Procurement consulting

Sourcing Innovation: Circumventing the Box

Inspired by Stacey Skrysak’s recent post dealing with prematurity and infant loss, which touches a special heartstring for us at the WDG, we’ve dug out this piece from a few years ago, which celebrates the way innovation in procurement and supply chain can literally make a difference in the health of the teeniest of the teeny.

We know, we know, this one’s a little formal–perhaps we were wearing tuxedos that day…or at least eating bow tie pasta.


Dr. Mulualem Gessesse‚Äč created breathing devices for premature babies using tubing, water and oxygen.

This is the very definition of innovation, brought into wider publicity by writer John Green as part of a video log of his experiences in Ethiopia, where Dr. Gessesse practices. A neonatologist in a poorly-funded hospital in a downtrodden region, she didn’t have access to the standard infant CPAP machines that do the critical work of supporting the tiny lungs and developing respiratory responses of very premature infants. So, she built them herself. She hadn’t the budget nor the supply chain capability to meet her sourcing need in a traditional way, and clearly didn’t have the means to manufacture a traditional product locally. So, by necessity and in order to protect the young lives in her charge, she tapped wholeheartedly into a laudable example of sourcing innovation.

When a procurement challenge arises, the many concurrent variations of strategic sourcing methodology all ask that, before we launch into a negotiation effort, contracting initiative, or even an analysis of potential supply partners, we assess our need. It is a step that we do not always take the time to focus on as sourcing professionals–timelines, historical background, trends, and other factors push us forward sometimes too quickly into the act of implementation. But pausing for a deeper level of examination has significant power. What is the root of what we are trying to do? What are our true business requirements, or, better said, what do we want, and what do we need?

Crystallizing core need can allow for stunning levels of sourcing innovation. This the place in which we stop, refresh our thinking and reunite with our project’s central purpose. It’s a simple thing, really–as brief and concise as a corporate mission statement–but it can be deceptively difficult to pin down, especially in an environment of swirling timelines, twirling budgets and raucous organizational background noise. But to get there is critical, for once we understand what we need, we can begin the creative work of discovering the optimal way to get there. And suddenly, the doors to innovation swing wide.

I don’t suggest that our wants become the chaff in these situations, but for organizations with limited means and surging demand, prioritization is a critical player in the sourcing game. If we focus clearly on our core business requirements, we can ensure that the final solution is workable. Even if it’s not the luxury model on the lot, it will deliver us us to our destination safely and efficiently.

But back to innovation. The generation of strategic options is one of my very favorite elements of a sourcing initiative because, as did Dr. Gessesse, it tests the art of the possible. And, like the hospital in which she works, many small and nonprofit organizations patently lack the financial punch necessary to use the same solutions that blue chip corporations may have readily available in their options set. But that doesn’t mean that an outside-the-box solution, when backed by clear business need, can’t wield just as much power.

Embrace Global exemplifies this principal beautifully. Born as the brainchild of a few brilliant graduate students as part of an academic project at Stanford University, Embrace takes a universal need and a vastly disparate set of resources and logistics, and creates a unique invention that saves babies’ lives. The Embrace infant warmer is a portable, low-cost incubator that can be used in places with no sterile conditions or even electricity, and far away from any hospital, at a very low cost. And it’s reducing infant mortality every day.

The need here is simple–to keep preemies warm in non-clinical environments in the developing world at an accessible price point for these particular end users. Armed with this set of core needs, the Stanford team was able to circumvent traditional but unavaible approaches to the issue–such as use of conventional incubators or hospital environments as a whole–and brainstorm something completely outside the realm of what had been done before. Their sourcing solution has been a fantastic success in areas of need around the world.

Success stories such as these demonstrate the power of sourcing innovation. The best solution may indeed be one that remains to be discovered through rigorous analysis and the distillation of true need. It’s a step in the sourcing process that can fundamentally change the conversation for the better. And in the cases of the infants helped by Embrace and Dr. Gessesse, that has made all the difference.

Read more about Dr. Gessesse’s innovative approaches here.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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