What a toothbrush taught me about specification

posted by Mike Fairbotham
25 May 2018

More than twenty years ago, I was a keen member of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme for young people. I enjoyed the hikes, and learned some lessons that stretched beyond outdoor survival, one that I have used throughout my career.

At the start of one big hiking expedition, in front of all the other waterproof-clad teenagers, I was called to account by our instructor. How well did I think I had packed my rucksack? I confidently replied that I was more than happy with my packing - at which point his eyes gleamed with delight at how easily I'd fallen into his trap.

He then proceeded to unpack my kit in front of all my peers, savouring every poorly packed item with relish. Fishing inside my wash-bag, he produced my toothbrush, and from his own bag, a small saw... He cut my toothbrush in half, declaring that he had halved the size and weight of the item without reducing its usefulness.

Twenty years on, I can see it for what it really was - a demonstration of philosophy with a dollop of humour to make sure the whole group remembered it. But not then - everybody laughed, I was horrified and left more than a little bruised. And I didn’t forget it.

His point was clear. On an expedition, an individual's performance is affected by the weight they carry. Every item in the rucksack must be scrutinised and non-essential weight removed. In the case of the toothbrush, the useful end is the brush, with just enough handle to help you clean your teeth properly.

This mindset is already well understood in the logistics sector. Cut the size and weight, and more items can be packed and transported at a reduced cost: reducing pallets, fuel, vehicles, overheads, and increasing efficiency and potentially profit.

But it goes beyond logistics too, and I apply this philosophy to the specification for everything I buy. Specification is when the seeds of success or failure of any procurement project are sown. Understanding what your organisation is trying to buy and articulating it eloquently to the marketplace hugely increases the chances of achieving a successful outcome. Getting a specification wrong can lead to overpriced, gold-plated services - or put most simply, buying the wrong thing.

Consider your specification as if it were a toothbrush. Take a long hard look at it, identify the important bristles that are doing all the hard work - and keep that. Then find the handle and  keep only the bits that enable you to work the brush effectively. Cut off the rest, as it adds complexity and cost, but not value.

Being able to take an essential item and reduce it to the elements that are critical to its success, without materially reducing its usefulness, is a valuable skill to help squeeze value out of any purchase. You may not want to apply it to your toothbrush but it is worthwhile applying it to your procurement specification. As my instructor taught me, there is always room for improvement.

☛ Mike Fairbotham is associate director of procurement & logistics at Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust.


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