Lourdes Coss cuts through inefficiency like an esteemed chef slices through vegetables: with dexterity, grace, and attention to the tiniest details. The results are always favorable. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Coss got her start working as a financial analyst in the City of Chicago’s department of procurement more than two decades ago. Two years ago, Houston’s mayor Annise Parker recruited her to clean up that city’s procurement department, which is now on the path to being a lean, smooth-sailing enterprise that is realizing tens of millions of dollars of savings annually.
“I have done this before,” says Coss, who has been brought into transform other procurement departments on multiple occasions in her career. She clearly relishes the new challenge with the City of Houston, however.
One of the first hurdles was to establish consistency for procurement practices across city departments. In the past, many of the departments had developed their own protocols independently. Coss is actually the first chief procurement officer the city has ever had, a move by the mayor that was intended to break down silos and get everyone on the same page. Once she got her bearings, Coss implemented a professional development program to provide sorely needed technical training for her team as well as training in the necessary soft skills, as she puts it.
After marshalling human resources, Coss began the nitty-gritty work of dissecting the entire procurement process from top to bottom. One of the first things she noticed was the number of procedures that were handled manually, often with great redundancy, consuming an inordinate number of employee hours and bogging down the system. “The manual handling of documents was giving a false sense of control,” Coss says. “But no one was actually checking anything, and it was just making the process more cumbersome. My goal is to streamline and automate as much as possible so that we can devote our resources to things that really need thought and creativity.”
After months of scrutinizing every step in the procurement process—eliminating redundant forms, rewriting others to make them more clear, streamlining vendor databases, performing cost-benefit analyses—Coss was ready to dive in with a one-stop-shop software program that would automate the vast majority of purchasing transactions that occur in the procurement process. It’s called the City of Houston Marketplace, but Coss refers to it as “our internal Amazon.com.”
The Marketplace software is an online catalog in which employees in any department can choose what they need from pre-approved vendors. “Then they select items in a little shopping cart and submit them to the person who is authorized to approve the purchase,” Coss says.
Before, this process was done manually, looking through a catalog or going to different websites, according to Coss. The employee would write down information and give it to someone else who would put it into the system, and then a long chain of approvals was needed before it got to the system approver who would finally print and fax it to the vendor. “It caused a lot of delays. Now everything goes right to the vendor automatically,” Coss says. “We are getting a lot of good feedback from the end users.”
By automating the process of issuing purchase orders, Coss realized operational savings of more than $500,000 for the city just in the first couple of months of using the program. The online marketplace also changed the culture of procurement in Space City, Houston’s official nickname. “It was a team effort,” Coss says. “It’s not something I could have done alone. I’ve been blessed with a great team and the mayor has provided the support that we need to move this effort forward.”
“With more competition, we will drive down our costs. This has a tremendous impact on the things that we’re able to do as a government entity and stretches the taxpayers’ money.”
Though it represented a minor revolution for the City of Houston, the new software was only the first act for Coss. She put together a procurement council comprising end users and representatives from various city departments to gather feedback about what else needed to be done. Coss has been plowing through this list of projects ever since. One initiative was a citywide procurement plan that was implemented for the first time in 2015, which forecasts all of the procurements that are anticipated for the year. There are many benefits, according to Coss. “From the external side, the vendors get an idea of what’s coming up, so if they have to team up to participate in the projects they are interested in, they have time to prepare,” she says. “On the internal side, it helps us plan our workload and preassign the projects.”
A consultant was hired to help identify areas where the greatest savings could be reaped by enhancing efficiency. Through the consultant’s work, $48 million in potential savings has been identified over the next several years. After the consultant left, Coss’s staff continued to use the process to identify another $28 million in savings that could be available over the coming years. “We used the opportunity [with the consultant] for knowledge transfer, so that the knowledge didn’t go away when the consultant went away,” she says. “Now we’re replicating some of the strategies and continuing to identify opportunities to negotiate savings and ultimately realize those savings.”
Much of Coss’s long-term strategy is not only about making procurement work for the city, but making it more attractive for vendors to want to do business with the city. “It will lead to more competition,” Coss says. “And with more competition, we will drive down our costs. This has a tremendous impact on the things that we’re able to do as a government entity and stretches the taxpayers’ money to do as much as possible.”
Coss continues to make a positive impact on the city. A new procurement code penned by Coss and her team was approved by city council in July 2015. Each effort to restructure the procurement process is leading to greater consistency and transparency in the process, which attracts higher quality vendors and elevates the image of the city for its citizens.
For Coss, it is also a matter of the pride that she takes in her work. “The principle by which I live is integrity,” she says. “That’s my driving force.”