Debriefings – Get the Facts

May 22, 2007 on 5:55 pm | In Bids and Proposals | Comments Off

A client called today to let me know that a $6 million proposal they had submitted had been lost to a higher priced offeror. Their concern was twofold. First, they had been told that they had not met the technical requirements. Second they were told that they had not assured the government that they would meet the delivery schedule. What were their options?

Now it’s important to note that I had never read the solicitation, had not participated in their proposal process, and had not been provided a copy of their proposal. I have no idea if they followed my usual advice to create a solicitation compliance matrix to ensure that they had in fact (and could prove) that they had met each and every RFP requirement. In other words, the evaluation may be 100% accurate. But I had no way of knowing that.

My first suggestion was that they request a debriefing, and that they do so immediately. Why immediately? According to regulations, a debriefing is to be provided to assist the offeror in learning how to provide a better response to this contracting office in the future. But we all know that there are additional reasons to get a debriefing. The most important alternate reason is to preserve any rights that you might have with a timely protest – the biggest benefit of which could be the prevention or cessation of performance until the protest is settled. While the agency has certain “override” authority even in the face of a protest, it is important to do what you can to preserve your rights and options.

How do you request a debriefing? Simply put it in writing! But there is an art to crafting such a request. You want to provide the reasons for the debriefing and a brief description of why you believe that a mistake might have been made. In this case the supplies being furnished were the exact same part number and manufacturer as the one offered by the successful offeror! How could they be technically compliant for one offeror, but not for the other? Worthwhile question to ask. Further the offeror could point to three places in their proposal where they provided information on the delivery schedule and their ability to meet it. Curious that the government would not have seen that.

We reviewed the draft letter for the client, and added language that softened the tone, but made clear that if satisfactory explanations could not be provided the client was prepared to go to the next step – filing a formal protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO). They dispatched the letter this afternoon and are awaiting an answer.

Why is all of this important? Agencies do make mistakes, and it is always best to give them a chance to either correct it or to provide an explanation for their actions and decisions. It is relatively inexpensive to file a protest, but responding to the agency’s report to the GAO can begin to raise the costs considerably and quickly. If a hearing is held (usually in DC) the costs climb proportionately. If an agency has truly done something wrong in the procurement process, GAO is a reasonable and effective review option. But start with the debriefing. Get the facts. Even if you disagree with the decision, at least understand why the agency believes its decision was sound. Occasionally the agency takes a position at this stage that “locks them in” to a basis for their action; giving them no chance to change their story when they think of a better one later. But be courteous, allow them a reasonable out if they have made a mistake, and don’t forget that the REAL reason for a debriefing is to learn how to prepare better proposals for THIS customer. Even if a protest is not the ultimate objective, a debriefing should always be requested. There is a lot you can learn and put to use on future proposals.

Are Leaders Born or Made?

May 21, 2007 on 6:51 am | In Leadership | Comments Off

When you look at the literature, there are numerous “lists” of what to look for when trying to find (or define) a leader. Without belaboring all of them, the more recent leadership tomes suggest that “leadership” is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. A person who excels in one area of leadership, for example teaching Sunday school, might not succeed as a Donald Trump, and vice versa. In some cases there is a lack of the necessary knowledge about the subject matter (do you think Trump could teach Sunday school?) but it also has to do with credibility, confidence, and other traits that both business writers and psychologists have suggested. The things that made Patton a great military leader are not necessarily the same traits or behaviors that made the Beatles leaders in the world of pop music. Leadership is often situational – as when a leader is discovered because of a crisis. Many leaders (and heroes) were “born” on 9/11, for example.

If you accept that leaders are born, then what is the use of all of the books and training that is going on trying to teach people how to be a leader? If it comes only from a natural, innate “gift” that you either have or you don’t, the rest of us are just wasting our time trying to learn it. You can certainly learn to be an expert in any given subject matter, and you can learn various behaviors (such as negotiation skills, discipline of employees, mentoring, decision making, self discipline, etc.) that are traditionally attributed to leaders. The bottom line is, if you have people around you who choose to follow you, then you are a leader. Break their trust, and you lose the privilege of leading them. And as John Maxwell teaches us, one of the most important traits of a leader is the ability to develop those around them into leaders as well – at all levels of the organization. If leadership cannot be learned, he, too, has just been wasting his time telling us that!

It is certainly true that some of these behaviors are more easily and readily adopted by those we sometimes perceive as “natural” leaders, but I have also seen very charismatic people develop a following when in fact they were terrible leaders (and pretty awful people as well!). And with effort and dedication, I have also seen people who appear to have very little “natural” leadership talent develop themselves into very dynamic and productive leaders. And as noted by another commentator, having the desire to lead has a lot to do with whether a person will devote themselves to the process of developing themselves into leaders.

One of the best recent books on the topic is Goffee and Jones’ Why Should Anyone be Led by You?, and I strongly recommend it for anyone who wants to understand this dynamic and learn more about what it takes to be an effective (note, I use that word rather than “successful”) leader. My bottom line on this topic is that leaders are made, not born, but the traits that make people great leaders often come more easily to some than to others.

How to Manage Past Performance

May 12, 2007 on 8:43 pm | In Bids and Proposals | Comments Off

One question I get frequently has to do with a company’s past performance. With the government attempting to use more commercial practices, while balancing that with the need to protect the public dollars through competitive sourcing, one (partial) solution is to put greater emphasis on past performance. In this way, contractors who have done well will be “rewarded” with a better competitive score than those contractors who have a poor performance record. According to FAR, (see below) if you have NO past performance, you are to receive a neutral rating on past performance. The idea behind that stroke of wisdom was to encourage new players to enter the market. In fact, any contracting officer who has equally scored (technical) proposals will ALWAYS go with the vendor that can demonstrate successful past performance since having quality vendors will always be “in the government’s” best interests. So while the regulation SAYS that you will not be down-graded for lacking experience, the reality is that you will be.

So how do you establish and protect a good past performance record? We are going to start with the assumption that you actually HAVE performed well in your past contracts. If not, then this advice is not going to help you. The best way to document your past performance is to set up a file in your computer that records EVERY task you have successfully accomplished in the last three years. Most past performance requests are limited to the past three years. Typically as well they will ask that the task be of the same “size and complexity” as the one being solicited. Make sure that you record the contract number, its value, its dates of performance, and who the technical monitor(s) and contracting officer(s) were. For these points of contact record the email, the mailing address, the phone number (including mobile if you have it) and a fax number. Additionally, try to get a central number for the contracting shop. People have a bad habit of moving or retiring and it can become difficult to locate them. Then in as much detail as possible, describe EVERYTHING that you did to perform that contract. Why all this detail? Well, very few future jobs will be EXACTLY like this one, but if you can capture enough pieces and parts of past jobs so that it looks like the current opportunity, you are in much better shape.

FAR also permits the contracting officer to consider other relevant experience by stating that “The evaluation should take into account past performance information regarding predecessor companies, key personnel who have relevant experience, or subcontractors that will perform major or critical aspects of the requirement when such information is relevant to the instant acquisition.” FAR 15.305(a)(2)(iii). So make sure that your database captures these elements as well.

When you are ready to respond to a specific solicitation, drag this file out and review it for anything that looks, sounds, or smells similar. From this detailed description, boil it down into the salient points that relate as directly as possible to the current statement of work (SOW). Try very hard not to overstate your accomplishments, but by all means frame it in the best possible light.

Now – a key step that is too often overlooked. Contact each and every person listed in this tailored write-up and VERIFY that they agree with what you have said. If not, clarify the details and if you can’t come to agreement – DON’T use that reference. This process gives you the additional opportunity to renew old acquaintances and do a little marketing, even if it just to let them know that you are still active in the business and constantly seeking new opportunities. If in fact they are NOT happy with your past performance, this gives you an opportunity to mend some customer relations.

Every project (and a contract is a “project” by Project Management Institute definitions) should have a lessons learned document in the close-out file. The update of the “past performance database” (or whatever you call it) should also be mandated by your company procedures. Remember – no job is done until the paperwork is complete, and that is particularly true for government work. Keep this past performance list current. It allows you to respond much more quickly, accurately and completely to a request for past performance references. Do it NOW. Don’t wait until you need it – then will be too late.

FAR Reference: FAR 15.305(a)(2)(iv) In the case of an offeror without a record of relevant past performance or for whom information on past performance is not available, the offeror may not be evaluated favorably or unfavorably on past performance.

Additional questions? Go to www.Ask-Tom-Reid.com and let me know!

Are You Staying Current?

May 11, 2007 on 8:28 am | In The Profession | Comments Off

If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.
Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)
16th U.S. President

We are presently waiting on an announcement concerning a competition we have entered. The task will be to conduct six one-day training sessions for a federal agency on ethics This is a curse we have taught many times in different forums and formats, but this one, like all the ones before it, has its own differences and client expectations. Thus, now that we have submitted the proposal we have two choices. We can simply rest on our proposal and wait for the announcement. If we win, we have 15 days to provide a final course syllabus. If we lose, then we need do nothing but focus on the next opportunity. Alternatively we could begin constructing that syllabus in accordance with the RFP guidance. If we win, we will be well on our way to meeting the first deliverable. If we loose – well perhaps we have just wasted our time. Either way, because this is pre-award, there will be no cost recovery for any of the time spent doing this

But we don’t view it that way. Certainly it will be to our advantage to be prepared to perform, but even if we do not win the competition we do not view the time as wasted. Since we teach ethics often (for one recent example, check out the presentation we did at the NCMA World Congress in Dallas in April 2007, available here), we never consider a review of our materials or the preparation of templates and content as wasted time. What this does is prepare us to teach this class or any other with related course material. We improve our content, enhance the teaching methods, improve the teacher notes, and develop new innovative ways to present the material to an adult audience. In other words, we are spending time sharpening our saw. If you are a student of Covey, you see the similarity in his seventh habit of highly successful people – Sharpen the Saw.

What have you done today to sharpen your saw? Have you signed up for a training class? Have you reviewed the most recent advance sheets related to your profession? Have you sought out a colleague to discuss a particular issue? The important thing is to do something every day. Motivational teacher Brian Tracy has observed that there are some things you must do every day – eating seven apples on Saturday night is not going to cut it! That is very insightful.

Take time today to sharpen your saw. Do the same thing tomorrow…and the next day…and the next. Never let up. Stay on top of your game.

How Good is Your Accounting System?

May 4, 2007 on 11:23 am | In Cost Accounting Issues | 1 Comment

Companies that do business with the government are required to have an accounting system that is adequate for the types of contracts awarded. For fixed price contracts a relatively minimal accounting system is necessary. There is no requirement that costs be accumulated on any particular basis and the various costs do not need to be allocated to specific projects or segregated in any particular way. When the contract work is performed, the full fixed price is paid and whether there was a profit or loss on the contract is of no real concern of the government.

When cost-type contracts are awarded, however, the government requires that the contractor have an accounting system that can properly track the costs attributable to each project. The key is to make sure that the costs charged against the cost-type contracts are reasonable, allowable, and allocable. The accounting system itself must be audited by the government, usually the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), to verify that it works properly and has the proper controls in place to ensure that government is billed ONLY for those costs that are reasonable, allocable and allowable. Beyond this system verification, the government will also audit invoices and charging practices to ensure that it is paying only for what it agreed to pay. Since the government refuses to pay for certain normal business expenses (advertising for one example), some companies find that they need to actually have two separate accounting systems in place – one for government work and one for their commercial work.

Many companies avoid these issues by refusing to accept anything other than firm fixed price work; others recognize that their government business base can be expanded if the also accept cost-type contracts. In many respects cost-type work carries less risk, at least in terms of the total cost to perform, to the contractor. But as the example of needing an adequate accounting system shows, the management of such contracts becomes more complex.

In a very recent (like yesterday!) Government Accountability Office (GAO) bid protest decisions, several key points were made that are instructive for the growing firm that is looking to move into cost-type contracting. First, the accounting system MUST be approved by the government through a proper system audit. Merely having an accounting software package that typically suffices is not sufficient. You have to actually install and test the system. Some companies attempt to take a shortcut and either not purchase or not install certain modules of large software packages. So merely HAVING it does not mean that you are USING it!

Secondly, the software package is only one piece of the system. If you do not have the procedures and disciplines in place to make sure that the costs are properly recorded in the first instance it will not pass an audit.

Third, under the provisions of FAR § 16.301-3(a)(1), a cost-reimbursement contract may be used only when a contractor’s accounting system is adequate for determining costs applicable to the contract and appropriate Government surveillance during performance will provide reasonable assurance that efficient methods and effective cost controls are used. Thus the accounting system has to already exist and be verified before costs start accumulating against the project. It is not something that allows you to play “catch-up”.

In this GAO case, the protestor asserted that, even though it did not have a verified accounting system, the agency erred in rejecting its proposal because the firm met the RFP’s requirements through its use of the Deltek accounting system, submission of provisional billing rates to DCAA for audit, and current contracts with cost-reimbursable-type task orders. None of this met the standard of having a verified accounting system, said GAO, especially since the contract the protestor referenced that had cost-type task orders under also had specific language that said THIS contractor could not perform cost-type tasks because it did not have an adequate accounting system!. Only through audit by a government entity can an adequate accounting system for purposes of permitting cost-type contracting be determined.  Further, GAO noted, having a verified estimating system is different than having a verified cost accounting system.

Cost accounting software can be expensive, but it does not have to be excessively so. Elsewhere in the FAR contracting officers are cautioned against forcing contractors to have overly elaborate accounting systems “just-in-case” it might come in handy, such as in the event of a termination. Still, those contractors wishing to grow their government business must accept that there are some front-end costs in getting their accounting system in shape and verified before the first time they get to use it.
Matter of A-TEK, Inc.,  B-299557,  May 3, 2007.

A Tribute to Military Wives

May 1, 2007 on 4:21 pm | In Tributes | Comments Off

A friend recently sent me the following tribute to military wives. While it is true that people fall in love and marry for reasons other than the profession of the spouse, it is also true that many serving in overseas conflicts are NOT professional soldiers in that this is all they do. They are accountants, truck drivers, lawyers, and countless other professions that are serving in the military reserves and who have been pressed into service in their “other” profession as soldiers.

 And it is a bit chauvinistic to focus this entirely on wives; there are many women serving who have left their homes and children to the care of their husband. Still the sentiment is genuine. There are many home-based heroes in any military conflict and today we want to pay tribute to them.

The military is not the only beneficiary of the work of contracting professionals, but they are certainly the biggest customer. We owe it to our men and women in uniform, as well as the other contractors who often serve side-by-side with the military, to get them the best possible goods and services on time, on budget, and performing as required. It is an important job, with many complex rules and requirements, performed thousands of times every day by dedicated government contracting professionals in support of our military.

So with that in mind, here is the tribute to the stay-at home spouses for our men and women serving overseas:

I would like to recognize these often underestimated, unseen, and unheard heroes.

This is for the sad military wives, the angry military wives, and the strong military wives.

This is for the young women that are waking up at 6 a.m. every morning, laying out clothes and packing three lunches for those small precious children that they have been left alone to care for.

This is for the pregnant military wife wondering if her husband will make it home in time to watch their miracle happen

This is for the childless military wife, living in a town or on a base alone where she is a complete stranger to her surroundings.

This is for the women that feel like a third leg when they go out with their friends and their husbands.

This is for the military wife that canceled all her plans to wait by the phone, and even though the phone broke up and cut off every time you spoke to him you waited anyway.

This is a pledge to the women that cry themselves to sleep in an empty bed.

This is to recognize the woman that felt like she was dying inside when he said he had to go, but smiled for him anyway.

This is for those of you that are faithfully in that long line at the post office once a month, handling 2 large boxes and 2 small children like a pro.

This is for that woman that decided to remodel the house to pass time, and then realized that she had no idea what she was doing and sighed and wished she had a little help.

This is for all the lonely nights, all the one-person dinners, and all of the wondering thoughts because you haven’t heard from him in days.

A toast to you for falling apart and putting yourselves back together. Because a pay check isn’t enough, a body pillow in your bed is no consolation, and a web cam can never compare.

This is for all of you no matter how easy or hard this was for you. Our marines/soldiers/airmen/sailors/coast men are brave, they are heroes, but so are we.

So the next time someone tells you that they would never marry a military guy, don’t bother explaining to them that you can’t control who you fall in love with. Just think of this and nod your head, know that you are the stronger woman.

Hold your heads up high, hang that flag in your front yard, stick 100 magnets on your car, and then give yourself a pat on the back.

If you are a military spouse or know a military spouse, this is for you whether you are the husband or the wife, or even the grandparent who has had to step in and support the fighting man or woman. We salute you; we applaud you; we thank you!

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