Supply chains and the Army
Special to CNET News.com December 6, 2003, 6:00 AM PST
On Sept. 10, 2001, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned in a speech to Pentagon officials of an adversary that poses a "serious threat" to the United States--one far more "subtle and implacable" than was the former Soviet Union.
He referred not to al-Qaida, the terrorist group that the very next day reshaped the course of American military policy with devastating attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., but to an enemy within.
Rumsfeld was targeting the Pentagon's own bureaucratic inefficiencies--long the butt of jokes about $700 toilet seats and $400 hammers. In his speech, he noted that half of the Department of Defense's resources go to supporting its infrastructure and overhead, using "costly and outdated" systems and procedures that stifle innovation and drain resources from war fighters.
After the attacks, the imperative to streamline the military's supply chain system, harness information technology and cut costs by adopting practices from the corporate world gained urgency.
The Pentagon's bureaucracy might indeed have the department tangled in an "anchor chain," but on closer inspection, the picture of military logistics is not as bleak as depicted.
"There is a back-and-forth," says Morris Cohen, a professor in the Operations and Information Management Department at Wharton. "People in the military ask, 'Why can't we be as efficient as Wal-Mart?' And people like myself who work on both sides say, 'Why can't the commercial world recognize the lessons that have been learned over decades in the military world?'
Specialized supply chains
"Soldiers can be killed if they run out of fuel in their tanks or ammo," says William Pagonis, a retired Army Lt. General who oversaw logistics in the Persian Gulf War. For the past 10 years, he has been the senior vice president of Sears' supply chain and the president of Sears Logistics Services, a subsidiary of Sears. "If I run out of dresses in the store, I have time to react."
The military supply chain can be divided into three distinct chains, military logistics experts note.
Boeing and Caterpillar would be their commercial equivalents. The third is the deployment chain in which the military must move a large number of troops and material in a short period, in trying conditions. There is, of course, no commercial equivalent to this chain. "You can't hire UPS to do that," Cohen says. "They've never done that and wouldn't know what to do--especially when someone is shooting at you."
Another major difference that raises the level of complexity of the military supply chain is that not only does it have a forward pipeline--as do most commercial ones--but it also has reverse and lateral pipelines, points out Rick Eden, a military logistics analyst at Rand, a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.
When the military provides a soldier with any equipment, it continues to own that product. The military needs to service and maintain the product. If the equipment outlives its usefulness, the military will need to pull it back through its reverse supply chain and dispose of the item. Even if the equipment is transferred to another soldier, the military retains responsibility for it.
The Defense Department also deals with a wider range of products than do retailers like Dell, Sears or Wal-Mart Stores--all companies renowned for elevating supply chain management to an advanced science. Eden underscores the complexity of the military's extensive inventory. "I can't build a house with what I buy at Wal-Mart--much less a town. But the Army has to do just that--and then live in that town and run it--when it moves into deployed environments."
Directing this vast effort is the department's Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which in fiscal year 2003 carried $80 billion in inventory, provided about $25 billion in sales and services and ran 22 depots worldwide. "When you look at the Fortune 500 and use sales as a metric, we're at No. 78--one ahead of Lockheed Martin," says Al Banghart, the director of Enterprise Transformation at the DLA. "Talk about orders of magnitude: not counting ordinances, we manage more than 90 percent of the military's supply chain."
Lessons from the business world
"At one time, the DoD was the leader in IT technology, but that is no longer the case," Pagonis says. "IT technology has jumped so dramatically in the last 20 years, and particularly in the past five years, that the DoD is finding it better to go out and get technology from the civilian sector."
The DoD, with its jumble of internally developed software and legacy systems that aren't compatible between each military wing, may have no other option to tame their disparate systems. Major technology companies like IBM, BEA Systems and SAP and smaller ones like Manugistics and MatrixOne are implementing systems to help bridge the divide.
The DLA's Banghart says the Pentagon is in the middle of a major overhaul that began in 1998. The effort involves implementing new customer relations management, supplier management and enterprise resource planning systems. "If you add up all the initiatives, it comes to more than $1 billion in investments," Banghart says.
The transformation has also spurred a cottage industry dedicated to draining the Defense Department's IT quagmire. Cohen notes that while the military has developed logistics tools that go far beyond what the commercial world has, it is lagging in terms of the basic capabilities the corporate world now demands, such as compatible Web-based systems.
The military has also modified its supply-chain by adopting some simple commercial distribution processes. Just as retailers routinely have goods delivered by manufacturers to regional depots, where they are packed into containers to meet the demographic needs of individual stores, the Defense Department has regional hubs that distribute containers for different bases. "The DLA sets up truck routes for its bases that are very much like Wal-Mart's truck routes for its stores," Eden says. "In that sense, they have adopted distribution efficiencies of the Wal-Mart model."
In an effort to study other methods of gaining business efficiencies, Rumsfeld in 2001 established the Defense Business Practice Implementation Board. The organization comprises some 20 executives from the corporate world, including Mortimer Zuckerman, the CEO of U.S. News and World Report; James Kimsey, the founding CEO of America Online; and Denis Bovin, the vice chairman of Bear Stearns. "We review DoD projects to see if there are any civilian 'best practices' that can be used by the Pentagon," says Sears' Pagonis, who serves as the board's chairman.
Historically, technologies first enlisted by the Defense Department eventually filtered down to commercial applications--from transplanting sophisticated jet fighter materials to designing sleeker cars to the historic evolution of the Internet from a cloistered defense communication network into a mainstream Web of digital shopping and entertainment outlets.
At the cutting edge, the military can still teach business a trick or two. The Defense Department is turning to autonomic--or sense and response--logistics technology for its next-generation Joint Strike Fighter aircrafts. The concept builds on IBM's autonomic computing initiative, in which machines monitor, diagnose and repair problems. In the case of autonomic logistics, sensors on the aircraft can detect potential problems or something that requires maintenance and alert its maker, Lockheed Martin and its suppliers. "This information is passed on electronically to the supply chain, which initiates the procurement process," says Robert Luby, a partner at IBM Business Consulting Services who leads its defense supply chain practice. The combat aircraft is not expected to go into production until 2005, at the earliest.
The business world, however, need not turn to the distant future to adapt military supply chain techniques to improve performance. Cohen suggests that the military manages its logistics with the performance metric of availability--of having what is needed where it is needed, precisely when it is needed--for its end customer, the soldier. The commercial world, however, manages its logistics with internal performance metrics and not from the perspective of the end customer.
"In the military, there are no excuses--the consequences of not being at the right place at the right time can be disastrous," Cohen says. Therefore, the military always focuses on a customer-centric performance metric. "I think the commercial world often loses sight of the end customer."
All materials copyright © 2003 of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Interested in more research studies like these? If so, sign up for the Knowledge@Wharton Newsletter, a free service of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.