certainly not advocating haste. Haste is the act of moving hurriedly and in a careless manner, and I agree that haste does make waste.
When I speak of designing a faster process, I’m talking about handling acquisitions quickly (accomplished rapidly and without delay) and efficiently (being effective without wasting time or effort or expense). Handling acquisitions quickly and effectively is absolutely not the same as handling acquisitions hastily. And my experience over the last 25 years — in everything from customer service to manufacturing to contracting and procurement — is that performing any activity more quickly and more efficiently is better 90% of the time (you probably don’t want a 1-hour massage to be done in 30 minutes).
August 10, 2010 at 1:57 pm #107677
Brandon – Let’s say you are an “acquisitions athlete in training” and you’re working with a coach who could pinpoint 2-3 things that, if you made slight adjustments, would cut your time on a task by 25%. What would they be – both on an individual and organizational level? And it doesn’t have to be you…where generally could we cut the time of task completion for acquisitions professionals without compromising quality?
The key here: let’s assume that you are already incredibly skilled in the activity from years of experience, so it’s not sacrificing quality…just helping you perform at a higher level and getting things done more efficiently.
The other key: explaining it to staff as a “What’s in it for me?” – it’s not just faster for speed’s sake, but allowing people to get their work done more quickly so they can go home earlier and have better work-life balance.
August 10, 2010 at 2:53 pm #107675
Okay… here are three things that we could change at my current workplace:
Change #1: Make sure that everything we do is truly a “process”.
Explanation: A process is “Inputs + Transforming Activity = Outputs”. If the outputs are the same as the inputs, then the activity was not transforming, and you don’t have a process; all you have is “activity”. And there is no inherent value in activity; it’s the transforming nature of an activity that gives it its value. Other than necessary reviews and approvals (which should be minimized as much as possible), all activities that are not transforming in nature should be eliminated.
Change #2: Try to capture the right data at the right time from the right people… and only do it once.
Explanation: The Contracting Officer knows what is needed in order to conduct a successful acquisition, but most of that information is captured (a) late in the process, and (b) by people other than those who actually hold the information. I’m looking at the entire process and asking two questions: (1) Who holds the information we need for the acquisition? (2) When do they first have it? If I can capture the necessary information, in the right format, from the person who has it, at the point they first receive it, then I’ll eliminate many iterative loops caused by generating documentation “after the fact” and should also end up with much better documentation. One final note on this point is that capturing the exact same information in multiple documents should be minimized or eliminated.
Change #3: Encourage everyone to understand “why” they do everything they do.
Explanation: If I understand why I’m doing something, I’ll be more likely to identify if a step in the process is no longer necessary. I’ll also be better able to come up with creative solutions for acquisitions that don’t quite fit the standard processes (if I don’t know “why”, then I don’t know where we can be flexible).
Now as far as the “what’s in it for me?” I think we’re a long way from efficient, hard-working employees being allowed to work less than 40 hours per week and still receive the same rate of pay. But until we can find a way to get there, people can be allowed to do more training on the job, or perhaps be a part of a project that allows them to gain skills in a different area. From a work/life perspective, efficient processes are much less stressful than cumbersome processes that seem to drag on and on. Also, being allowed to expand one’s career opportunities during “work hours” is a nice bonus for many of us who have had to do much of it on our own time in the past.
August 10, 2010 at 4:30 pm #107673
Speed isn’t a determinant of quality, though desired level of quality can certainly impact speed. My goal is to be as quick and efficient as possible while generating work product that meets all requirements, including level of quality. Decreased speed is not a determinant to either quality or efficiency – unless one is trying to maximize billable hours. 🙂
August 10, 2010 at 5:17 pm #107671
This is a great discussion. Ironically I am on an assignment and covered this very issue with my students this morning, as I am teaching a federal acquisition course to PMs. My thoughts are that long-term faster is better, but not just for fast’s sake. If government focuses on outcomes and performance, that gives industry the flexibility to innovate and offer solutions that meet long-term objectives to improve cost, schedule, and performance issues that plague the current environment. Let’s put in the work up front as I mentioned to do it right. That will hopefully lead to improved outcomes, which with a better process in place, will then improve procurement velocity. Faster can be better, but again it has to be done right.
August 10, 2010 at 7:40 pm #107669
I think I agree, Jaime. The issue isn’t speed for speed’s sake because, as Harlan pointed out, there is no intrinsic value in speed unless one is in a race. However, I can’t honestly think of any instances in Federal procurement where we shouldn’t go faster, provided our product/outcome meets the necessary standards.
Andrew first said, “let’s assume that you are already incredibly skilled in the activity from years of experience, so it’s not sacrificing quality…just helping you perform at a higher level and getting things done more efficiently.”
Given that scenario, can you think of a Federal procurement situation that would benefit from going slower?
And I’m not talking about pacing a procurement so that it fits better within the overall schedule of projects (i.e. resource planning). Nor am I talking about slowing things down to ensure quality, because quality is a “given” in the scenario Andrew presented.
However, as you point out, quality is not a “given”. In fact, most Federal agencies are a long way from being able to effectively identify requirements and/or objectives so that suppliers can provide more creative, flexible, and cost-effective solutions.
Here’s the problem at my agency: In general, acquisitions already take too long. Adding to the timeline so that we can do a better job at requirements gathering is not acceptable. That’s why we’re working to get faster at those parts of the acquisition process that we already know how to do well, which will allow us to shift both time and resources to focus on improving the quality of those activities where we are weaker (without increasing the overall acquisition timeline).
Our goal is to get better and faster at all acquisitions, from the simple to the complex. At some point we may encounter the law of diminishing returns, and there will be little added value in trying to further increase our speed. But I’m sure that (if we ever get to that point) there will be other areas with room for improvement!
August 10, 2010 at 9:23 pm #107667
Although I admire the desire to tackle these major initiatives, the fact is that I’ve been trying to procure a dozen standard-configurations servers for 3 months. I’ve been trying to procure a large number of BlackBerrys since February. I can rattle off at least a dozen other situations that are straightforward, simple procurements… and our inefficient processes, disorganization, and general lack of urgency have dragged them on and on and on. There’s no way that we can expect to succeed at a complex peformance-based service acquisition when we can’t even buy COTS hardware and software effectively.
Maybe my agency is different than every place else, but we really need to get good at the basics before we tackle any complex changes. If nothing else, the acquisition folks could use the credibility that comes with being able to do something well and in a timely manner.
August 11, 2010 at 5:06 am #107665
1. Care to clarify “because we all know contractors don’t have the same moral compass as the government.”
After 40 years in the government/contractor community, I’d have to say I have seen a full range of morality (whatever that is) on both sides.
Perhaps you might have meant incentive or motivation or ???
2. On the topic – would suggest that we learned in the 80s and 90s that all the acquisition process improvement in the world won’t make up for a lack of senior management commitment, training and skilled workforce. Too often, the middle and front line acquisition staff migrate to a place of fear. It is less risky to adhere to every process step than to try to make change. I guess this is the organizational development aspect of this question.
August 11, 2010 at 4:35 pm #107663
Part of the issue is that there needs to be different mechanisms/rules/speed for various acquisitions.
So obviously buying a $200 piece of software is different than $20,000 vs $2M vs $200M.
There are variations thresholds and less rules at different levels so it is quicker for gov’t to procure at lower amounts.
However, I’d still argue that for low-cost, beta, and test products we could do a better job of making it easier and quicker to procure.
August 12, 2010 at 5:58 pm #107661
I take exception to the question “is Faster Really Better”.
The fact that federal acquisition is slow / onerous is actually part of the design. Purchasing decisions are based on a massive rule book intentionally. The individuals that make the purchase decisions have far different motivations and reward systems than the individuals requesting the purchase. Again, this is by design. Different organizations with different goals operating in different silos, and we wonder why it is slow. Think “separation of duties”, or, if you are really old school . . “system of checks and balances”.
The secret is to not question the symptom (slow/fast), but address the process and align the interests.
August 12, 2010 at 6:37 pm #107659
Hi Chris – Interesting response. I thought for sure you’d be an advocate for streamlined (read: faster) acquisition processes with the great initiatives that you’re leading over at GSA.
Can you speak a bit more (briefly – I know you have acquisitions to manage 😉 about the impact you’re seeing with the Better Buy Wiki…or maybe just a link to some of your early analysis i.e. updates to the BetterBlog post below in terms of lessons learned in light of this conversation?
August 12, 2010 at 7:37 pm #107657
Actually, I would say the wiki is more likely to drive a better requirement, but possibly at the cost of a longer procurement lead time. We are still in the norming phase with using a wiki. The acquisition workforce is comfortable with Microsoft Word (track changes, insert comments, etc.), not with editing websites. Using a wiki forces a change in behavior where a user has to leave their comfort zone and be willing to experiment.
Andy – You have to remember that I already work in an environment were things are fast. Our procurement cycles are faster than most internal acquisition organizations, and we got there by improving our processes, standardizing them, creating templates, sharing acquistion philosophy. Once you have an organization that has the speed part nailed down, your focus moves to quality.
August 12, 2010 at 7:47 pm #107655
August 19, 2010 at 8:57 pm #107653
Sounds like sound project management philosophy to me!
In my own research the chief barriers to change are that inefficient or outmoded processes are adhered to even when their contributions to accomplishing overall goals and objectives are outmoded or not clearly understood. People do things one way because “… that’s how we’ve always done it.” For people to share goals, objectives, and an understanding of how what they do contributes to overall success, they have to first be able — and willing — to communicate and share information. Then it’s easier to change. Unfortunately many siloed government organizations are designed to prevent collaboration.
One acquisition official I interviewed recently about this topic quite cynically said “Acquisition managers won’t agree to a better use of collaboration technologies since speeding up the acquisition process will reduce the need for staff and that would mean a budget reduction.” I don’t know how common that is but, having been through many technology adoption cycles in many decades of work, time and again I’ve seen people eagerly embrace new technology and new processes when they are supported by management and they see how doing so benefits them, their organization, and their rewards system. New communication and collaboration technologies can’t overcome such barriers but they can help.
August 23, 2010 at 2:16 pm #107651
Wow. I’ve never heard anyone argue that a process was slow / onerous by design. I could understand if the process was slow / onerous because no one had been able to devise a more streamlined process that would ensure fair, cost-effective acquisitions that meet all of the federal requirements… but designing a process to be slow / onerous? Speaking as a taxpayer, I take exception to that mentality.
I would argue that the secret is to correctly analyze the problem, which may or may not be related to the process. A great process supporting a poorly written or outdated regulation is still not an ideal situation, and thus the regulation is the problem to be corrected. Of course, if someone truly did design the acquisition process to be burdensome and take a comparatively long time, then perhaps that person (or people) are the root cause and should be “corrected”.
As a final note, I have a feeling that those who drafted the FAR and other acquisition regulations did not set out to intentionally create a massive rule book and a slow, onerous process. My guess is that it kept growing and growing as they found the need to address more and more specific situations. I’m also guessing that if they could ensure the same results more efficiently and more effectively, they would jump at the chance to do so.
August 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm #107649
Whether it is intentional or not, nearly every revision of the Federal Acquisition Regulations drive the process to be more complex. The first version of the FAR was thinner than it is now, not to mention the agency specific supplements and case law (stemming from the multitude of protests). Add to that an army of oversight in the form of auditors and IGs.
As a practicioner in this field, I would love to see it become more streamlined and faster. I spend my days making sure that we deliver an acquisition process that is rapid while complying with the rules. Unfortunately, the actions by people than make the rules are clearly heading in the other direction. Take the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) as an example. They rules associated with spending ARRA funds significantly increased the complexity. That’s why I struggle with the easy criticism of the acquisition process taking too long. Taking too long is a symptom. Don’t treat the symptom. Treat the problem.
Here are a quick list of the things I would change:
(1) Remove all artificial barriers between the acquisition folks and the mission folks. In most organizations, these are separate groups in separate buildings serving separate needs. I’ve seen the benefit of organizational and physical integration (e.g., same office, same floor). Make the acquisition team part of the mission.
(2) Increase the financial cost of protests to industry. The current cost is minimal (e.g., lawyers on retainer [which the Government pays for if the protest is successful). There are many valid protests, but based on GAO’s data, most are frivilous. The cost to the Government (in terms of dollars and time) is massive. The risk of protest is mitigated by risk averse behavior. The process becomes incredibly slow to ensure every technical detail at every step was conducted properly and is defensible in court.
(3) Technology – Use Electronic Files, Electronic Signatures, Web Based Applications. A shocking amount of contracting still lives in a paper based world. Simply moving to the web lets you work from anywhere and lets you source the work to resources beyond your walls.
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