...When it’s category MANAGEMENT.
Dear reader, please gird your loins for a rant. And probably an unpopular one at that. One of the joys of being able to put pen to paper in this column is to get things off my chest. This one has been bottled up for several years, so please bear with me while I let off steam. Normal service will resume.
When I started in this magical trade we call purchasing, there seemed to be a reasonably well-rehearsed way of making progress with your boss. Faced with a thorny supply issue, such as a migratory supply market or emerging technology, we would huddle with the business and concoct a proposal. We would put some ideas forward, with support from our colleagues that would either ensure supply or make more money. Or both. We took pride in our answers.
And the trick was to have a good answer. There was no point putting forward a proposal without any ideas in it, or that wasn’t supported by the business, or that didn’t improve supply or make money. The answer had to be a good one, and a real one as well, not just a promise of things to come.
So why complain? Well, these days we seem to have given up on giving real answers. I struggle to recall the last one I saw alive. All we do is tell the business the answer lies in developing a proposal, created by a cross-functional team, that will deliver superior value against our networked business requirements. Aaaaargh!
Just listen to the words: Developing a proposal, as opposed to having a proposal. Cross-functional teams as opposed to support from colleagues. Superior value versus more money. We’re all talking gibberish. Throw in stakeholders, RACI charts, market segmentation, CI plans and after-action reviews and the spell is complete. Pass me my wand; I feel some work coming on.
What was once a good, honest trade of spending company money better has become a soothsayer’s paradise of supply-chain lingo that merely promises to get to an answer. The problem started when we began to use ‘category management’ as the answer, not as a means to get to an answer that really works.
Failing suppliers? No fear, category management will be here shortly. Rampant inflation? Hold on, category management is on its way. New product innovation required? Not a problem, category management is sure to fix that.
Category management simply isn’t an answer, in the way answers used to be defined. It’s just a process! But it’s become a panacea, snake oil, a silver bullet even.
Why should its plan to dominate the world of purchasing stop with purchasing? Global pandemics? It’s all right, take some category management pills and you’ll be immune. Banking failures? Fear not, category management will make quantitative easing a thing of the past. World hunger? No problem, category management can solve that as well. And boil the oceans at the same time. Eternal life? You get my gist.
We have to get off this drug of category management, and start offering our business’s real ideas again. By all means wrap them up in sophisticated words if that makes them more palatable, but make sure what’s inside is an answer, and not just a promise to get one somehow.
As research, I looked into the origins of the commonplace analogies I’ve used above. I hate to say it, but we’re not in good company. There is such a thing as snake oil in Chinese medicine, but rattlesnake oil was just mineral oil laced with camphor and a fancy label flogged to US settlers. More likely to embarrass than cure. Silver bullets are supposed to be a remedy for vampires.
So can we leave the world of quacks, folklore and worse behind, and make sure that when we talk about giving answers in purchasing, we do exactly that?
☛ Jim Frankley (not his real name) leads a purchasing function in a Fortune Global 500 company. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org