Celebrating our customers: The Big Interview with Daniel Tagg

By James Dobbin, Procurement Heads

Daniel Tagg is the Deputy Director of Procurement at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. He spoke with James Dobbin about his career and the challenges the organisation has faced.

How did you get into procurement?

I didn’t set out to choose procurement as a career, like many people I fell into it. 

You go along a path where you think you are in the right job and all of a sudden you are thrust into a different job and you start buying different things you never knew anything about. 

I started out my career at a private company called Millbrook Industries, as an Estimator for them straight from college.

During my time at Millbrook’s my estimator role came to a sudden end due to the senior estimator sadly passing away suddenly which left me in a new role with no leadership, but I got on really well with the Purchasing Manager who said he had an opening so I went over to the procurement team and the rest was history as they say.

I was there for six years, picked it up really well and really got into and enjoyed the role. 

It was the variety of what I was buying for them that really sold it to me.

While I was there I bought the paint for Number 10 Downing Street door; it’s actually a spare door – if you look closely the 10 is tilted, there are actually two doors that get sanded down and re-polished and re-painted and that is why they always look immaculate in photos and on the news!

I also bought all of the leather for the Houses of Parliament and used to buy all of the cherry wood for the Sunseeker boats, so there was a whole lot of variety.

How did you get into the health care sector?

I self-funded my CIPS course while I was at Millbrook. 

I went to college in the evenings, whilst I was at college I met a lot of individuals, one of whom worked for the NHS and had just started in a new procurement function at Portsmouth Hospitals. We got on and she asked if I would like to pop in for an interview with her boss at the time.

So I went in for a chat on my way home one day and that was it! (This wouldn’t happen now).

My role was made permanent about three months later.

They trained and qualified me from that day forward and I was there for about 10 years before I moved on to other roles. It was a real grounding for me fully within the NHS. 

I am now the Deputy Director of Procurement at University College London Hospitals (ULCH) NHS Foundation Trust, which is a big difference from when I first started out as a buyer in the private sector. 

This role is more strategic and you are there to develop the staff and future work plans, driving the team outlook for the next 3-5 years with a focus on personal development plans. 

Training and development is key to whatever you do, and you need to make sure your staff are developed to their full potential to ensure you get the best out of them and yourself. 

This role is very varied, and we are developing strategies for the future with a clear focus on collaboration with our partner organisations within the NHS and local government, which is what the NHS is really about, working together for the betterment of the patient at the end of the day.

How is procurement viewed?

I would say at UCLH it has always been viewed as a very important asset for them to have, but with COVID it showed procurement in a different light and expanded perceptions on how we are seen and what we can actually achieve. 

We have had so many positive responses from clinicians, surgeons and nurses and they have said how glad they are to have had us as part of the team. They have consistently said that they never ran out of anything, they’ve never had any issues with masks, gloves, gowns and that is all down to us. 

Some hospitals have not been as fortunate as us or in the same position as we have been in. 

We are also very high on the list of recognition from the Chief Executive and Chief Nurse and they have said they really appreciate everything we are doing and continue to do.

It has given us a bigger voice at the table than we already had. 

I think for everyone within the NHS, it doesn’t really matter what organisation they are in, procurement teams have really flourished at the moment and everyone can see the value that they add to everything we do as a profession.

How do you split the function out?

The function is split into two main areas, in my role I look after all the Procurement team members and anyone who is delivering procurement activity, tendering, sourcing, market testing, data analysis, strategic outlooks, and collaborative value added benefits.

We review all the products and services via market testing routes and supplier engagement, before going out to the open market whilst adhering to the Procurement Contract Regulations, which in turn helps support all suppliers by ensuring a robust and transparent process is followed.

The other half of the team is Supply Chain, which is led by our Deputy Director of Supply Chain Adrian Buckingham, he solely looks after that side, with it being a very hands-on role, we have a great working relationship as there is a lot of crossover due to the need to put in place new products and services, which impact on supply chain delivery.

How are your direct reports split?

Each staff member in my team is called a Senior Procurement Business Partner, these individuals are focussed on their own specific areas (Corporate, Capital, Medical, and Surgical) but the role is more of a partnering approach so they have really great relationships with all the key stakeholders in their specific areas. 

It is really important to build a different approach to category management, which is very focussed on people at the heart of service with a personable approach to the product or service area, for me, that is really great because procurement is around you selling yourself and the team as a service.

How difficult do you find it to tell individuals, such as doctors that they can’t have something?

It is not that difficult, doctors want the best piece of equipment, consumable or surgical implant for their patients to make them as well as possible. 

We all know that if you have to have a pacemaker fitted there are a lot of different brands. A surgeon may want a specific brand, but what we have to find out is the clinical reason behind why they want a specific brand over another.

A lot of the suppliers have had these products in the market for many years, and we have to look at each product on its own merits and available clinical evidence to evaluate them against clear specific criteria.

It is about meeting stakeholders and taking them on a journey from where they may initially want a specific product, but we then show them the various options and outline the quality available and of course the patient feedback as well is one of the most important aspects.

We can check then with them to see it benefits the life of patient from a particular product. 

Sometimes the focus can be on the product rather than the detail and the benefit to the patient. 

There is a lot to think about and a lot of detail. 

Surgeons are really focused on the patient and sometimes you have to take them out of their comfort zone and show them different details that they may not have realised.

By taking them on a journey which provides options, and show clear benefits to the patient in terms of bed stay times (recovery) and the life of the product this may impact on the outcome of the decision, and will take into consideration the quality and value for money provided.

What challenges you and your team currently face?

We are still in the midst of the pandemic and the whole team has been very focused on PPE, gowns, masks, gloves, goggles, visors, you name it we have been buying it over the past months and also sharing it via mutual aid.

But now that we have consistent PPE stock reaching us from central government routes it has allowed the focus to shift to readiness and planning, so the challenges we currently face are switching from a very highly reactive position, and realigning to a fluid position that allows us to flex with COVID priorities whilst trying to implement a new business as normal structure.

We also need to ensure that team members get the down time they need, as we have all been flat out and require some time to decompress and relax.

What are you most passionate about in procurement?

The development of my team and self.

If you have a well-developed and highly skilled team it takes the pressure off you so much. 

It is imparting and sharing your knowledge and experience with the team. As an example in the last few months, I had several candidates who had interviews internally for a role and as part of helping them, I offered to provide them with interview preparation and techniques to help them with the process.

It was really positive and the feedback I have had from the interviewers was that the candidates came across very well prepared and that it made their job very difficult.

The refreshing part was the feedback I was provided from all the candidates in terms of how helpful the prep was and how it changed their own approach and thinking.

It was also highlighted by my boss Pia Larsen, Director of Procurement and Supply Chain at a senior team meeting about how we had done this in our team and how positive candidates had found it in supporting them in the interview process.

For me, it is giving them whatever I can to help them in their career progression and their everyday lives.

What do you think the key focus areas are for procurement right now?

For the whole of the sector, it would be back to the development piece. 

Ensuring your staff are being developed and have the opportunity for personal growth is key. The other big thing is communication and soft skills as they are in such high demand. 

We have so much interaction with stakeholders and customers that you really have to build in how they use their emotional intelligence and their soft skills to interact with others on a personal and professional level. 

How they flex themselves in different circumstances and knowing your audience is also essential. 

Some people will flourish and some will need to be taken on a tough road because sadly we are in a world where there is a lot of interaction via email, but when you take them into a face-to-face environment they fall, due to not being exposed to those social interactions early on.

It is building confidence in those areas, as you must be perceived as knowing what they are talking about. If you own the job and know the role this should come across easily as you are already doing the job.

There are also some people who hide behind the process, and instead of discussing the options they have to consider they just tell the stakeholder no. 

You really need to provide options and the pros and cons of all the different routes to market and take them on a journey to a decision which meets the needs they have.

I also find that one of the biggest areas of growth is commercial awareness. A lot of people are not that focused on the outcomes and the contract element of a procurement process, KPI’s/SLA’s, payment terms, implementation periods, reporting and data etc.

I also believe a number of individuals have a large degree of transferable skills, with the need to understand basic contract principles being essential to the growing breadth of the procurement profession.

Commercial awareness is one of the courses I helped develop in my role as Chair of the London Procurement Skill Development Networks along with a number of other key courses, that both I and the PSD team feel where needed as required skill sets for the future.

What are you doing in terms of sustainability?

We are just developing a new strategy and part of that is around sustainability and corporate social responsibility. 

What we have seen with the pandemic is that a lot of single-use products are being utilised, many of which are manufactured in China. Actually, a number of alternative products are available which are reusable, so we are trying to bring a balance between disposable and reusable product usage. Trying to reduce those which will end up going to landfill and instead buying items that can be easily cleaned, using in house decontamination units.

We have also recently provided all UCLH staff with reusable face coverings which can be used to travel to and from work, but can also be washed at home

When the pandemic started we also bought lots of reusable visors and they are still being used now. You can wash them and disinfect them fully.

What inspires you as a procurement leader?

It is to create a learning environment that at its heart creates a passion for the profession and instil within all a sense of team and personal growth.

I find that the more you grow your team the more you have to grow as an individual because your team will always be pushing ahead which means you have to also push ahead with them.

You always have to keep ahead of everyone else, with a capable team, that will push you and it helps you also push them forward.

It really invigorates me to see my team grow and expand its knowledge and experience. 

You do ultimately lose team members who have hit a point where they have been taught all they can and more in their current role and wish to take that learning to a new role, or they have been poached by someone else as they are so good..!

This just goes to show what a great team you have.

In this role, you meet so many different people and create new friends. You meet doctors, CEOs, MPs and it is up to you how far you want to push the networking side of things.

The networking part is really eye-opening and fulfilling as well.

What skills do you consider essential to be a procurement leader and what skills do you look for when you are hiring?

The team and I have been thinking about this, you can really teach people the process and put them through the training, but if they have that raw talent to be able to interact with anyone in any situation that is what is key to building successful long lasting relationships. 

You need to be able to go into a room and listen, you can go in and hear them say I need X but actually what they want is Y, and it’s your job to find out what Y is. 

You must interact with them and ask the questions and get down into the detail and understand the need and what is driving them to want what they want and understand their priorities. 

You can speak with four surgeons who all want different things, but all want the same outcome, to make the patient better.

You have to be able to interact with your team, but also that strategic interaction in the greater landscape outside of your organisation is really important.

It is taking it wider and understanding all the different pieces linking together, to give a comprehensive view point.

What is the best lesson you have learned in procurement?

This is a personal one for me, and you should always remember that you do have the ability to choose who your employer is, it’s a two way street and sometimes what you think is the dream job is actually your worst nightmare.

Get an idea of the culture and really research the organisation before going into a new role.

My other advice is to ask questions that get them to sell the role to you.

They are obviously very interested in you as you are sitting there, but they have got to sell the role to you as well.

Also just keep progressing and push yourself to be outside your comfort zone.

Procurement is so fluid in terms of new technology and regulations that you have to keep up with everything so do not become complacent. 

What advice would you give to someone embarking on a procurement career?

When you’re starting out it would be finding an organisation that wants to develop you, but who also sees the value in you working for them at the same time.

Go somewhere and stay there for a good period of time, so you get a real understanding of your role and the role of others above and to the side of you.

Undertake all the training and development offered and try and look outside of the organisation you are in in terms of learning and learn the role inside and out before you choose to leave or move up the career ladder. 

Don’t rush a role and really put the time and effort in. A lot of interview candidates I have seen in the past had only been in role for six months before wanting to take the next step, and when interviewed they couldn’t articulate the answers to the interview questions because they hadn’t had enough experience in their current role.

When you take on a new role make sure you have a 24-month training plan, detailing what they are going to offer you and what you are going to learn, once you reach that 24-month point you can review what you learnt and continue to learn or take a break.

What do you think are some of the current procurement trends or hot topics?

Some of the areas I feel haven’t really been undertaken in the NHS is around artificial intelligence and automation, especially within procurement and I think that going forward that will be a very hot topic to consider.

There will be future roles, where you need to understand the data and how you can cut and analyse it in a particular way to check you are getting the best price, value, quality, delivery times and service levels from contracts.

As part of your commercial function, you should have an area that focuses on data analytics as well as effective contract management. 

You can generate so much efficiency if contracts are managed to their full potential.

Once you get someone to monitor the KPIs and SLAs, you will save time and money and see improvements in services being delivered.

What role has the procurement department played in enabling the company to face the pandemic?

For us, the main focus and roles switched from business as usual to a very focused approach to PPE and we divided the team up so that each person had a distinct focus. Someone on gowns, masks, visors etc. 

Everyone had a focus area, and that is where we got ahead as we saw the pandemic coming and started sourcing stock early on.

We have been asked a lot of questions about how we were so efficient in doing what we did and it was because we had a network of past suppliers and current relationships to tap into and a huge amount of internal knowledge and experience. It really came down to the team as a whole pulling together and getting the job done.

This allowed us to get products in different ways over a prolonged period which meant we were fortunate enough to also be able to offer mutual aid to others who needed it.

What have been the major challenges that you are your team have had to navigate through the pandemic?

There has been a range of different challenges, they were so varied and they changed day by day, we really had to focus on stock.

We had no idea what was going to be used in terms of quantities and it was this unknown that caused a lot of the challenges, so we just had to make sure we had the largest quantity we could, and that we counted effectively.

We were working on a just in time basis for quite a long period and ensuring we had stock for the next few days ahead was quite tricky.

It really showed that we all worked very well collaboratively across not just our own organisation but multiple NHS organisations. 

We all had daily calls with a large group of London hospitals where we would discuss what stocks we had and share whatever we could to ensure that no one ran out.

We all work very well together and I think this has shown how well we can work even when under huge amounts of pressure. 

I think it is really great that we have those networks in place and it helps that we have all known each other for a while in the procurement profession.

We need to keep these relationships going as we don’t know what is going to happen in the future and make sure our relationships are solid with each other going forward. 

How has the business changed since lockdown?

I think it is just in terms of our working practices, we are not in the office as much as we used to be. We were for the first three months when everyone else was at home but because we are now in a different position we are able to work from home more now.

Which has allowed us some breathing space as we embrace new technology, and continue to embed it in to the team, this allows greater flexibility and working practices which is embraced by all.

The team in general has become very adaptable to the changes we are currently seeing being implemented by central government, and have provided a range of brilliant ideas to help with the ever changing environment we find ourselves in.

What has worked well and what would you do differently with the benefit of hindsight?

We all worked very hard, every key worker just put all the effort in to ensure nothing failed and that is something we should all be grateful for.

I don’t think there is anything we could have done differently, we just did what we had to do at the time, and we had to just get on with it.

Did we plan appropriately? No, because we didn’t have time to plan it was one of those moments when you just had to act.

You also had to make sure you supported your team to the fullest, I can’t think of anything I would have done differently at this moment in time.

How do you see procurement as a whole changing as a result of COVID-19?

I see it being more at the forefront of decision making especially in the public sector. I think it has really highlighted the need for investment and greater recognition of what value we bring.

It should never be just about focusing on reducing cost, but the value-add you can bring to the table, in terms of efficiencies, partnerships, supplier relationships and contract management.

I think procurement could focus on what we can achieve and know our business needs. 

In a lot of areas procurement teams are seen as the problem-solvers as we work across so many teams and have a broad reach of experience to bring to the table, and we will come up with an answer that will meet the needs of our stakeholders.

If you could give any advice to your younger self what would it be?

Slow down would be my advice and enjoy yourself a bit more. I have learnt to bring the speed and enthusiasm down to be more realistic level when I approach things. 

I have learnt by slowing down you can focus on the detail further and change the outcomes in a more efficient and refined way.

If you rush too fast you have to pick up the pieces you have left behind. 

I did progress very quickly in my career, but actually I probably fell short around some of my leadership and relationship skills, as when you are very young it can be a difficult dynamic to master when you are thrust into a leadership position. I would ensure my younger self focused on that learning need. 

Also, I would suggest to really build up your skill sets before you move into a new role. 

Do you have a motto? Or words of advice?

One of my mottos is, “Think fast, and talk slow”.

It is important to find a work life balance and to also ensure you work for likeminded people when it comes to values and behaviours.

The other motto is, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”, so it is about you and if someone asks why I do procurement, I do it because of what I get out of it. 

Article originally published by Procurement Heads 18th November, 2020 at https://www.procurementheads.com/blog/big-interview-daniel-tagg/