I am on a mission. Yes, this is what I think every time I start a review of a project or a spend category – I am on a mission. I have a goal in front of me: to do whatever it takes, to get the best result. I was discussing with my colleagues, what should be the starting point for the procurement process. I heard many replies. The most frequent reply was – RFI (request for information) is (or should be) the first step. Not for me. I start with a game my kid taught me: “I spy with my little eye…”
The understanding on an RFI varies. Wikipedia says it is “a standard business process whose purpose is to collect written information about the capabilities of various suppliers. Normally it follows a format that can be used for comparative purposes… sent to a broad base of potential suppliers for the purpose of conditioning suppliers’ minds, developing strategy, building a database and preparing for an RFP, RFT, or RFQ”. The key negative aspects of this definition to me are “standard”, “comparative”, “written information…to condition suppliers’ minds”. How can you choose a standard method of measurement, if, at the point of going into the market, you do not yet know what you are looking for? How can you aim to compare outcomes, if by default, RFI stage should allow you to collect completely different methods, business cases, options? How can you gauge someone’s minds over standard ten page questionnaire? By the time any supplier reaches the end of such a questionnaire, they hate you anyway. You need a dialogue to gauge someone’s mind, views and approach. RFI is a one way street.
I have asked our colleagues over LinkedIn post (big thank you for those who responded): “what is the real purpose of RFI for you?”. People use RFI:
- To be sure the supplier is able to fulfil the needs.
- To validate assumptions, prove or disprove hypothesis.
- To validate buying organization’s requirements.
- To develop buying organization’s requirements.
- To ensure transparency and business ethics.
- To assess suppliers on qualification requirements.
- To capture the information for short listing purposes.
- To make sure everyone is given a chance to participate.
Ultimately, RFI is a communication method. It is neither good nor bad. It has to serve the purpose of what you want to achieve:
- To check suppliers’ financial capabilities? Choose independent information sources instead.
- To “condition suppliers’ minds”? Choose a meeting and/or a conversation.
- To evaluate supplier’s capability to fulfil the needs (quality, capacity)? Choose supplier audits.
- To act ethically and transparent? Do it, instead of talking and making manifestos about it. Inviting two hundred suppliers (fine, slightly exaggerating) into a RFI / RFP process is expensive, not transparent. You don’t trust your own employees? Well, you already know what’s coming next – why do you employ them in the first place?
- To make sure the supplier’s project team will see through to the end of the project? Ask for staff retention statistics, not for a standard list of CVs.
- To find out what is happening in the market? Do your researches. Nobody these days can complain of lack of information.
It might seem funny (or silly – I do not mind calling things their real names), but I tried to find “instructions for spying”, “private investigator processes” and similar keywords on the internet. You know, to validate if my work principles are any similar to the real spy games (fine, I have been watching too many movies, I know). And I did find things. Mostly, governmental process descriptions, and they were of not much use. However, I did come across some indications. Mostly those were lists of tools that they can use, based on the situation and their own expert judgement. Yes, the tools can be standard, but the combination, that you use, is what makes it unique.
Because of this approach, I choose to do my homework (the spy game) first. Then, when I know my alternatives, I issue pre-qualification questionnaires (if there is anything else that I still want to ask the suppliers and it was not validated during my homework stage). Getting onto my first stage long-list (which is no-where near 200) is already an achievement. And there is no need to question my motivation: I represent business interests. Making sure, that procurement process is not too long and not expensive is one of the objectives. Political correctness? I choose to be polite instead. Those suppliers, who were not invited to the process, should appreciate that I respect their time and choose not to waste their resources by dragging them into a process if I know they are not suitable for it.
Do you have your own unique approach to this? Please share in the comments below!