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Boilerplate deliverables--dangerous business. (Best Practices).

One of the most unnerving aspects about being a government contractor is to sit in a contract management meeting, where a customer manager announces, "This plan doesn't meet our specs. It is unsatisfactory. In fact, it looks like it's all boilerplate."

All too often, contractors have heard these words, or have received letters to this equivalent--boilerplate is dangerous business. We contractors sometimes rationalize to ourselves that speedily produced deliverable plans and procedures--that have been made up from old documents, that is boilerplate, untailored to the present needs--might be an acceptable business practice. Generally, when we make this error, we engage in this self-deluding error about deliverables: "Nobody reads them."

The Facts, The Symptoms

There are a few reasons that boilerplate is thrown into deliverables. First, the staff may be over-taxed with workload in the intense phase-in period of a new contract, and expediency merely stepped in. This is the "give them something syndrome." Second, if we have been a successful incumbent contractor on a contract for several years, then it is reasonable to expect some "grace period," where this previously friendly client will let us catch up, above and beyond the formal phase-in period. This is the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it syndrome." Third, if we just won this new contract by defeating other contractors, we now expect the client to be pleased with anything we provide, even if it is altogether out-of-date, from the same contract, but old methodology. The "post-award euphoria syndrome" covers this almost gleeful use of boilerplate.

Contracts professionals who are called in to fix the situation can spot these flaws rather quickly. Symptoms of boilerplate are:

* Deliverable plan/procedure doesn't meet specifications/standards in the contract. The emphasis is incorrect, the table of contents is wrong, and even the forms and flow charts may be erroneous. Writing team did not read the contract!

* The issue date and revision dates are wrong. These are minor but telltale indications of erroneous materials, but easier to repair.

* Or worse yet, the content is from the wrong or unrelated contract, or is poorly linked to the required deliverable. This is the most severe to amend and make acceptable.

When workmanship and materials, or other significant, structured operating methods are affected by a faulty deliverable, such as a project-wide quality control plan, or configuration management plan, then these boilerplate-induced glitches put our operations staff at a deficit. The operations staff will have one less tool in the kit than they were counting on and will be handicapped in performing the contract.

The Cure

The most frequent sour experiences with boilerplate deliverables--such as plans and standard operating procedures (SOPs)-- that make a bad impression on the client, typically will occur in the hurry-up, speed-up stages of the transition/phase-in period. That time frame is usually during the first 30 days of a newly awarded contract. There are contractually acceptable, pragmatic reasons why early deliverables are unsatisfactory, rejected, or critiqued harshly in the beginning.

The most prevalent reasons are that the client and contractor have not worked together before; they may be wary of each other and may not want to start off on the wrong foot. The new form of contract and statement of work (SOW) are perhaps strange and different to both parties. Or perhaps, the contractor took short cuts by dusting off the former contractor's deliverables and retyping them with superficial changes. The gamble here is that the contracting officer or technical representative won't scrutinize the documents that closely. Don't run this risk! Read your contract closely, and meet as frequently with the client as you need to.

As most contract professionals know, a lot of changes happen in those five years between contract periods. Computer and integration technology "jumps" have occurred twice a year, agencies have restructured, the government affirms new standards and specifications, and phases out others. Staffs change, too. Every new contractual phase-in represents a chance for our clients to improve and enhance the performance of their contractors, including rejuvenating deliverable plans and SOPs. And, typically, new client management personnel assigned to a contract is an indicator the client is serious about rejuvenation. Thus, we should start fresh whenever embarking on a deliverable document--don't assume the client will be satisfied with the materials they graciously accepted in 1999!

Avoiding Negative Customer Reactions

Deliverables rooted in boilerplate alone can skewer the phase-in schedule, and may blow out the end of the planned startup/phase-in schedule on a new contract. This flaw negatively affects our award fees if they are part of the contract, and may provoke a letter from our contracting officer or contracting officer's technical representative, itemizing his/her dissatisfaction, while annotating our poor performance at the critical inception of the project. This is bad for business, especially at the first few management review meetings, where the client might air impatience and disappointment and put those feelings into our contract record.

Negative client reactions to boilerplate puts a shadow over the rest of phase-in, and bodes ill for the future. It may also trigger a retroactive close inspection of previously accepted contract data requirements list/data item deliverables (CDRL/DID), to assure that other documents were not passed through with insufficient examination.

If any of the government managers assigned to the contract were negative about us when they evaluated our proposal as a source selection board member, then an early flash-in-the-pan over deliverables will confirm their worst fears. They may now assume that our firm is a faulty performer and a semi-qualified low bidder, and that our bad deliverables "up front" are merely premonitions of things to come. These are misperceptions which we must eliminate from the client's view of those of us in the contracting community.

In Summary

Whenever a contractor prepares a deliverable, whether from scratch or amendment of an existing plan or procedure, a contracts professional and the responsible manager should either make or review the outline, not trusting to "techies" to outline, write, and edit the document. The specific intent of CDRL/DID are met only through careful scrutiny of the latest version of the requirement, written and edited to meet client expectations. Nothing else will suffice.

About the Author

TIM WHALEN is a proposal management consultant. He is a member of the Northern Virginia (NOVA) Chapter and has written numerous articles for CM magazine. Send comments on this article to
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Author:Whalen, Tim
Publication:Contract Management
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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