Customer Q&A with Rob Webb

28 October 2021 by Mat Oram

Who are you, and what do you do across your various roles?
My name is Rob Webb, and I am the Director of Procurement for our ICS, Bath Swindon and Wiltshire. I look after the procurement at the three acute hospitals that sit across our region: RUH Bath, Great Western Hospitals and Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust. I also look after the community side through Wiltshire Health and Care, so we do their procurement as well. We’re a fairly well-established team, and it is my responsibility to set the annual business plan that we get signed off by the Directors of Finance across the region.
What does your average day look like?
It can be anything to be honest. The role is so wide and varied, you can end up starting with a conversation with a Director of Finance and talking about strategy, where we’re going and how we’re developing the service, and an hour later I could be having a conversation about a PPE item. It can go from strategic to operational quite rapidly.
How long have you worked for the NHS?

Around ten years. Before that, I was working for Coca-Cola, then came to the NHS to work for Sailsbury. Since then, my role has really grown — taking over Great Western Hospitals procurement, and then very recently RUH Bath as well.
How does the commercial and private sector differ from working in the NHS?
One of the biggest differences is the level of resource. There is so much more resource in the private sector than there is in the NHS. I also think that NHS trusts tend to be very reactive, there isn’t as much planning and teams are often pulled from pillar to post.

What are the main challenges you face in your role?
One of my main challenges is the number of staff we have available. We often struggle to recruit good candidates because of the salaries in the NHS compared to the wider procurement market, and so often we run with quite a few vacancies. Another challenge is how to integrate three separate teams across three separate sites, and get them functioning as one function, rather than as three independent elements.
How long have you been working with AdviseInc?

Five or six years, when AdviseInc was established. I initially started working with them on a national-level, when they did the National Tool, and from there we started having more conversations about what the company could support us with on a regional-basis. What I like about working with AdviseInc is that they do what they say they will do. If they can’t do something, they will say it, and if they can do it, they will do it. Having that honest, pragmatic relationship is really valuable to us.

How has the Procurement Dashboard benefitted you?
We have a plan that all of our teams work to, and from that they have to build-in value that they’re going to create for each of the trusts — whether it be savings, cost-avoidance, standardisation of items, or whatever else. We use the Procurement Dashboard to identify opportunities, to see if other trusts are getting a better price than us on certain items, through to building what we call Situation Target Proposal (STP). STP is essentially a strategy document that shows you all of the spend from a certain category, what you can do in terms of standardisation and aggregation, and some of the opportunities that fall out of the bottom, and there will be a number of projects that come out of that and locked into our work plan to deliver value for the trust.

We also use it for a lot of operational elements, for instance, looking at catalogue compliance and looking at where we can improve contractual coverage, so it’s not just on the savings element. It gives us a level of information we otherwise wouldn’t have; across our ICS, each of the three trusts use different finance and accounting systems, but we can put the data from each of them into the Procurement Dashboard and make comparisons, and look at the variance in prices between them. It gives us a plethora of information and transparency we wouldn’t usually have. We’ve got fairly high ambitions about what we want to do with our information and data, and AdviseInc is pivotal to that in terms of how to use it in the best way and present it in the best way, so that we can make informed decisions.

Do you think procurement data and analytics are used effectively across the NHS?
Not as well as they could be. Across the board, the NHS doesn’t have the resources and skills to call upon. I think there is a good baseline of information and competency, and I think a lot of people are very good at doing price comparison, but I don’t think people are particularly good at drilling into the information that they’ve got. You still need to be skilled and know how to manipulate that data into something meaningful. AdviseInc has gone above and beyond, helping us to drill into our information and telling us where the opportunities are.

What is holding other Heads of Procurement back from working with companies like AdviseInc?
We’ve been quite innovative in terms of how we have unlocked money for it, and we’ve always looked at it as a spend to save initiative. On the whole, our Directors of Finance aren’t shy of putting in some money if they think they are going to get a return out of it, and from the get-go we have always said that AdviseInc is essential to our ICS procurement strategy. This isn’t always the case. It is also important to remember that over the past few years, everything has been operationally focused, and many people haven’t had the headspace to explore different ways of looking at data and information. I’m very lucky to have a good team, who have managed to find the time to push forwards with our plans and keep the conversation open with our Directors of Finance.

What are the main frustrations of the Procurement Leads you speak with?
Each ICS has its own challenges, but many share the same frustrations. We’ve been quite lucky because we started working with AdviseInc way before ICSs came along. So I think the frustrations many people are having are the frustrations we were having three or four years ago, where trusts are working independently and the regions really aren’t joined-up in their approach to procurement. Until very recently most ICSs didn’t even have a clear Procurement Lead. Now most of them now do, but there is still no clear strategy across the ICSs as a whole. It is really challenging for procurement until an ICS is clear on its clinically-led strategy.

Do you feel like you’re getting enough support from the centre?
It’s fair to say they do support us. They’ve obviously got a clear roadmap for each region, and they’re asking us to work through that, and we have to report on a monthly basis for that too. But the question is: are we focusing on the right things to make it happen? In terms of the support, they offer a very light-touch approach, which is just reporting on a monthly basis, or they will give some intense support to accelerate progress.

What is the biggest difference between being a Head of Procurement for a single trust 
and being the Head of Procurement for an ICS?
The biggest difference is trying to manage what is technically a virtual team and balance resources across multiple trusts. You are very visible when you’re working on one site, and information can be found quite quickly, but when you are the Head of Procurement for an ICS, the process is much more laborious and you need to factor in the competing priorities, with more than one Director of Finance wanting a piece of you and your service. That’s why we’re really excited for Control Tower because it will provide us with a work plan, an inventory management dashboard, a contract database, and it will improve our catalogue process flow. Now we are all remote working, having access to this level of rich information is paramount because when you’re working across multiple trusts, getting consistent data in the same format is your biggest challenge, and critical to making informed decisions.

How have you contributed to the development of Control Tower?
We have monthly calls with AdviseInc, and we were talking about ICS development and how valuable it would be to have the data from multiple trust sites in one place. As the conversation progressed, we began speaking about doing more than price-benchmarking, and exploring the possibility of cutting and manipulating data in a better way. It was mainly around catalogues, contract management, spend analytics, inventory management, operational procurement, and then ultimately having a work plan so we can see who is working on what at any given time across the ICS. Once AdviseInc developed the concept for Control Tower, it became pivotal to our strategy. We saw it as an essential solution for driving efficiency into our team and releasing the amount of time spent completing mundane tasks. In terms of working with them on the development, we wanted to be a part of this project because it gives us the potential to shape it. AdviseInc has been great to work with, they really listen to their customers and they don’t have a preconceived idea of what it has to look like.

When will you go live with Control Tower?
We don’t have a date in mind, but I’d like to think that by the beginning of the next financial year we will have some really strong elements of Control Tower in use. We’ve already got the catalogue management piece, and we’re very close to having the inventory management dashboard ready. It is easier to embed new workflows if you introduce them incrementally, so we are building the modules as we go, and the training that goes alongside the rollout will be critical to the success of the overall project.

Will you be sharing your experiences with other ICSs?
We’re always happy to share our experiences, good and bad. This attitude underpins our internal governance. With any big procurement project, we always have a reflective meeting at the end of it. This helps us to understand what we might have done differently, or what we can learn for next time. It is critical for the continuous improvement element that we are trying to embed and move forwards with.

What advice would you give to other Heads of Procurement managing the transition to ICSs?
Each ICS will try to come up with its own way to tackle the challenges it faces. Our way is that we have no interest in having a single finance system, so for us, using Control Tower is the most effective way to tackle our environment. If the vision of where we are trying to get to with Control Tower works, it will give us the transparency to make better and informed decisions, and it will make us much more fluid and focused as a procurement service.
More generally, I think it is important to sell your vision of where you want procurement to be and push it onto the agenda. It’s all about where you take the conversation — you have to keep pushing the conversation about procurement, otherwise it will be overlooked. At our ICS, we have engaged the three Directors of Finance to have a monthly meeting to discuss procurement transformation, which they have really bought into.

How do you see your relationship with AdviseInc evolving from here?
Hopefully, the relationship develops and they become an intrinsic partner. We all have a lot of respect for AdviseInc, and we want them to become an extension of our team.

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