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How to ruin your proposals and squander your company’s potential by building a proposal assembly line

The management model behind proposal failure

I blame Henry Ford for the idea of the proposal assembly line. Although a case could be made that it was Frederick Winslow Taylor and the time and motion study method for management. But hardly anyone recognizes Frederick Winslow Taylor, and sooner or later everyone working in proposals meets someone who suggests setting up an assembly line.

Using the assembly line model for proposals is a great way to lose money on proposals. It puts the emphasis on getting proposals out the door instead of winning them. It treats every proposal as the same lowest common denominator instead of a custom creation optimized for winning each pursuit. An assembly line ignores the mathematics of win rates. You can’t make up for losses by losing in volume. Each proposal win brings orders of magnitude more revenue than the proposal cost. Improving your win rate increases revenue more than building an assembly can save in costs. Should you lower costs in ways that will reduce your win rate? Or should you invest knowing that each additional win will return orders of magnitude more than the proposal cost?

An assembly line mentality leads to several win rate destroying approaches to proposal development:

See also:
Improving win rates
  1. Templates. Instead of designing the form and content of each proposal to optimize its chances of winning, a template results in sending every customer the same good proposal. Good proposal aren’t competitive. You need great proposals to maximize your win rate.
  2. Content reuse. Recycling your old proposals results in proposals that are optimized for the wrong context. The things that matter the most to the previous customer are not the things that matter the most to your new customer. Starting from reuse does more to encourage people to submit “good enough” proposals that are less likely to win than it “saves” in effort.
  3. Measuring efficiency by piece work. Which proposal shop is more efficient? The one that submits 200 proposals with three people, or the one that submits six? Before you can answer that, tell me what the revenue won by the first group is and what the revenue won by the second group is. Which is the better proposal writer? The one who spits out 100 pages per day, or the one who writes eight? Again, it’s a meaningless comparison. Proposal efficiency is not determined by the quantity produced, but rather by the amount won. Do you want your proposal staff to see their goal as getting proposals out the door, or as winning them?
  4. Opportunistic bidding. When a company has a proposal assembly line, the goal becomes to bid at maximum capacity (or it build its assembly line to keep up with a large volume of bids). This encourages bidding low probability pursuits. It raises costs and lowers revenue instead of doing the opposite. Companies with proposal assembly lines tend to either never develop lead qualification criteria, or to water down the ones they have. Either way the culture shifts to bidding everything they find, ignoring how that lowers their win rate and trying make it up in volume, lowering it even more.
  5. Bidding without an information advantage. While an assembly line may accommodate tailoring proposals to win, they also make it easy to bid proposals without the information needed for tailoring. Having a proposal assembly line may even incentivize bidding without tailoring in order to keep up with the volume of bids. This in turn enables a business development and capture function that never develops or loses the ability to cultivate an information advantage prior to the start of the proposal. This also lowers your win rate.
  6. Overloading staff. When feeding the assembly line is the standard, overloading staff just isn’t a consideration. When win rate is the standard, companies will drop a lower probability bid in order to maximize the chances of winning a higher probability bid.
  7. Making up your process as you go along. When you have an assembly line, that is the process. You don’t need to set expectations, fine tune the flow of information, discover what it will take to win, plan what you write, validate that what you write reflects what it will take to win, or any of the other aspects of process designed to maximize win rate. Instead, companies with assembly lines allow their proposal process to degrade to just having a subject draft review before they submit what came off the assembly line, while trying to convince themselves that it was sufficiently tailored and trying to ignore their win rate.

Standardization of proposal content means reducing the relevance to each individual customer. And that will reduce your win rate. The cost of reducing your win rate will exceed, by many times over, the cost savings through standardization. Cost savings shouldn’t even be the goal. The goal should be maximizing wins. An assembly line mentality leads to the wrong definition for proposal efficiency. There can be times when improving production efficiency helps to maximize your win rate. But setting win rate as the standard has to come first.

The issue here isn’t whether templates, reuse, and productivity measures have value, the issue is what is your management model for assessing value. What is your standard? 

What is your priority? Is it to get the most proposals submitted using the staff and process you have turned into an assembly line, or is it to maximize the wins by putting the effort into creating proposals based on what it will take to win each pursuit?

It can’t be both. 

What’s the alternative?

Instead of looking at proposal development as a mechanical assembly process, look at proposals as information development for a decision support tool to give to the customer and build a process that supports doing that and is measured by how often the customer makes the desired decision. That is not an assembly line driven process.

At the corporate level, measure the proposal function by its ROI. Treating it like an expense will result in bad resource allocation decisions. When you treat the proposal function as an expense to be minimized, an assembly line sounds like a good idea. However, your company’s future potential depends on winning proposals and not just submitting them. You need a business model based on winning and not only submitting. Win rate is a good day-to-day proxy for measuring performance against ROI.

Within a pursuit, we recommend making the standard discovering what it will take to win and organizing the proposal effort around using what it will take to win as the standard for process, decisions, and resource allocation. We used what it will take to win as the standard when we created the MustWin Process. When the primary standard for business development, capture, and proposals is to discover what it will take to win and build a proposal based on it, you’ll still have challenges, but you’ll have a clear basis for making decisions about approaches and resources. And you’ll be better able to avoid the temptation to build a proposal assembly line. Instead, you’ll be growing the company and increasing the resource pool instead of minimizing it. 

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Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

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