Change Management Critical Element in VA Supply Chain Modernization

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The Department of Veterans Affairs' plan to redesign its supply chain show promise.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is in the early stages of a massive modernization effort central to accomplishing the agency’s mission. The VA is developing a strategy to modernize and completely redesign its supply chain. That supply chain manages all goods, services and information flow between stakeholders, which start from those within the VA, to external suppliers and service providers, all the way to the veteran, the ultimate customer.

Prosthetics, pharmacy, IT, medical/surgical supplies, burial and benefit—every service the VA provides will be impacted by this effort. It is a massive undertaking, yet absolutely necessary. Current systems and processes are often not integrated, compounding issues with accountability and process management. There is no consolidated training and development system in place to foster and keep internal expertise in the supply chain and logistics specialties. 

Change management vs. technology 

Based on our experience inside the VA we are convinced that the challenge is more about change management as opposed to technology. The purpose of change management is to apply strategies for implementing change, being in control of the change being made and—critically—helping people accept and adapt to the change. This includes being clear about the need for change and the benefits of change. 

The VA is interested in producing a statement of objectives, rather than a statement of work, and partnering with industry for best of breed solutions. This is not what agencies have historically done in the past. Instead, it was more defining requirements and specifying exactly what and how the work should be done. This change in approach bodes well for internal buy-in and adoption.

Part of this listen-first approach—often referred to as being true to the “voice of the veteran”—is keeping and building on what is already working well. There are components of the current supply chain that are serving veterans and VA employees well and can become anchors to build out from, allowing the agency to create transformation in an evolutionary fashion. For the areas which need improvement, the VA has expressed a desire for competitive prototyping of proposed solutions.

New approach producing results

This openness on the part of VA leadership is already paying dividends. According to a survey last year of over 257,000 veterans, almost 80 percent trust the VA to deliver the healthcare and benefits they need. This percentage is a marked improvement. As recently as 2016, only 55 percent of veterans had similar confidence in VA operations.

That’s what happens when you listen to the end user. This approach of listening first also helped the VA roll out new, advanced dental services for veterans. First the VA listened to what was most needed, by both providers and patients. Among these were making teledentistry more available, the use of computer aided manufacturing technology and 3D printing for dentures. and having more facilities closer to veterans. 

The right partners

The VA should look for supply chain modernization partners who understand existing VA processes and procedures. Since this transformation is more about change management than technology, an understanding of the VA is required. Trying to simply copy a private sector solution and apply it to VA requirements will not work, nor will it encourage adoption of new supply chain tools and capabilities. 

Both of us have served in the VA and understand the nature of the supply chain challenge and its importance to the VA mission to “care for those who have borne the battle.” We feel the VA is taking a sound approach, and we are ready to provide whatever support the VA needs in this critical endeavor. 

Gregory L. Giddens is the former chief acquisition officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs and is now a partner at Potomac Ridge Consulting. He has over 35 years of federal experience with over 15 of them at the executive level.  He has served in leadership positions at DoD, DoT, DHS, and the VA across engineering, program management, procurement and change management disciplines.

David Whitmer, FACHE, is the chief strategy officer at DSS, Inc., and is a board-certified healthcare executive with 30 years of public health experience at the National Institutes of Health and the Veterans Health Administration, including 20 years in C-suite positions, and 10 years as member of the Senior Executive Service. At both agencies, he oversaw large biomedical and hospital supply chain operations.