Exploring A Few Excellent Sources of Expert Information
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.         

Working with vendors to create new technology solutions or integrate new technology into a company’s infrastructure can be, and often is, very exasperating for everyone.  These new projects are a constant source of frustration as new discoveries are made, schedules are slipped, risks trigger to become full-fledged issues, and tensions rise.  Valuable information, based upon decades of experience by hundreds of experts, is freely available to help you in managing the performance of your technology suppliers.

The Problem: Repeated Disappointment with Technology Suppliers

I’ve rarely seen a new project where a contract was put into place with a supplier and then the project proceeded precisely as planned. Much more often than not, the work with the supplier diverges from the contract within weeks (sometimes days!) of project launch – this is the curse of creating something new.  In working with suppliers to construct or integrate new technology, this is the one aspect of projects that, unfortunately, seems entirely predictable.

If you already have solidly planned projects, the answer is not to improve the project planning – although I am a strong proponent of thorough planning, I think there are just too many unknowns in new technology projects that have been planned well; as discoveries are made during project execution, these unknowns become better understood.  The most effective way of gaining this knowledge is not by delaying project execution (while more planning is performed), but by getting into project execution early.

However, before jumping right into the topic of starting project execution early, let’s first glance through a few sources of expert information that will prove helpful in managing the performance of your suppliers.  A companion article describes my tips on managing supplier performance.



Others Have Preceded Us – What Can We Learn from Them?

Managing the successful delivery of new technology from a supplier is much more complex than specifying requirements, signing a contract and awaiting delivery.  While that may work for routine purchases, the creation of new technology (and, potentially, the introduction of new business processes) introduces a raft of risks that can overwhelm any project.

Fortunately, the folks at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) and the IEEE have published a solid and extensive body of work that contains many valuable insights into managing and partnering with suppliers.  Yes, there can be reasons for dismissing the SEI and IEEE as not relevant to your situation, but it would be difficult to deny the validity of their information.  Look through these materials in a legitimate attempt to find practices that can help your projects.


Capability Maturity Model Integration – Supplier Agreement Management

The Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) section on Supplier Agreement Management is particularly relevant. You’ll find some very reasonable guidance here; in essence, these are reminders to be logical and professional in working with vendors with statements of wisdom that include:

  • Select suppliers based on an evaluation of their ability to meet the specified requirements and established criteria.
  • Establish and maintain formal agreements with the supplier.
  • Ensure that the supplier agreement is satisfied before accepting the acquired product.

The CMMI is voluminous, has a complex structure, and has its own terminology that easily confuses anyone not familiar with the CMMI – unless you have a spare month to leisurely peruse the CMMI, here’s a tip: jump right to the section on Supplier Agreement Management on page number 388 of the CMMI for Services.   Here you will find a handful of practices described across fifteen easily read pages.



The IEEE standard on Software Acquisition

IEEE Recommended Practice for Software Acquisition (IEEE Std 1062-1998) describes a recommended practice for acquiring software from a supplier.  The standard describes a software acquisition life cycle and includes supporting materials (e.g., checklists) to use when executing the various steps of the acquisition processes. This IEEE standard hasn’t changed since 1998, but it still is pertinent.  It's nine step process for acquiring software from an external provider is useful as an overall framework for your Supplier Performance Management activities: 

  1. Planning organizational strategy
  2. Implementing organization's process
  3. Defining the software requirements
  4. Identifying potential suppliers
  5. Preparing contract requirements
  6. Evaluating proposals and selecting supplier
  7. Managing for supplier performance
  8. Accepting the software
  9. Using the software

Keep in mind that this framework presumes a situation where all requirements are well understood and a viable contract can be agreed with a supplier – this is rarely the situation when dealing with the creation or introduction of new technology.



DACS Software Acquisition Gold Practice

The Data & Analysis Center for Software (DACS) is entirely oriented to USA Department of Defense projects, yet their Gold Practice web site has a wealth of useful information that can be applicable to commercial projects.  Each topic has a survey of somewhat current information on a specific topic – a list of the practice areas is on their Gold Practice index page

The DACS Acquisition Process Improvement Gold Practice publishes a good overview of Supplier Performance Management information that they’ve assembled from many different sources.  Ignore the poor formatting as you skim this page looking for some gems that are applicable in your situation – you won’t have any difficulty picking up one or two points that you’ll want to adopt in your project.  This is an excellent site for learning how others approach working with suppliers (in a DoD environment).


The beauty of becoming familiar with the IEEE, CMM and DACS information on supplier management is that their information can jump-start you on building the foundation for the practices that you’ll use on your project.  While you probably shouldn’t unquestioningly adopt the IEEE or CMMI practices as published, there’s no sense in starting with a blank sheet of paper (on which to create your approach to supplier performance management) with such a wealth of experience freely available to you.



A New Way to Look at the Suppliers – Agile Perspectives

One of the most frequently occurring (and most devastating) situations that I’ve encountered arises when we work in a ‘waterfall’ style with a supplier.  We dutifully construct requirements, agree on a contract and then wait (sometimes many, many months) until the vendor delivers the solution.  That’s when we make two discoveries:

  1. Our requirements were incomplete and, in some instances, inaccurate.
  2. The supplier’s solution doesn’t work properly – they’ve made design and construction decisions that render their solution unusable in our environment.

While these two problems might be reduced by even more planning and up-front analysis, requirements preparation, and design activities, I just don’t think we could ever eliminate the late discover of serious deficiencies in the supplier’s solution (and the resulting calamity).

The principles of Agile methods are eminently qualified for just this type of situation.  In particular:

  • Valuing individuals and interactions: Don’t fall into the trap of positioning your interactions with the supplier into routine project status reporting by the supplier – such a focus could very well get you an on-time delivery of a solution that isn’t fit-for-purpose.  Interactions that your project team has with the supplier must continue to be important even after the contract is signed.  Your communications with the supplier must occur frequently, having a depth of discussion, and thoroughness of the dialogue.  Ensure that your ongoing discussions cover your business needs (which may be evolving), technical aspects of the solution, and other subjects that are important for achieving project and program success. 
  • Valuing working software: Don’t wait until the end of the supplier’s development cycle before getting your hands on their deliverable.  Work with your supplier to structure their work so that you are getting regular iterations of completed functionality that you can exercise in your test environment.  Gone are the days when a supplier can claim progress without the evidence of working software.


What’s Next?

Working with suppliers and achieving project success rarely results from bullying a supplier into better performance.  If you’ve chosen a qualified supplier, then the task is to for the project team to establish an effective structure and methods of working with the supplier to achieve the project goals.  Look to the CMMI and other sources for the voice of experience and see how that experience can be put to use on your project.  Apply agile principles to improve the quality of the interactions and the level of visibility you have of the supplier’s actual progress.