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Procurement in the Western Isles of Scotland With Helen Mackenzie

This week we welcome Helen Mackenzie, Head of Procurement and Exchequer Services at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (also known as Western Isles Council) in the Outer Hebrides islands in North West Scotland.

Helen is a forward thinking procurement veteran and was on one of the first Scottish Councils to sign up to Warp It .

Helen really understands that procurement and sustainability are inextricably linked.  Her insights into procurement and effecting change are both interesting and informative and we hope you will enjoy reading this discussion.

warp it user helen mackenzie western isles council scotland reuse

The highlights of our chat include:

  • How procurement, sustainability and consumption are linked

  • How to transform purchasing behaviour in staff

  • Procurement reform in Scotland

  • Winning heads and hearts

  • Advice for procurement managers

The symbol of football shirts

When we began discussing how procurement was linked with sustainability, reuse and throwaway cultures, we got on to the topic of football shirts. Helen was saying that her son has last season’s football shirt, but he wants this season’s version, which is only slightly different, with some stripes in a different place. It’s true, the shirts don’t vary much but they change each year, which is a great symbol or metaphor of the consume and upgrade culture we live in.

The mini van

Helen told us that it was quite normal in the procurement industry for organisations to buy things and put them into storage, where they may get forgotten about for years, and the opposite, where organisations order new things forgetting that they already own them. Helen told us “I once heard about someone in an organisation becoming stressed because he needed to organise transport for a service user and so he tried to order a mini bus. He’d completely forgotten that they already had one and it was sitting in the car park. I just thought “Oh my goodness!”.

The benefit of visibility

We asked Helen “Do you think it helps to have all of the surplus items on a platform where they are easily visible and easily shared?”. We recognise at Warp It that even if we could capture 1% of procurement and turn it into reuse, we would be winning. Helen added “Absolutely. You know 1% of our procurement spend would be about £45,000 for us. That’s a huge amount. I know you have to invest in signing up to Warp It, but it’s about behaviour change and using a platform can help.  Effecting change is what I find most interesting. How do you transform people’s behaviour? It’s hard.”

helen mackenzie western isles procurement reuse surplus assets award winner

Team of the Year Award!


Transforming behaviour

The point that Helen made about transforming behaviour struck a chord with us, we agree that it’s hard, but what makes it a success or not is the approach and ideas that go into a behavioural change project.

We turned the question back to Helen and asked her, “How do you transform behaviour?”. She told us “Well, if you want to change behaviour, you have to make it easy, at least easier than the old process. You have to make it more desirable than the old process too. You can help your cause by changing policy, informing people through communications and appealing to the 10% of the organization that are innovators and will be happy to take on the new process because they see the sense and logic in it”. Helen thought for a few moments before adding “Then you get the early adopters who change because they see the innovators do it, and they don’t want to miss it. At the other end of the spectrum you get 10-20% of people who dig their heels and and refuse to change, because that’s who they are”. We asked Helen about the middle section, which represents the largest percentage of people, she told us “You have to persuade the middle ground through communications. Make them feel that everyone else is already doing it, so they just subconsciously add it into their daily activity”.

Procurement reform

Helen told us that Scotland has seen an impressive procurement reform over the last few years, where organizations have begun recognizing that they could be doing things better. On this journey they saw the potential for improving people, policies and procedures and making them all clearer about what needs to be done. They trained people to understand procurement better, helping people see why it’s important and morally correct to try and protect the planet and use less resources. A lot of people didn’t seem to understand that, and this came to a head in the council toilets.

Helen explained “We did a piece of work on whole life cost doing a comparison between hand towels and hand dryers. The dryers won. So we bought energy efficient smart dryers for the ladies’ toilets and we put up a poster encouraging people to use the dryers instead of sending paper towels to landfill and killing trees. Some people still don’t use the dryers because it takes fifteen seconds to dry your hands with them and maybe just three seconds to use and dispose of a paper towel. The interesting thing is you can’t always appeal to the good in people, to get them to do the moral thing. All we can do is introduce rules, provide training and show the facts to give everyone a platform to start doing the right thing and show that they’ve learned.  If you can get the vast majority making the change then you’ve really achieved something”.

The most effective way

Helen told us that some of her ideas came from a book called ‘Switch: How to change things when change is hard’ by Chip and Dan Heath. The best lesson she took from the book was a combination of three methods for effecting change. She explained “Make sure people’s heads are convinced. Make sure people’s hearts are convinced. Then show them the right path to go down to effect change. Use examples, use case studies and give people feedback. So we did that with procurement, and we are currently focusing on paper use. My boss wants a 20% reduction in paper use across the council. It’s a good way to save money, but it’s also a green thing. We track how many copies people are making on the machines now.  I can get feedback on how many copies we’ve made in the last week. I get the information and I’m working with a group of colleagues across the departments to identify the best way to help people change what they do.  If we can give people who are at the top of the list information and find out why they have made so many photocopies, they may be able to reduce the paper they use. It might not cross their mind otherwise.”

western isles council reuse project

How has Warp It helped you with feedback?

“Well, Warp It is really good at this because the system gives data about spend avoided, carbon diverted, waste reused etc. It’s really helpful to give people feedback on savings, as it’s a bit like Pavlov’s Dog. People change behaviour and you give them a reward, in this case the reward is feedback, good stats and data”.

In many ways we agree with Helen, and the idea of trying to condition your staff to feel that positive feedback is a reward so that they work in different ways.  It’s worth trying though, as feedback can be effective for more reasons than just motivation. It creates transparency and understanding between different levels of management and employees and lets people know where they stand.

Thinking outside the box

We asked if there were other ideas they’d had at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, and we were pleasantly surprised to hear Helen reel off a wonderful list of things they had tried. Helen told us “We are planning to send out a series of emails to help people reduce the paper they use.  One will ask if our colleagues have tried using two computer screens, which helps compare documents side by side. A lot of people use two screens in our department, and we want to encourage people to try this particularly if there are spare monitors they can use. You can be reading something in one screen and working on something in the other, so you don’t need to print things out. You can cut and paste, you have space and tools. Other ideas we have for our emails include printing in booklet form and reducing margins. I’m a bit of a zealot about this sort of thing so whenever there’s a clear out of paper files, I take the non-confidential stuff and use it as scrap paper in the printer. If I really need to print something, I use that paper first. Things like this are ways to get people to reuse, to think before they print, to use email instead, to scan and send. We plan to treat this like a marketing campaign, using a call to action in each email to promote the behaviour changes we want to embed.  It’s a much better approach than just decreeing rules from on high and trying to force people to obey.”

map of hebrides reuse

How to turn sustainability into a marketing campaign

Building on Helen’s idea of treating reduction of paper as a marketing campaign, we asked her to explain further. “If you treat behaviour change like a marketing campaign with calls to action you should include practical and actionable things people can do right then.  You then need to give them feedback to show them things have work. Once we do this, we can say “Well done everyone, instead of 33,000 sheets of paper used last week, it’s down to 25,000. Keep up the good work!”. Then give them an idea they can use for the coming week and build on the success.”



Helen suggested that this idea can be applied not just to paper reduction, but also to reuse. “Using Warp It, if somebody is trying to roll it out across an organisation and they don’t know where to start, they can ask “Are there any spare chairs in your office? It’s chair week and our objective is to put all the spares onto the Warp It site”. This is a good alternative to ‘Put all your surplus items on Warp It’ as it’s less overwhelming; chair week, pens week, desk week etc. It’s much more manageable and it gets people used to using the site. Remember, small activities built up over time have a big impact.”

Advice for procurement managers

We were intrigued to find out what Helen’s best advice for procurement managers was, and which processes and areas they can identify to make progress on. She told us “Well, find colleagues and services that are friendly to change, so that starting a journey together is easy. Starting with non-controversial issues is a good way to trial ideas, and if they don’t work, you just move on and carry on as before. Try starting with something small which you’re 99% sure will actually work, because if you try and do too much, or something which is too big, people will get scared and reject it. It’s good to keep Newton’s Law of Motion in mind - once you get things moving, they’re harder to stop.”

The final question

We had one final question for Helen, which was ‘How do you get procurement managers to support sustainability?’. She responded “That’s a good question. I suppose here in Scotland we’ve got it in the legislation, so we have to do it, but the take up across Scottish councils shows that we’re all really committed to making it happen. One thing we do here at the Comhairle is that every time somebody specifies what they need, we have a process that challenges it through a group of senior managers called the Procurement Steering Group.  The Group is always asking  - Does it need to be so big, so high spec? Here’s an example: we were buying mobile library vans and the initial specification was to include a sink in them. So the Steering Group challenged the design of the vans and asked ‘Why do you need a sink in there?’Colleagues thought they might be required for health and safety but that really wasn’t the case, so the Steering Group got them to take it out of the scope of requirements. In Procurement we’d call this ‘demand management’.  It’s the process whereby you scrutinise the demand for a commodity and try to match this to need and the available budget.”

Helen continued with an additional idea for procurement managers, saying “Another thing that can be done is at the procurement strategy development stage where you can look at whole life cost and predicting how much something will cost to maintain, refurbish or reuse. We have a process whereby people aren’t allow to buy new things unless they’ve asked to see if someone has a spare. This means colleagues can’t get this new item until they’ve proved they couldn’t get it second hand from someone else or from resources available on a platform like Warp It for example.”

Helen’s incredible insight and wisdom is invaluable for procurement managers and sustainability managers who want to bring cultural changes in their organisation.


Thank you Helen!


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Daniel O'Connor

Daniel O'Connor

I use my time and experience to contribute to the transition to a regenerative sustainable society for all.


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