GPM First
Chapter 7 of The Project Manager’s Guide to Purchasing (978-0-5660-8692-2) by Garth Ward

Communicating the Requirements


I was on a sailing cruise down the coast of Thailand one day before the Tsunami struck and met a past President of the Institution of Purchasing and Supply. As he was currently head of procurement for a major corporation I realized that I was talking to an expert. So I asked him, ‘What is the secret to purchasing?’ and he replied, ‘I still think the secret to purchasing is getting the need right.’ He was right, there is no point in negotiating a superb deal for 10 000 units of office supplies if you only need 5000 units because they have just cost you twice as much. The same is true in a project environment, the secret is getting the scope right. Whilst we think we can do this reasonably well, one thing project people find incredibly difficult to get right is the quantities for materials. We always seem to be ordering half a dozen more. Time spent getting the brief, the scope, the specification or the needs right, is never wasted.

The subject of identifying what is required is not a buyer’s function. However, it is an integral part of the procurement procedure and defining what is wanted is one of the most important aspects of the process. Having said this, at the start of the buying process, people do not really know precisely what they want or how to define it. Consequently, a buyer should be aware of the technical communication process and what to look for in a specification. The buyer should review all of the enquiry documentation for consistency, clarity of language and avoidance of jargon.

Many surveys have shown that the common cause for project failure is failure to define what one wants. There are two aspects to the definition process. Firstly, the Scope of the product or services to be supplied and, secondly, the details of the features of the product or services – the Specification. In this context the term scope is used to describe the boundaries of the macro elements – the deliverables that are required. The term specification is used to describe the micro-level details or performance aspects of what is being purchased. Conversely, a specification can also be a document to describe what a tenderer or vendor is willing to supply to a purchaser.

For simple requirements a two- or three-page letter may be sufficient. For a complex facility involving equipment, materials and services it may take a hundred pages or more to define the requirements. Both of these approaches have deficiencies. The first may be incomplete, have omissions or lack sufficient detail, resulting in an unsatisfactory tender. The second may put off the tenderer due to the work involved. Consequently, it is necessary to develop mechanisms that communicate the requirements in as succinct a manner as possible.

Organizations with well developed procurement processes have very prescribed mechanisms for ensuring clarity of the communication process between buyer and seller. In these organizations the specification will form part of a Material Requisition. The purpose of the material requisition is to convey information concerning material, equipment and/or services from the design department, or the person responsible for the technical aspects of a project, to the purchasing department. The material requisition/specification/technical specification is a document that uses words, drawings and data to define what you, the purchaser, wants. These documents form the technical terms of the proposed contract.

Requisitions, specifications or data sheets should be laid out like books with main headings (chapters) for scope, standards, delivery and so on, in order to clarify where one topic starts and another ends. With the advent of computing technology most, if not all, of the documents concerned will be electronic.

The Material Requisition

The material requisition is really a document that wraps up all the information required, to enable us to invite suppliers to tender for the goods or services that we require. Even organizations or individuals that do not have such a formality find themselves preparing a letter that performs the same function with the same information. The formality of the material requisition document helps provide information in a consistent and concise manner and avoids errors.

As already indicated, in a complex project there are likely to be three categories of requirements that will need to be requisitioned:

  • Commodity materials – standard type materials that have a ‘catalogue’ type description.

  • Items that are of a unique nature and require to be designed – designed items. These will require specifications and/or drawings to properly describe them.

  • Services to cover the installation, commissioning and start-up of the unique designed pieces of equipment.


In general, the material requisition should be limited to one type of material or equipment and also to what will be supplied by one vendor.

The material requisition consists of a title page, revision record sheet, contents page and continuation pages. A cover page is addressed to the proposed tenderer and indicates the type of material required. The revision record sheet will indicate the issue number and the status of the requisition, as well as the date and initials for those who have prepared, checked and approved the document. The status will be indicated as; ‘issued for quotation’ or ‘issued for purchase’. It will (as will all pages) indicate the page number of total pages together with the requisition number and revision number. A proprietary sample contents page is shown as Figure 7.1.

The continuation pages will be tabulated with columns for: item number; quantities or units; description; cost code; unit price and total price. In addition to the specific material requirements detailed under the description heading, other requirements will also be listed covering: drawings, documents, dimensions or other data concerning the equipment for checking by the designers; schedule information to enable expediting to be carried out; inspection and tests to be carried out; packing and transport requirements and spares. Attachments, listed under the description column, might comprise: specifications, data sheets and drawings.


Spares can comprise two or three categories: spare parts required for the operation and maintenance of a facility, and spares required as additional quantities as a contingency, say, during installation and commissioning. There may also be a requirement for specialist capital spares.

It may be acceptable when purchasing spares for an existing facility to purchase equal and equivalent components from a supplier other than the original manufacturer. However, this is definitely not allowed in the aircraft industry. The danger is when this is done without reference to the designers. On one project a shut down occurred due to the failure of a component in the main compressor. The manufacturers were summoned from Germany and presented with the evidence of the defective part, only to say it was not theirs. It was discovered that the stores manager had obtained the part from a cheaper supplier without reference to the maintenance engineers, causing a loss of several million pounds.

Figure 7.1 Material requisition contents


Documents, drawings and data

Documents, drawings and data can be a problem. Designers like to exercise their expertise and tend to ask for too many documents. However, preliminary drawings are essential to confirm the envelope size and termination points of what is being purchased. Other drawings will be required for incorporation in the operation and maintenance manuals.

Delivery requirements

Delivery requirements shown on the cover page of the requisition document should include a location for the delivery of the materials, or performance of the services. Delivery can be at the factory gate for you to collect or delivered to your door or a variety of stages in between. These are very well described and precisely described in ‘The International Chamber of Commerce official rules for the interpretation of trade terms’ – see Chapter 5.

Scope and Work Definition

It is important to distinguish between what is to be provided – the scope of supply - the deliverables, and the extent of work that is to be performed – the scope of work. In mainstream project management the technique used to help define the product deliverables and the scope of work, and also overcome some of the problems of using words (see below), is known as the Product Breakdown Structure and Work Breakdown Structure.

The Association of Project Management defined ‘work management’ as:

‘The process of breaking the project into manageable pieces of work. This can be achieved by first breaking the project into a product orientated family tree, that is a Product Breakdown Structure (PBS) and then breaking the project into a task orientated family tree, that is a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).

The PBS is a product orientated hierarchical breakdown of the project into its constituent end items or deliverables without the work packaging or activities attached. It stops with the product end item definitions.

The WBS is the PBS with the principal work packages and activities needed to produce this. The WBS should depict a product in a manner in which technical accomplishment can be incrementally verified and measured, and provide the conceptual framework for all integrated planning and control of the work.’


A product breakdown structure is a formal and systematic way of defining the scope of a project. Of equal importance, the process helps to identify missing scope items and areas of ignorance. The graphical presentation is an end item subdivision of the project, product or item to be produced; it:

  • displays and defines the product to be developed or produced;

  • relates elements of work to each other and to the end product;

  • enables responsibilities to be identified;

  • forms a logical, structured and organized base from which to integrate the work to be done, the organization, and the planning and control system.


The product breakdown structure is developed by exploding the end product into its component parts and the services required (see Figure 7.2). The packages of work so formed must be clearly distinguishable from all other work packages. Each package is further subdivided into lower level elements representing units of work at a level where the work is to be performed. This process of breaking down the work is continued until the project is fully defined in terms of WHAT is to be done to complete the project. Although primarily orientated towards identifiable self-contained end products or deliverables, software, services and project management tasks may also be included. This work breakdown structure divides the work of the project into manageable units for which responsibility can be assigned.

Level 1:

contains only the quantified project objective or end item to be produced.

Level 2:

contains the major product segments or subsections of the end item. These segments can be defined by location or intended purpose.

Level 3:

contains definable components or sub-sets of the level 2 segments.

Level 4:

represents lists or units of work at the levels where the work is to be performed.

Another way of looking at the product and work breakdown structure is that the product breakdown structure deliverables are the nouns and the work breakdown structure level where the work is performed is the verbs.

Many projects can be defined in four or five levels. However, in aerospace it may take 11 or 12 levels to get to the level where work is to be performed.

If this technique can be used to represent the deliverables of a project together with the scope of work; it can also be used to illustrate the scope of the product or service that one wishes to purchase, together with the work that we wish the supplier to perform. To the scope must then be added the specification details defining the quality or features of the product.

Specifications and Standards

It is difficult to be precise about the difference between a specification and a standard, since the two terms are (to some extent) used interchangeably. A specification may ask for components to be in accordance with a particular standard. However, a standard may equally specify the composition of the materials. Frequently used company specifications become company standards. Similar standards used by companies become industry standards (see below) and eventually they become national and international standards.

Figure 7.2 PBS-WBS


Standards are written compilations of best practice prepared and published by independent experts working under the sponsorship of national governments, for example, the British Standards Institute write and develop British Standards. There are also European Standards and International ISO Standards. Standards are also produced by recognized learned societies, for example, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME standards). When a standard is produced it deals with future developments not yet defined. A standard relates to an area of activity and is more general. Thus a standard, for a particular type of material, will itemise the constituent parts and identify the minimum strength required at various temperatures and so on. A specification, on the other hand, would say that this material must be used for certain aspects of the project and would reference the standard concerned. These standards do not, generally, have the force of law in their own right but may be brought into legal force through a related Act of Parliament, for example, The Clean Air Act or the Boiler Regulations. Insurance companies may also stipulate adherence to particular standards before granting the required insurance cover that may, in itself, be required by law.

Specifications are again a compilation of best practice but have no independent standing. When a specification is produced it relates to something that is known about or already exists. A specification relates to a specific object, a specific item of equipment, a particular project, facility or service. They are prepared by designers, engineers, architects, owners or consultants to represent the particular requirements for goods and services.

There are of two types of specification that are used together. First are the General Specifications, which expand on the standards to set out the requirements that an owner has identified and adopted. They are tailor-made to the originator’s preferences but can be kept ‘on the shelf’ and reused (and kept updated) over periods of many years.

Second, are the Particular Specifications, usually referred to as Duty Specifications or Data Sheets. These stipulate in very precise format the exact requirements of the material, product, facility or service which is to be purchased. The tenderer must confirm compliance with the duty specification and provide an evident warranty of compliance.

Standards, though, have wide coverage and rarely can any one manufacturer or provider comply with all the stipulations contained in a standard. Similarly, a supplier may take exception to certain aspects of the general specifications. It is, therefore, important for the purchaser to identify the exceptions that will apply to standards and negotiate an agreement to the exceptions to the general specifications.

It is important to decide on the type or nature of the description of the goods or services that we require. Is it to be a unique document with all the details specified, or is it to be a functional or duty/performance type specification? Often it may be a mixture of both. In view of the number of documents involved it is also important to understand or define the order of precedence of the documents concerned as follows:

  1. the particular duty specifications;

  2. the general specifications;

  3. the standards.


However, where Statute Law is involved the standards are likely to take priority.

All specifications are developed with a vision, in the mind of the designer, of the circumstances to which they apply. The more experienced the design organization, the more standard specifications will have been developed.

An example of a standard specification is shown in Figure 7.31[22] and illustrates the first two pages of the relevant specification. ‘the purpose and use’ described in its text is an excellent explanation of the objectives, basis and limitations of a standard specification.

However, standard specifications tend to be developed around the most severe situations contemplated. As a result all standard specifications are over-specifications – except for the worst circumstances for which they were envisaged. Specifications developed for a facility with a high fire risk may be unsuitable for a facility where the fire risk is small. A different example applying to petrochemical plants is the idea of ‘double block and bleed isolation’ – two valves in series with the space in between drained or vented through a further pipe with two valve isolations on it. This concept may be fine when applied to an 8″ line pipe, but less so to a 42″ line pipe where a valve is the size of a car. Consequently, the limits of the application of a specification need to be carefully explored and stated.

Figure 7.3 Standard specification


The young, enthusiastic or inexperienced designer may enhance a specification by choosing all the best features from the standard products of different makers without any reference to ‘fitness for purpose’. This will most likely result in non-compliant quotations from most of the reputable suppliers, leaving a single acceptable quotation requiring special approval procedures.

On the other hand, designers have traditionally felt an urge to modify or add to a specification that they had used previously for a similar product. After all, if they do not do this they are not doing their job properly, or they are not demonstrating the importance of their specialization, and they are not keeping the specification up-to-date with the latest ideas. For example, in one facility the standard electrical specification for a compressor required a complicated delay mechanism in the vibration trip system – expensive both to buy and maintain. Investigation showed that this was the result of experience on another project where cost-cutting had gone too far. This had resulted in a rather flimsy structure that vibrated when the operating staff walked past changing shifts and tripped the compressor.

Designers tend to think that they know best what they require rather than trusting to the expertise of the vendor. There can be a desire by designers to tell equipment manufacturers how to design the components of the product they wish to buy. The result of this approach is over-specification and over expensive tenders. The trouble with over-specifying is that it inhibits the creativity of the supplier. They may be able to produce a more cost effective design. Work with the supplier to use standard components that are equally effective but cost less, and are faster to produce. Also, indicate where a supplier may suggest alternatives. It is also helpful, in order to obtain more competitive prices, to prioritize the requirements in a specification. Sometimes it seems that organizations have forgotten the definition of the technical role; namely, an engineer is someone who can do for £1 what any fool can do for £5!

With the advent of the CRINE initiative (Cost Reduction In a New Era) there has been recognition that if, say, a manufacturer has been in existence for a hundred years, they probably know their business and can be trusted to design components. There was a recognition that it was not necessary to define the details of the technology of a product you wanted to buy, but to define the objectives of what you wanted a product to do – a Performance Specification.

One of my earlier projects was a sulphuric acid concentration plant. Apart from its unique technology, it was a fascinating project due to the complexity of the material specifications. A major item was an extremely large vessel in which the weak acid was boiled. These harsh conditions required the vessel to be glass-lined and hung from the roof to cope with the expansion problems. For some reason, as project manager, I also had responsibility for specifying the vessel for purchasing. Realizing my lack of ability to carry out the design of the suspension ring from which to hang the vessel, I described how the vessel was to be used and the requirement for it to be suspended. Unfortunately, the glass cracked after the plant had been heated up. When the vendor was asked to replace the vessel their initial reaction was, ‘It’s not our responsibility’. I pointed out that the vendor had accepted performance responsibilities for their design and they replaced the vessel (at their considerable expense) without further argument. Sometimes it does not pay to try and be too clever and do someone else’s job. In this case I left the design to the specialist.

One of the major weaknesses of people managing projects, and contractors in particular, is that they lack the experience of operating facilities. Another weakness of the contractor client, purchasing on behalf of an owner, is that they are only interested in the materials and equipment surviving for the contractor’s guarantee period. Whereas, the owner client is more involved in the longer term perspective of operations and maintenance. Since suppliers learn from maintaining their equipment and guarantee its operation, they probably know more about the strengths and weaknesses in the design. Therefore, we should lean towards allowing the vendor to come up with solutions to our design problems. One of the key issues for success in projects is that, ‘If you want a successful project you must involve the User in the earlier processes.’ In this case the user of the specification or data sheet is the supplier. Consequently, we should invite the supplier to our offices to discuss how best to resolve the design issues, and present the specification.

All specifications for packages of equipment or complex items or systems should include words dealing with their reliability and availability of operation. Further, attention should be given to the interfaces with other equipment. In the early days of answerphones and facsimile machines it was necessary to have a ‘fax switch’. The problem was, however, that the telephone worked, the fax switch worked, the answerphone worked and the facsimile worked, but all together the system never worked satisfactorily, and they all blamed each other!

Suppliers who are used to always providing items in a particular manner or combination will tend to assume, if nothing is said about them, that the items are included. It can, therefore, help to clarify the communication process by listing what is not included in the requirements. In effect, a negative specification.

Conversely, when dealing with a service the buyer will know considerably more about the location of where the service is to be provided. Consequently, if the buyer does not describe the features and services available at a particular location, and in particular the ‘unknowns’, then the tenderer is likely to make assumptions. These assumptions will tend to be of a pessimistic nature and, consequently, the tenderer will include additional monies, as contingencies in their tender, for the risks that they perceive – resulting in a more expensive tender. However, buyers can be reluctant to tell tenderers certain information due to its uncertainty – some of it may be wrong – and tenderers may then use it as a basis for making a claim for extra monies. It is in our interests to tell the tenderers as much information as possible if it removes contingencies from their tenders. Consequently, disclose the information, with whatever qualifications are necessary and state that it cannot be used as the basis for a contractual claim. Invite them to visit the location where the service is to be provided – see ‘Tenderers Conference’ section on page 96.

The main problem with specifications is that for the most part they use words to describe what is wanted. Documents that help describe one’s requirements in a more structured manner and do not rely on words, to the same extent, are the data sheet and the material take-off. They can exist in their own right or form parts of the material requisition or specification.

The data sheet

The data sheet is the most straightforward form of technical communication and it helps to minimize mistakes. Most people working in a project environment are working under pressure and will, consequently, make mistakes or forget something. Organizations that regularly purchase similar types of goods develop standard forms – data sheets – to act as a checklist or memory jogger to ensure that items are not omitted. In addition, it ensures that the supplier marketplace becomes used to the format, thus enhancing the communication process.

An example of a less complex data sheet is shown in Figure 7.4. This example, and the particulars that follow, have been included to demonstrate the complexity of the detail required to define requirements for technology projects.

The title heading and the first three un-numbered lines of the data sheet form an identification header for each subsequent page.

Page two of this data sheet would have a similar format for the following information:

  • fabrication details;

  • inspection details;

  • a nozzles schedule giving: size, rating, flange, stand out, elevation and so on.


Page three would be a full page for design notes and page 4 would be full page for a sketch of the vessel.

A data sheet for uncomplicated rotating machinery (say, a pump) would have a similar number of pages, but would be more complex and have sections for the following data:

  • operating conditions;

  • site data;

  • materials required;

  • performance required;

  • driver type and details of driver;

  • utility conditions;

  • construction details with painting, packing and shipping details;

  • heating and cooling requirements;

  • bearings and lubrication details;

  • instrumentation;

  • weight and space requirements;

  • spare parts and other requirements;

  • piping and other connections;

  • quality assurance, inspection and testing;

  • design code references;

  • welding and repairs codes and standards;

  • material inspection requirements.


More complicated rotating machinery would have similar requirements, but in more detail, and would have additional pages for more complex requirements as follows:

  • unusual conditions;

  • noise specifications;

  • vibration and axial position detectors;

  • casing and other connections;

  • allowable piping forces and moments;

  • accessories comprising couplings, guards and mounting plates.


Materials lists – material take-off

A list of the material required can have a variety of names: Materials List and Bills of Material are perhaps the more generic terms. Bills of Quantity are used mostly in a civil engineering environment. As their names imply, these are lists of materials together with a description and the quantities required. There is little difference between buying stationery, or pipes and fittings for your central heating, or for a process plant.

Figure 7.4 Data sheet


The items are identified with catalogue type descriptions and any appropriate standard specification numbers. As stated in the standard specification Figure 7.3, it should be stated that brand names are for illustrative purposes and that they can be substituted with equivalent types from other manufacturers. It is also sensible to encourage tenderers to submit alternative proposals that they consider would be more economic, provide improvements or benefits.

Whilst the descriptions may be relatively straightforward, the quantities are one of the most difficult things to get correct. It is, therefore, prudent to allow for some surplus for commonly used items. Allowances have to be made for wastage, loss and installation and commissioning spares. This results in over ordering, asking the supplier to accept the return of surplus quantities, and eventually, to one’s embarrassment, requisitioning a final few more!

It follows that it is important to make sure that you include a clause allowing you to return surplus material to the supplier for the same price; adjusted naturally for the cost of transport. Figure 7.5 illustrates a manual material take-off sheet and again demonstrates the extent of the detail required to define a project’s requirements. This was the ‘Kellogg Way’ prior to its incorporation into a computerized Integrated Project Management System – a full Engineering, Procurement and Construction Material Management System with all the KELLWAY features and more.

Administering the documents

In order to facilitate any discussions, for whatever reason, all of the foregoing documents need to have identifying names and unique reference numbers, revision letters, dates and page numbers. These should appear as a header on each page of the document concerned. Your company’s name, logo and the identifying form reference can be placed as a header or footer. The cover page should, of course, have the name of the company to whom the enquiry is being sent.

Words, Words, Words

Everything that has been said so far can apply equally to the supply of goods or services. However, when it comes to the provision of services we are far more likely to be starting with a blank sheet of paper. In this situation we are dependent on our ability to describe what we want, using words. The problem of defining what one wants is best illustrated as follows:2[23]

Why is my kitchen floor not level? Because I did not ask for it to be dead level. I anticipated some problems in renovating my house, but I never expected to have a metaphysical discussion with the builder on the essence of levelness. Everyone agrees that the floor has bumps but the builder swears that it is level. It is just not dead level. Semantics are as important to the modern builder as any knowledge of construction.

Before starting I spent a long time preparing what I thought was a detailed specification. The builder priced it and, after some haggling, we agreed a contract sum. I now realize that the reason he took so long was that he was scrutinizing the specification for examples of vagueness and omission. These were expensively priced as ‘extras’ and were presented at the end of the project.

The window was the first indication of problems. The specification required the removal and disposal of a window and the installation of a new one. I thought I had been astute to include the removal in the specification. You and I might think it usual to find glass in a window. Surely, the whole point of a window is that it should have a pane; without the glass the hole might as well be bricked up. A builder never expects a window to have a pane in it, unless it is defined in black and white. Glazing is extra. The doors were another problem. We had agreed a price of £100 per door. This had seemed very expensive but I was assured that the doors would cost about £70 and the labour would be £30. Some doors may cost £70 but not ones that are made of hardboard stapled to a softwood frame. I discovered that these doors cost £15. Now we were in very murky waters. We had agreed a contract, but is £15 about £70? What does ‘about’ mean? By the way, never expect a door to have handles unless you ask for them.

Figure 7.5 Material take-off



The building works have now stopped. I will not pay the builder until he finishes the works, and he will not do any more work because he thinks he has finished. Naturally, we cannot agree on the meaning of ‘finished’.

In the meantime, my understanding of words has improved, and my kitchen floor is still not flat.


I have experienced this myself. Relatively recently I undertook two major projects – building a conservatory and rebuilding a garage. Whilst the tiles were being laid in the utility area of the garage I observed that the tiler was only using a two metre piece of timber to level the floor. Being concerned about the floor being level, I checked it the first evening with my long spirit level – to my surprise it was dead level. The following morning I asked the tiler, ‘How did you get the floor level with only a long piece of wood?’, ‘Oh, it’s not level, it’s flat’ was the response. ‘In that case I would like the conservatory floor ‘flat and level,’ I stated. ‘That will be more difficult’ was the reply!

This illustrates that the difficult part in defining what one wants is that one has to use words. As Churchill said, ‘Tricky little buggers.’ Unfortunately, as illustrated above, words mean different things to different people. However, experts have a precise, or know the precise, meaning of words in their own particular field. People will interpret the words within their frame of reference. A buyer will use words within the culture of their business context, but the supplier has a different culture and business context and the words can mean something different. In technical environments it should be slightly easier because technical words have been developed that have more precise meanings, and in many cases one is dealing with numerical descriptions of weight, height, length and volume and so on. However, with more complex items the technical data will need to be complemented with descriptions and, unfortunately, this is where the technologists’ skills are weakest.

Another problem for the less experienced person is the tendency to assume that certain features, that are always associated with a particular item, are included. Doors have handles! For example, my sister recently purchased a bath that had been annotated, in a whole list of items, ‘vidanges pas inclus’. Not being familiar with technical words in a foreign language, when purchasing in a country other than one’s home country, can be a minefield. Not surprisingly, the bath arrived without any drainage connections. Conversely, if one is purchasing internationally one needs to be aware that the suppliers may not be as familiar with the English language.

Writing and communicating clearly what is required can often be seen as a chore. As a consequence, the process may not be done with the care and attention that it requires and sloppy wording may creep in. In addition, because we are so familiar with our own project and areas of expertise, unintentional omissions occur and we take items for granted. Further, as indicated above, technologists who have the dominant input to specifications are not known for their ability to write English effectively. We may make statements that have more than one meaning. In this case the tenderer is likely to be confused and may make an incorrect interpretation. In our desire to be careful we may state requirements more than once. If the words are not identical we have merely added more words and caused confusion. Repetition to look out for is where information is in the body of the text of the specification as well as part of the numerical data on the data sheet.

The more knowledgeable person will describe every feature in detail, in a desire to make sure that everything has been covered. Unfortunately, this leads to the problem that ‘the more you write the more you leave out’. Having comprehensively listed all the features that you desire, if you do not detail something, then clearly, you did not intend it to be included.

The more the details of how a product is designed are covered by national or international standards, the better. If the appropriate ones are used it prevents us from over-specifying. The advantage of standards is that the words have already been checked. They have been put together in a way that is acceptable to all parties and have acquired a common meaning over time.

A case3[24] drawn to my attention by David Wright illustrates the specification writer’s problem. Summarized simply the scope of work stated:

  • The contractor will perform:


  • and


  • in accordance with the specification.


The question is, what does this mean? Work B was performed satisfactorily in accordance with the specification. However, it was extremely difficult to perform Work A. The contractor did their best but it did not conform to the specification. The judgement given in the Technical and Commercial Division of the High Court was that Work A was not required to be performed according to the specification. Using a strict grammatical interpretation of the words the judge ruled that the specification said: (perform Work A) and (perform Work B in accordance with the specification). If A and B had to be in accordance with the specification then the words should have said ‘both A and B…’. I understand that each letter of the word ‘both’ cost £1 m!

Being aware of these problems, we check our own work but do not see the obvious mistakes. Because we are so familiar with the material we see what we know should be there rather than what is actually there. People other than the writer should check the documents. People that Meredith Belbin calls ‘Completer Finishers’4[25] are needed. Belbin describes completer finishers as typically, ‘Painstaking, orderly, conscientious.’ They have the following positive qualities, ‘A capacity for follow-through. Perfectionism.’ He describes their allowable weaknesses as, ‘A tendency to worry about small things. A reluctance to let go.’ All of which look like positive qualities to me in this context. What you need are people who are used to checking software, if you have them in your organization.

Questions and the Tenderers Conference

Unfortunately we will have done a less than perfect job of communicating our requirements, and in any case people will interpret words in different ways and will make assumptions. Consequently, there will be questions during the enquiry period. Is something included or excluded? It is then important to respond in such a manner that it is seen to be fair to all tenderers. It can be useful to ask tenderers to submit questions say 1 or 2 weeks after receipt of the enquiry documents. The questions, together with the answers, can then be circulated to all the tenderers, so that nobody can identify who asked which question, but they all have the same information.

Questions relating to the provision of material and equipment can be dealt with by written answers. Equipment supplies may require the supplier to visit the location where the equipment is to be delivered. In this instance invite all the suppliers, and if necessary their transport subcontractors, on the same day, explain any restrictions and answer their questions in open forum. You want everyone to get the same message so as to keep their costs, and thus their prices, to a minimum.

For the more complex service requirements, the tenderers should be invited to a clarification meeting at the location where the service is to be provided. Should we hold this meeting with all of the tenderers present at the same time, or should we schedule separate meetings for each company in turn? Obviously it is more efficient and involves less effort if they are all invited together. However, will they really ask the question that is worrying them? They may not want to show their lack of sophistication in front of the competitors and, as a result, provide a less than satisfactory tender.

Alternatively, some tenderers may play games by asking questions that they already understand in order to put off other tenderers. Even if we ask tenderers to send in their questions beforehand and prepare the answers, the more astute tenderers will be watching peoples’ body language in order to identify who asked which question.

The professional approach is to request the questions early enough to be able to hand out the written answers at a meeting. Schedule separate meetings with each company and, as you show them your premises and facilities, develop a relationship with them. Are these people you could work with, and are they keen to provide the service you require?

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