Purchasing Innovation III: The Verifier Approach

In yesterday’s post, I introduced you to TRIZ and the benefits it can provide across your organization. In this post, I’d like to introduce you to another methodology, hailing from the great halls of science, or at least the hall of a researcher trying to find a general purpose equivalent to the scientific method. Called the verifier approach, it may be of use to an innovative sourcing professional looking for new tips and tricks to solve problems, conduct thorough analyses, and help out the organization as a whole.

The verifier approach, which may have found its first recognition for its role in cracking the 400-year-old mystery of the Voynich Manuscript, was first served up to the masses in a 2004 Wired magazine article entitled Scientific Method Man. Shortly after Gordon Rugg, the inventor, and his co-authors, Joanne Hyde, Marian Petre, & Aspassia Daskalopulu released a short paper entitled Verification of Expertise and Reasoning that explored it more in depth.

The verifier approach is a seven-step methodology designed to solve problems that remain unsolved after the application of more traditional approaches. In its simplest form, the verifier approach may be applied to a problem using the follow methodology:

  1. amass a knowledge of the discipline through interviews and reading,
  2. determine whether critical expertise has yet to be applied in the field,
  3. look for bias and mistakenly held assumptions in the research,
  4. analyze jargon to uncover differing definitions of key terms,
  5. check for classic mistakes using human-error tools,
  6. follow the errors and gaps as they ripple through underlying assumptions, and
  7. suggest avenues for research that emerge from steps one through six.

Like TRIZ, the foundations of the approach is that you should be able to use one problem solving kit to solve a multitude of problems. Experts might want to believe that their domain is unique, requiring specialized tools, approaches and thinking, but with the possible exception of physical tools, it is becoming apparent that this is rarely the case. Also, unlike other methods, one of the focal points of the methods is focusing on that which is commonly overlooked. However, unlike TRIZ, which does not provide much insight into where to look for general solutions or methodologies to translate those general solutions into specific technical solutions, it provides a methodology that can be used to zero in on the analyses most likely to lead to success.

The harsh reality is that most areas of specialization, and their experts, have “expertise gaps”, especially in academia and research labs. Although academic and research institutions want top-notch people, and offer incentives to attract and groom top-caliber experts, the only way for a young researcher to get noticed as an expert is for her to carve out a niche and confine her interests to a (very) narrow field of study. To quote the Wired article, “it’s not enough to work in spinal cord regeneration; it must be stem cell-based solutions to the problem“. These young researchers eventually become true experts in their narrow field of study, but their knowledge of related areas decreases exponentially the further away they get from their specialty. Thus, their knowledge of possible solutions – including what has been tried, what has not been tried, and what was never properly examined in the first place – is often quite limited even in the field in which they work.

In steps one and two of the verifier approach, you are working to map out the universe of knowledge on the subject to determine if there is an area of the map that is murky or empty. If there is, then identifying what is missing might be the key observation that leads to actually solving the problem. Furthermore, if all the experts agree that the murky or empty area of the map belongs to another research domain, chances are the perceived gap is very real. Filling it in might provide the expertise you need to solve your problem.

In step three, you try to identify researcher bias or assumptions that are commonly held but never validated or outright incorrect, in step four you analyze the jargon to determine if different researchers in the field have differing definitions of key terms, and in step five you check for classic mistakes. If the universe of knowledge that you built up in steps one and two appears more-or-less complete, but you still do not have a solution to your problem, chances are the universe of knowledge is incomplete due to the acceptance of mistaken assumptions, classic mistakes, or inconsistent term usage.

In step six, you follow the errors and gaps that resulted from your analysis in the previous steps and then, finally, in step seven you suggest research directions that emerged from your investigation.

So how does this help you, a sourcing professional, in your daily tasks when the methodology was clearly designed to attack problems in scientific domains? It provides a methodology you can follow when you have to make difficult sourcing decisions and it provides a methodology you can use to guide R&D in their analysis of alternatives when a new product is being launched (because their first choice is too expensive, for example).

One example where this could be applied is value-based global sourcing. For example, maybe your boss is all hot to jump on this “Low Cost Country Sourcing” craze because of the common belief that costs could be cut by as much as two thirds. Furthermore, let us assume that you are a major US provider of a new programmable electronic toy (via a PC) trying to outsource customer support for your offering. An unenlightened sourcing manager would probably read a few articles, determine that most educated people in India speak decent English, surmise that the costs of maintaining a call center in India is significantly less then maintaining one in North America, conclude that India produces a significant number of technical graduates, and then hold a simple sourcing event to qualify potential global suppliers, including a large number of Indian suppliers, to select the lowest cost alternative, which would likely turn out to be located in India.

But this failure to follow a well defined research or problem solving methodology might cause this unenlightened sourcing professional to overlook a number of key factors. While cost per headcount in the outsourced center might be significantly less, management costs would be significantly more. In addition to project management and the up front training costs, you have the costs associated with regular oversight to make sure that the call center reps are actually solving the customer’s problem. In addition, the reality is that although India, like China, churns out a high number of technology graduates a year, an in depth review will indicate that many of these degrees are barely equivalent to North American vocational / college / associate’s degrees and that the number of graduates suitable to work in a multi-national corporation could be as low as 1/10th of the educated population – increasing the amount of work you need to do to make sure the organization is up-to-snuff. (This last stat is especially true with respect to China.) Then, when you factor in the possible gap in quality and the potential decrease in your customer base and future sales that this quality gap could lead to, the overall costs might not be that much less then a near-sourcing solution and the risks substantially higher. (Especially when you could near-source to Halifax, Canada, for example.)

If you followed the basic precepts of the verifier approach, you would collect as many recent, relevant reports, articles, and studies on Low Cost Country sourcing and India as you could, organize it into R&D, production, and services, analyze the data on the existing services, and determine how much data, if any, is directly or indirectly relevant to the specific service(s) you want to outsource. You would then hire an expert research group to help you fill in the gaps, separate bias and assumptions from hard facts and statistics, determine what factors are truly relevant, and what their associated costs are. You would then be in a position to make a solid Total Value Management based analysis and come up with the right answer, be it opening an India office headed by the right expertise or near-sourcing to a low cost center in your Canadian neighbor. Fully informed, you’d make the best possible decision, guided by a holistic approach that left no stone unturned!

For more ideas on how to innovate your purchasing – and your sourcing – see the Next Generation Sourcing wiki-paper over on the e-Sourcing Wiki.

Still quiet here.sas

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