Jonathan Tungu took procurement learnings from running a half marathon
Jonathan Tungu took procurement learnings from running a half marathon

10 things procurement can learn from marathon runners

posted by Jonathan Tungu
20 July 2017

Still rejoicing on my personal accomplishment and those of my compatriots from Kenya at the RAK Half Marathon, the incredible experience led me to reflect on some of key lessons procurement professionals and businesses can learn from marathon runners.

1. Know your ultimate prize

For the elites competing in the race, it is about winning, probably a medal. For some it’s being among the top 10, improving on a personal best, raise money for charity, or for fun. All runners at the event understand what is in it for them. Applying the same principle, it is important for procurement professionals to understand what their ultimate prize in their sourcing activities. Is it savings, quality, speed to market, innovation, or contribution to CSR?

2. Who is your competition?

Tens of thousands of people run the marathon. Both male and female, they come in different age groups, colour and creed, but as a runner I couldn’t stop thinking about who I am actually competing with. Although we are on the same race, the new world record holder Peres Jepchirchir for example was not in any way or form a part of my competition.

The same principle applies to businesses and procurement organisations. Know your competition and this will help you to put in best-in-class strategies that will help you to stay ahead. Some procurement practices can be applied among global players and multinationals while others may be best suited for local companies with centralised procurement functions. Think about how you negotiate, your attractiveness vis a vis your competitors, what kind of contracts should you enter into, local sourcing or international sourcing. What procurement systems and technology would be suitable for your business? There is no one shoe that fits all solutions out there.

3. What’s your competitive edge?

Many runners will tell you before the race that they are probably in good form. Good form means that they could be in the right health and fitness level for them to be competitive. It also means that they understand what will give them an edge against their competitors. It may be their age, height, preparations, experience or other factors that enhances their abilities to go farther and faster. Most of the best runners train for long hours in high altitudes which increase their abilities to inject oxygen into their lungs, this naturally gives them an edge against runners who train in humid, coastal or low altitude areas. Procurement functions needs to have this understanding as well. As a function, what makes you tick? Do you have long-term contracts or partnership with a major supplier, are you in public or private sector? Does your function receive clear unequivocal support from top management? Do you have access to foreign and international markets or cutting edge technology to keep you ahead of the competition?

4. What’s your personal best?

For me, this race was my first time participating in the half marathon. However, most of my colleagues from the running club were talking about beating their personal best time. This kept me thinking of continuous improvements in procurement. Whether, the function is implementing a major transformation, process change or investing in new technology, it is important to have a clear understanding of the current position. Conduct a gap analysis for the business to be clear on what is missing and where improvements are needed. Come up with clear strategies that will deliver improvements and step changes.

5. Always benchmark

You can see and hear the pace of other racers. You can see the serious ones versus the distractors, who ride bicycles on a running track, make funny noises, dress like clowns and run a few steps before disappearing. I learnt to be always on the lookout and measure. From the first mile to the last, check how you are progressing. How healthy is your competition at each stage?  Successful procurement organisations needs to continuously measure their performance and benchmark against other successful organisations for them to make sure that they are on the right track and to understand on what to prioritise.

6. Who are your cheerleaders?

The most emotional and humbling aspect of these races is the sheer number of voluntary supporters standing on both sides of the road. From elderly men and women with their dogs to young children handing out water bottles, sweets or bananas. Random men shout: “Come on....yes, you can do it.” These are the people who give you with the extra pound of energy you may need to cross the finish line. On the same note, procurement teams needs to know who its main supporters are. Do you have the required management support, does procurement sit at the board and what about your stakeholders?

7. Plan and prepare

There is almost a zero chance of finishing a marathon if you don’t prepare in some way. Planning and preparing is crucial otherwise you will be walking out after two kilometers. Your body will be in pain and crumble with all kinds of muscle fatigue. Procurement managers need to realise that planning and strategic sourcing is important whether it is in category management, negotiations, contracting, mergers and acquisitions or implementation of transformations. Organisations with better planning, demand management and proactive response processes to business requirements excel better than those that are tactical and reactive.

8. Lessons learnt

One race is just that – a race. Many other races will come and go. The key thing is a diagnosis of what went well and what didn’t. Runners usually take key lessons from the current race to improve on future races. This is also key for successful procurement teams. Every sourcing event provides lessons for the next; every negotiation meeting provides lessons for the next. What is important is to keep on learning and applying lessons learnt.

9. Do not quit and keep doing the right things

It’s rough out there and it’s not going to get easy. Sometimes during the race you feel, “Why did I get into this?” Some thoughts are telling you to quit and enjoy the rest of the day sleeping. Your muscles are crunching and you feel like you can’t take the next step forward, but you know what? Winners never quit and quitters never win. The same principles apply in procurement. Sometimes you feel that it’s insurmountable, or too big to make real changes, or there’s no management support, or there are budget constraints or lack of resources and good talent. You should not quit.

10. Celebrate success

Oh, you should have seen the sheer pleasure, celebration and feeling of gratitude when the runners crossed the finish line. It’s unbelievable! Procurement organisations should also learn to celebrate success. When you save millions for your company, you should make noise about it. When you contribute to production and hence earlier market entry than your competition, you should celebrate. When you mitigate key supply chain risk and maintain production even during supply shortfalls, you should celebrate. Marketing, HR, finance and commercial does it better. Procurement needs to make noise about its successes in contributing to the bottom line. For me, I am celebrating my success, finishing the RAK half marathon in two hours!

☛ Jonathan Tungu is a senior manager, procurement operations & SRM at TECOM Group, Dubai, and a part-time lecturer in procurement at the University of Dubai.

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