Several decades ago, EDS was the first to use the term outsourcing to describe their work maintaining large mainframe computers and data centers for other firms. Today, the term outsourcing is used in different contexts to describe a full range of service arrangements. The outsourcing relationship can be with another company that performs the work within your four walls, or with an entity halfway around the globe. Outsourcing can be a successful strategy for virtually every imaginable process — from building maintenance to logistics to manufacturing to IT support to foodservice to customer service and beyond. Any process that someone else can perform better, faster, or more efficiently than you can in-house, and is not your marketplace differentiator, is a candidate for outsourcing.
No matter why a firm outsources, almost all have room for improvement. Outsourcing deals often have been structured with fundamental flaws in the business model and the relationship. The flaws result in either direct negative behaviors or unconscious behaviors that drive unintended consequences. These inherent flaws are analogous to poison that causes disease or illness. These flaws in how companies structure agreements lead to what is known as perverse incentives. A perverse incentive is "an incentive that has an unintended and undesirable effect, that is against the interest of the incentive makers. Perverse incentives by definition produce negative unintended consequences," according to Wikipedia.
A classic example is from Hanoi when a French program paid people a bounty for each rat pelt handed in. The program was intended to exterminate rats. Instead it led to the farming of rats!1
Perverse incentives in outsourcing
So how does the concept of perverse incentives relate to outsourcing? Our research has identified the most common flaws we have seen afflicting outsourcing relationships. We can think of these as diseases — illnesses or bad habits — that weaken an outsourcing relationship. A few are obvious. Most are not. One characteristic these diseases all share is that they drive perverse behaviors, leading to uncomfortable relationships and wasted opportunities for gains in efficiency.
In some cases, the disease simply causes mild symptoms, so the companies or outsource providers never bother treating the condition. They suffer the symptoms, thinking they can learn to live with them, but the symptoms soon become so debilitating that they must be treated. Or they might have no visible symptoms, such as a person with high cholesterol; but if they avoid regular health care and never are diagnosed, their disease will weaken or harm them. In the worst case, the disease is so severe that it eventually causes the death of the relationship, which causes the company to either bring the outsourced services back in-house or switch vendors.
The diseases of outsource relationships
The first step to improve the health of your outsourcing relationship is to get the proper diagnosis. Unfortunately, many organizations that are involved in an outsourcing relationship don’t always know they have a problem. This article outlines three of the most frequent flaws of outsourcing business models that lead to perverse incentives.
1. Penny wise and pound foolish
Too many companies profess to have an outsource “partnership,” but behind the scenes they focus solely on beating up their service providers on price. The danger in focusing on the cheapest offer is like anything else — you make tradeoffs in quality and/or service.
- In one extreme example, we witnessed a company re-bid its transportation services every three months. In this extreme case, the company had churned through virtually all of the top 20 suppliers during the course of a five-year period and were now forced to work with suppliers of lesser quality.
- Another company (referred to by its suppliers as the “800-Pound Gorilla”) decided to outsource all of its manufacturing to allow it to focus on its core competencies. The company went through several rounds of extreme negotiations to save the last possible dime on a book-of-business worth roughly $100 million. It awarded the work to a $1 billion outsource provider. The problem? The outsource provider “bought” the business and eventually could not sustain the losses of profit. The provider gave the 800-Pound Gorilla a 30-day notice that it would no longer manufacture its products and eventually went into bankruptcy — tanking what was once a successful and profitable $1 billion firm.
Organizations that have this disease are the ones that give outsourcing a bad name — and should not be outsourcing in the first place. Their myopic focus might have good short-term payoffs, but this approach has proved time and time again it does not pay to be penny wise and pound foolish.
2. The outsourcing paradox
Another trap that many companies fall into is developing the “perfect” set of tasks, frequencies and measures. The “experts” within the company attempt to develop the “perfect” Statement of Work (SOW). The result is an impressive document containing all the possible details on how the work is to be done. However, this “perfect system” is often the first reason why the company will fail in its outsourcing effort. That’s because it’s the company’s perfect system, not one designed by the provider of the services.
- During a site visit to a 3PL that warehouses spare parts, we saw about eight people servicing a facility that on average had less than 75 orders for spare parts per day. When asked why all the resources, the manager responded, “That is what the client company requires per our statement of work — so I have staffing at that level to meet the contract requirements.”
We continually are amazed to find that companies have chosen to outsource to the “experts,” yet define the requirements and work scope so tightly that the outsource provider winds up executing the same old inefficient processes!