Lessons from the Operation Iraqi Freedom Theater Distribution Center to Improve Your Supply Chain Operations

Think your distribution operations have been put to the test? A closer look at the U.S. Army's multi-million-square-foot distribution center that was established in Kuwait two years ago to support Operation Iraqi Freedom provides some insight for...


The second lesson is to identify your staffing needs before you start your operations. I know this sounds almost too simple: Sometimes the best solution is the simplest one. You would not start a family vacation trip with out a plan of how to get to the vacation site, would you? Of course not. Nevertheless, how many distribution managers fail to do a good assessment of how many people they really need in a distribution center? The answer to that question would probably surprise you. All too often I hear complaints that a company doesn't have enough people to operate the DC. But when I ask, How many people do you need to be efficient in the operation? I get the same answer: I'm not sure.

When we started the Theater Distribution Center in Kuwait, we had no idea how many people were necessary to operate the center. This was primarily because we did not have a good idea of the workload and volume of supplies that would be coming through the center. (Remember that this had never been done before in a theater of war.) We started with a volunteer staff of 25 per twelve-hour shift (I call them volunteers because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and were volunteered to work in the center). Today there are over 1,000 employees in the Theater Distribution Center in Kuwait. What was the right number? Based on an analysis known in the military as a troop-to-task analysis, the correct number should have been about 60 per twelve-hour shift. A troop-to-task analysis is simply determining what has to be done and then determining how many people are necessary to successfully accomplish the tasks. This analysis can be accomplished using sophisticated models and simulations, or more likely done using professional experience and knowledge of the abilities of your workforce.

The third lesson is to ensure that your staff is properly trained to accomplish the missions and tasks. As I stated earlier, the majority of the early staff of the Theater Distribution Center was not properly trained. This required training each new volunteer crew much of which was discovery learning and about the time the crew was comfortable with the tasks, it was time for a new crew. Toyota provides over 80 hours a year of training for the employees of its North American Parts Distribution Center in Ontario, Calif. Another major retailing distribution center in California recently boasted that the only training it provides its workforce is the mandatory training to get Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)-certified on the forklifts. Which distribution center do you think has an employee turnover problem? In the long run, it is much less expensive to properly train your workforce on a continual basis than to be in a constant new training and retraining situation.

The need for proper training was obvious with the new daily crews of temporary help at the Theater Distribution Center. The real benefit of having a properly trained crew became evident when a Supply Company with experience from Afghanistan arrived a few days before the start of the combat operations. This company provided two fully trained crews of soldiers that were able to handle the increased workload and conditions that would make other distribution center managers around the world cringe. The success of the distribution operations was because of these trained soldiers.

Team building is often an overused, almost cliché term in today's business world. In the Theater Distribution Center and in your distribution operations, however, this is not something should receive lip service or become cliché. Organizing your workers into functional teams can produce major benefits and, when coupled with a little competition, can build a strong sense of belonging and pride. At the Theater Distribution Center, we gathered all of the new workers when the Supply Company arrived and explained to them the importance of the distribution center in ensuring success in the combat operations and possibly preventing the loss of lives. This was important because all too often in the supply and distribution business we forget to take the time to build the team and let them know how important they are in the total supply chain. Ask your forklift operators what he or she does for a living and you will probably get, I drive a forklift all day. But when you start doing some team building and letting your employees know how important they are in getting your customers those items that are critical to the success of their business or the goods that they ordered as presents, suddenly they have a sense of pride in what they are doing. We organized teams of soldiers responsible for off-loading the inbound trucks, another team responsible for clearing the dock and another team responsible for loading the outbound trucks. These teams competed against each other to stay ahead of the other teams.

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