Working at the sharp end

Partner Tony Milton shares his perspectives on the similarities between making a razor and undertaking a sourcing programme.

You might be thinking "What on earth have these very different activities got in common and why am I reading this?" On the face of it, sourcing advisory and bladesmithing seemingly have little in common. However, when I’ve been in my forge – or at the negotiation table – the similarities often appear much more frequently than expected.

The reason for writing this rather than the usual “dry” sourcing articles is that I’m certain that no one has ever googled 'similarities between blade smithing and sourcing advisory services'. They haven't, I checked. I wanted this article to be innovative, thought provoking and to share some insights, rather than simply regurgitating what many of us already know.

Iterative steps, but never a definitive process

There are 10 key steps in the making of a straight razor before it’s shave ready. Each step takes a different amount of time and involves different skills. No steps are optional and there’s no way of changing the order. They are all essential and each must succeed in order to proceed to the next step. The key point is that each step never takes the same amount of time – it’s always a unique exercise. And if you execute any step poorly, you'll fail. Like sourcing, cutting corners may have seemingly limited impact until right at the end of the process when you realise that huge amounts of effort have been wasted and the end product is unviable.

My personal approach to sourcing has always been to execute the necessary steps, in the right order, whilst applying the appropriate level of focus to ensure that long term benefit realisation remains at the forefront. Speed is determined by both the client and complexity level of the engagement and must be respectful of the timings and constraints under which the service provider community operates. Far too often seemingly quick processes introduce compromises and complexities which manifest themselves close to contract signature, or worse, after. We’ve always found that our values of trust, honesty, integrity and simplicity ensure corners are never cut and our clients achieve their vision, strategy and objectives without fuss.

Neither art or science

Though process / step-driven, making a blade, like sourcing and negotiating a world-class deal is neither an art nor a science - it's a mix of both. There is no handbook on how to form a strong, mutually trust-based relationship. Failing to recognise that is a good way to fail. The softer stuff like the relationship, the reading of the room etc is every bit as important as completing a solution using the correct baselines.

There are so many factors / skills at play which determine whether it's science or an art. In blade-smithing, heat treating / tempering determines the hardness of the steel and is pure science. There is no art, there is no deviation from the process of correct temperate, time and quench. However, forging the rough shape of the blade is all art, it's all 'in the eye' of the maker where it's possible to make it a little longer, a little wider, or a little thinner etc.

That said, every contract is different. Every customer is different. Every supplier is different. Every handmade blade is different. We should respect that maybe 80% of the activity in both disciplines is scientific. But the 20% art is what makes the difference between the creation of something that may appear acceptable from a distance but in reality fails to function as expected, or provide the long term value that is desired and critical for the success of the client’s strategy.

Focus on the detail

The end result of bladesmithing should be a blade that looks good, feels good and cuts well. However, the edge, which represents perhaps 0.01% of the overall blade, is the area that “makes or breaks” it. My personal fascination is that all the effort to create the blade is to provide the support mechanism for this tiniest of areas and that despite the robustness of the steel, the edge is inherently delicate. Not treating it with care and respect can easily damage it to the point where it requires significant work by an appropriate expert to repair it.

Sourcing is similar. Many months of effort are expended developing and clarifying requirements, developing responses and negotiating a contract. Yet one poorly constructed sentence, a simple omission or a clumsy definition or metric can destroy a deal. However, unlike a blade, it often takes time for the anomaly to surface and the time and effort to repair can be exceptional. My advice has always been simple: focus on the detail, invest in your relationship and maintain it ongoing rather than waiting for it to become blunt and hence require major, avoidable and expensive maintenance.

A long term investment

Kamisori Japanese razors are my favourite thing to make. Once made, they last a lifetime. Nothing is thrown away, nothing is wasted. Obviously there is the initial cost, but studies show that a traditional razor is 20 times less expensive than using disposables. So, it's cheaper, a great deal better for the environment, you get a wonderful shave, no shave rash, and it's a pleasurable experience.

With this in mind, why isn't everyone using one? My personal view is that I think it's a combination of initial cost, fear and the 'what difference will it really make' statement. On an individual basis, perhaps not a lot. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that in the U.S alone that 2 billion disposable razors are thrown away every year – enough to circle the earth six times.

Sustainability in sourcing contracts has been 'a thing' for many years now. However, in the last few years, organisations have begun to recognise that they have to take positive action rather than paying it lip service. Similarly, suppliers are putting sustainability at the forefront of many of their offerings and starting to include sustainability metrics and commitments.

Since our inception, This Partners has actively encouraged a “long term, tread gently” approach to sourcing, actively encouraging clients to view any deal as the start of a much longer-term relationship. Any long-term deal should of course be fully supportive of the client’s goals and aspirations, including those related to sustainability. Our experience is that by taking a long-term approach to sourcing, the overall costs, organisational impact and risks, as well as the solution and associated customer experience, are inherently more positive, which in turn generates much greater levels of long term business value.

In conclusion

I think it’s fair to say that there is one certainty which is applicable to both IT sourcing and bladesmithing: by following the steps, in the right order, and applying the necessary levels of 'art and science', the end result will be extremely satisfying and create something that provides long term value. And conversely, cutting corners, rushing and focusing on short term gain are guaranteed to generate something that will not stand the test of time.

And of course, if you want to invest in a razor, forged by hand by yours truly in the few moments of spare time that I have, please feel free to contact me on: