When it comes to meeting management, Pricewaterhouse- Coopers is a trailblazer. Do you use meeting cards? PwC helped to invent them. Have you launched a strategic meetings management program? PwC consolidated meeting management back in 1998. Thinking of becoming the resource for webcasts at your company? PwC's meeting department has included a full-time virtual meetings staff for four years.

So take a look at what PwC is up to now, and you might get a peek at what is next in strategic meeting management: Six Sigma. In an effort that started in April 2005 and continues today, PwC has reduced what it calls “rogue spend” by 70 percent, improved consistency and service, and found new ways to get the most from technology. The result? Millions of dollars saved in just the first year.

Six Sigma Defined

There's an unwieldy mathematical description of Six Sigma, and then there's a simpler conceptual idea. You can find the former at Wikipedia. You can find the latter in the PalmPilot of Debi Scholar, CMP, CMM, CTE, director, meeting and event services (known as MES) at PwC: “Six Sigma is a methodology, or strategy, to improve processes.”

Scholar has kept all things Six Sigma close at hand for nearly two years. When PwC announced plans to launch a handful of Six Sigma projects firmwide, Scholar lobbied to be among them. Nine projects, including the meeting and event improvement process, were selected from some 100 applicants.

Initially used by manufacturing companies, namely Motorola, Six Sigma was created to measure and improve quality — to reduce the number of “defects” per million “opportunities.”

But measuring quality gets fuzzy with things such as meetings. “It's not something that goes in a machine and comes out the other end,” Scholar says.

Nevertheless, Kathy Murray, managing director of infrastructure at PwC, saw MES as a prime candidate for the Six Sigma project “because it's very process-oriented.” Meeting management had been centralized for years; however, Murray says, “individual meeting planners were doing their own thing. It was crying out for consistency.”

Not to mention that the firm's business is meetings-intensive: There were 1,647 events on the MES calendar in fiscal 2007.

A Shot of Red Bull?

Maybe it's just coincidence that she works for a company that does such things, but Scholar claims to welcome an audit. “It's a great thing anytime you can have somebody review what you're doing,” she says. “Yes, we had a strategic meetings management program in place, but Six Sigma was like an energy drink. This gave our program the boost that it needed to become visible in the eyes of the firm. Sure, it was difficult and it took us a lot of hours. But we were all for improving the SMMP.”

A quick primer on how Scholar's department works: A meeting or event request comes in, a member of the contract management team checks for all the relevant data (city, line of service requesting the meeting, number of attendees, dates, space), and then projects a cost. This information goes to finance leaders for approval. “Before we spend too much time on the meeting, the finance leaders take a look and say ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’” Scholar explains. “Meanwhile, we are initiating the sourcing process; however, we have a rule of thumb that we do not spend more than 10 hours on a meeting or event until it's approved.”

After approval, a member of the contract management team finds and analyzes potential locations and then negotiates and signs the contract. At that point, a planner takes over the meeting implementation.

The contract management team has a “reporting relationship” to the procurement department, Scholar notes. “We work with them closely to ensure that we follow procurement policies such as contract signature authority, selecting suppliers fairly, and retaining records.”

And while MES is “a centralized, virtual team,” she adds, there are local planners who do not report to MES. “However, they follow the firm's policy and come through us for meeting registration, contract negotiation and signing, and bill payment.”

You'll Need Wall Space

The Six Sigma project for MES got rolling in April 2005. First up was the creation of the Meeting and Event Process Improvement Team, whose seven full-time members included Scholar, two other MES staffers, and representatives from the learning and education area and the travel area. Four part-time members came from travel, procurement, and MES. All started off with two weeks of “Green Belt” training led by “Black Belts” — Six Sigma experts hired by PwC to guide the projects firmwide. (Ten subject-matter experts who participated periodically were from human resources, finance, marketing, procurement, travel, security, and the executive offices.) After the training, a Black Belt continued to guide the MES team. “The Black Belts keep you on target,” Scholar explains. “They help to make the whole thing less daunting.”

And a Six Sigma project feels pretty daunting from the get-go, when a team gets the assignment to map its process. Scholar recalls that it took an entire wall to contain the steps involved in planning a meeting. “It took us days and multiple flip charts to create,” she says, “but that's when you see all the things that might not be value-added.”

For example, she says, “we determined that having a person take meeting requirements over the phone and then populate our database was not a value-added step for simple, nonseries types of meetings. It made more sense to have the meeting requester fill out the data and then submit it to us for review. This doesn't work for extremely complex meetings or a series of meetings, but it has reduced our time at the beginning of the process.” Scholar notes that meeting requesters can still get questions answered on a “meeting hotline.”

Eye Opener

The second step is measurement. For MES, the critical statistic was compliance with PwC's meeting and event policy. “I thought we had 80 percent of the firm's meeting spend” being registered and managed through MES, Scholar says. “Unfortunately, I learned that I had only 49 percent. So there was 51 percent of meeting spend that we still needed to gain control of.”

To measure the quality of its service, the team interviewed stakeholders; in Six Sigma parlance, they listened to the Voice of the Business (senior management), the Voice of the Provider (peer departments such as security and IT), and the Voice of the Customer (meeting sponsors). Recalls Scholar: “I thought, ‘We provide great service; we're certainly working hard,’ but we found folks who were not happy with our services. It was a painful moment.

“People said we were not consultative enough, that we were not acting as true professional managers, and that our turnaround wasn't as good as it could be. It was one of those somber moments where we realized we really did need to improve.” Room for Improvement

They heard the message; it was time for team members to get up, dust themselves off, and make some changes. The tough work was ahead: figuring out how to improve. “We looked at three areas,” Scholar reports. “Process, technology, and organization.”

Process improvements:

  • A stronger meeting and event policy

    (See box.) “Previously, the policy was mandated, but we did not market it well, and compliance wasn't monitored,” Scholar notes.

  • Better cost avoidance

    For example, the contract management team now is charged with using extant penalty dollars first. These dollars are advertised internally so that all meeting sponsors can see where a program might “use up” cancellation penalties incurred by the firm. Other new ways to avoid costs: booking air earlier, capping food-and-beverage spend to ensure it is in line with the industry average of 30 percent of total meeting costs, selecting preferred suppliers for audiovisual equipment, and considering virtual meetings when possible.

  • Better service

    For example, Scholar explains, “Customers said they didn't like having the planner come in after the sourcing was done and then having to review the whole meeting again. This was an ‘aha’ moment. We now assign a sourcer and a planner to a meeting at the same time whenever possible, and we conduct a kickoff call with the planner, sourcer, and meeting requester. This also helps the customer understand who does what in the process.”

Technology improvements:

  • Better record-keeping, or as Scholar explains it, “better document retention.” For example, she notes, MES now keeps all of its RFPs and contracts in one system.

  • Increased automation. For example, the team had been sending RFPs to national sales offices by e-mail and receiving responses from individual hotels by e-mail. To compare bids, the contract management team had to print out each response and create a spreadsheet. “That could take hours, or maybe a day,” she says. The department is beta-testing an e-RFP technology that consolidates all responses and creates a comparison document.

  • Improved tracking. The department gets reports from PwC's meeting-card supplier that uncover unmanaged spend.

Organizational improvements:

  • More staff

    Short on resources even before the Six Sigma project, MES increased its head count by 10 in order to handle the greater volume of meetings and events coming in as policy compliance increased.

  • Division of tasks

    The contract management team strictly manages sourcing and contracts; the planning team handles meeting logistics; the operations team tracks who is assigned to what meeting, handles invoices and data analysis, and provides reports on spend; a group travel manager works with the firm's travel management company for group travel bookings; and the virtual meetings team manages webconferences and webcasts.

Tell Your Story

The lessons learned extended beyond the meeting department. “The benefit of Six Sigma is that it gave Debi and her team a comprehensive road map that not only they bought into but also the firm bought into,” says Murray. “It wasn't just Debi going through the process. The Leadership Review Team, including representatives from each of the firm's three lines of service plus key internal leaders, was engaged every step of the way.”

Having so many stakeholders on board was crucial when it came to communicating the Six Sigma outcomes firmwide. “By the time the project was complete, after 14 months, our team had all bought into it,” Scholar says. “But to the rest of the firm, it was completely new. There were stricter rules, a new way to register meetings. We knew it would take time for adoption.”

One tip for helping that process along, she says, is to identify internal leaders who can get the message to their audiences. “Change management is the hardest thing,” she notes. “We had a full-time change manager on our team, and that person changed three times!”

The key is to tell your story. “But you have to make sure it's tailored to the right audience,” she says. “We put together a communications plan and primarily used e-mail, which isn't always the best. We held webcasts and conducted conference calls. It's tough. Even today when I call a ‘rogue’ spender and ask how we can help them plan their meeting, some have never heard of us. It is a constant challenge.”

Working in her favor, she notes, was that “we had a great managing director [Murray] and CFO [Jean Hobby] who kept it in front of people. Our leadership walks the talk. When they say that they want to improve processes, they support the efforts required to make it happen. But it probably took a whole year to get the word out, and we're still educating our audience.”

A Policy with Teeth

PwC's revised meeting policy reflects the hard work of Six Sigma as well as the best practices of the National Business Travel Association's Groups & Meetings Committee (www.nbta.org), which has produced 10 white papers on strategic meetings management. PricewaterhouseCooper's Debi Scholar, CMP, CMM, CTE, is co-chair of that committee.

These are the beefed-up elements of PwC's policy:

  1. Any event requiring a contract must be registered with Meeting & Event Services.

  2. All contracts must be signed by either a corporate partner or MES, following Procurement Authorized Signing rules.

  3. Meeting sponsors must have an approved budget and be willing to give it to the MES team.

  4. Internal meeting space must be sought first.

  5. Locations selected must minimize travel and overnight accommodations when most attendees are from the same location.

  6. If a meeting objective can be accomplished through audio, video, or webcast, those options should be considered first.

  7. Meetings or events that cost more than $5,000 must be paid for through MES using meeting cards.

  8. MES will use a formal RFP procurement process for meetings and events that cost more than $50,000.

  9. Third parties are not allowed to sign contracts on behalf of PwC.

  10. Meetings that cost more than $50,000 should be booked 12 to 18 months in advance.

  11. Points, comp tickets, gifts, fam trips, free services, etc. are not allowed.

  12. Off-site activities may require additional insurance. Requests for waivers or additional insurance must go through Operational Risk Management.

Relationship Reality

PricewaterhouseCooper's Debi Scholar, CMP, CMM, CTE, loves technology — but she wishes that more hoteliers would share her enthusiasm. “I was speaking to an executive of a major hotel chain, and we were not on the same page with meeting technology,” she recalls. “And for the fourth time he said, ‘We want this to be about relationships.’”

She was tempted to just hang up.

“Relationships are important,” Scholar acknowledges. “We do participate in hotel advisory councils, and I feel fortunate about the relationships we have built, especially with national sales offices.” Nevertheless, she notes, “the word ‘relationship’ is not in any contract. Yes, if something goes wrong you may find yourself in a better position if you have a relationship. Still, our contracts must have all our requirements spelled out.”

Besides, she adds, “A hotel's sales department does the contract, but once you're on-site, your partner is conference services. And they usually are not aware of our global relationships. You have to select properties based on a procurement process.”