A Working Model
The purchasing division of Cleveland Metroparks acquires materials, commodities and services to support over 20,000 acres of natural land, golf courses, nature centers, reserved group picnic areas and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Each particular reservation or facility has a manager who is designated with limited authority and purchasing power.
As a governmental agency, the purchasing procedures are scrutinized closely by state auditors. Since 1988, the beginning of the current administration, consistent and successful audits have been reported.
The latest audit included over 29,800 purchase orders and more than 200 formal bid packages and was again rewarded with a positive rating.
This success was largely the result of a restructure that included the establishment of the office of the treasurer (which includes the purchasing division).
Prior to the treasurer's office being established, all office functions were simply titled "administration", with few checks and balances required.
Closing the Gap
In 1988, the restructure ensured that the treasurer answered independently to the Board of Park Commissioners as did the executive director-secretary.
This check and balance established the ground rules of sound financial integrity and set a strong, stable tone, but the nuts and bolts of building an "informed" administration would require more.
Through detailed analysis, administrators began to realize a communication gap had occurred over time between the field and the administrative offices.
A decision was made to consider closing the gap through the appointment of the new purchasing manager with more emphasis on field experience and communication skills than simply purchasing and accounting knowledge.
The eventual selection came from an in-house candidate who was serving as the senior purchasing technician. Prior to that position, he had five years field experience as a project coordinator and assistant park manager.
The combination of familiarity with the park district, technical expertise and practical insight stood to meet the need of mending fences.
Once appointed, the purchasing manager solicited field input. From this input, it was realized that some of the lags in purchase order processing and bid package assembly came from the park managers' differing concepts of their role in purchasing. Park managers had grown accustomed to accepting products purchasing sent out to the field for use. Their expectation of inevitable delays caused constant attempts to bypass the system and invent methods of acquisition without proper purchasing procedure.
The redesigned goal for purchasing then became to serve the park managers' needs instead of dictating their methods. The first remedy was designed to distribute the purchasing power more evenly. The existing purchasing system was therefore decentralized.
Instead of purchasing agents meeting salespeople in the administrative office, sales reps were sent to meet the managers in the field. If the manager liked the product, they had several short forms at their disposal. After submission to purchasing, these forms immediately activated the desired vendor.
The system worked and continues to work today. Few complain about poor supply when they are selecting for quality.
Hand in hand with this trust and empowerment came mandatory field trips that the purchasing staff committed to in their annual work/performance programs. No less than six field days per year per staff member were required.
These were not just visits to the locations. Purchasing agents shadowed all levels of staff, from working the garbage truck run to assisting the graphics department in design decisions. Comprehensive field experience was the goal and the payoff was immediate. Not only did these trips increase staff awareness of need, they also dispelled former appearances of the "ivory tower" administrative staff.
Form Meets Function
To reduce past confusion and solidify extensions of trust, two simple forms were designed: the New Vendor Form and the Competitive Price Form. Both were created to walk any buyer through the procedures of setting up a new vendor and validating competitive price information for attachment to a written purchase order.
The forms were accompanied with assurances that if completed correctly and ready to process, no delay greater than one day could be expected.
The purchasing division kept its end of the bargain. POs currently take no more than a half day (over $750) and those under $750 are immediately released to the requestor.
Several benefits were realized from the program's success:
1. When experienced people can be strategically placed in "controller" positions, it is critical to allow success or failure with little or no penalty. Successes so outweigh the failures that the margin of error is minimal.
These controllers know which people are critical to success because they've listened to line staff and actual production problems for a long time. They know where and how to effect a problem. Put experienced staff to full use. Request, value and channel their opinion wherever possible.
2. Where a system has been bogged down, trim back on the heavy "form work". Look at the bureaucracy involved in a simple procedure and probe whether the required approvals and criteria are necessary.
Cleveland Metroparks cut its New Vendor Qualification Form down from two legal pages to half of one letter size sheet. Staff had been filling out an investigative form (which typically took three days to complete) on all vendors. In some instances, the purchases were less than $25!
3. Design simple forms with critical information and guarantee their validity. When the purchasing division informed staff that completion of the proper forms guaranteed immediate processing, the forms were filled out in full and without hesitation. Fulfill all obligations and don't hesitate to make a commitment. 4. Empower and trust support staff.
They know. They perform the work, they handle the product and they see the problems.
Let them in on the decision -- not just in appearance. Seek their trust and respect their opinion.
Some of Cleveland Metroparks greatest adjustments have been made because of the in-roads established early on with line level staff. They knew that comments to purchasing were heard so they continue to provide feedback today.
5. Insist on field trips and experiences for all staff including the division manager. Remember that the climb to success is a winding, all-encompassing staircase. There are no elevators to the top that ensure such an experience.
When the experienced employee reaches upper management, they know the value of line level input and they use it accordingly.
Administrative purchasing departments can easily become removed from line level functions and, inevitably, input. They lose the awareness that ensures quality products and an uninterrupted flow of services to the staff and end users.
Cleveland Metroparks' purchasing division has utilized staff experience extensively over the past years and the establishment and maintenance of financial integrity has been the result.
Ronald D. Ciancutti is the purchasing manager for Cleveland Metroparks, a metropolitan park system that encircles Cuyahoga County and includes more than 20,000 acres of natural land, six golf courses, seven nature centers, a variety of special interest facilities and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Ron can be reached at email@example.com.