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...


Forecasting is not just for the bean counters at corporate. To be successful in the distribution business, you have to be able to forecast what is coming, what should be cross-docked, what needs to be expedited, how many workers are needed on what shift, and how many assets are needed to get the items out of the distribution center and to the customer. Included in these forecasts are the number of truckloads and less-than-truckload shipments that are necessary to support all of your customers. The Army's logistics automation systems provided us visibility into what was coming in every day. This, in turn, enabled us to be able to forecast the workload and the necessary number of trucks every day. In the beginning of the operations, we did not do a good forecast of the sheer volume of stuff coming through the distribution center, and that led to the shortfall of staffing. Forecasting is usually viewed from the sales and manufacturing point of view. However, there is a direct link between forecasting and layout, staffing, and training to ensure success of the operation. If these factors are not considered in the forecast, you may very well find yourself with a flawed layout, a shortfall of assets or a shortfall of trained personnel to accomplish your distribution missions.

In Kuwait, we learned the importance of adequate infrastructure and communications to the success of distribution operations. Too often, we take these factors for granted. We assume that when we pick up the telephone there will be a dial tone and the ability to connect to the desired number. We assume that when we turn on the computer it will work, and that the cable modem or dial-up modem will be able to connect and transmit the necessary information to our suppliers or customers. Do you have a back up plan if the communications network does not work? How do you handle infrastructure problems? Problems in these areas need to be part of your planning process. Any possible contingency should be considered. If you do not have communications due to a computer glitch, a virus or weather-related problems, how do you communicate with your customers? After September 11, 2001, this should be part of your back-up or contingency plans. Dell's ability to communicate with suppliers proved to be a competitive advantage immediately after September 11 when many modes of transportation were not available. It is also important to decide what infrastructure needs are critical to success and which needs are really nice-to-have items that may or may not actually impact operational success.

Leadership is important to success whether you are a multi-million-square-foot operation or a mom and pop distribution operation. The ability to get more out of your workers is an important aspect of leadership. In the harsh environment of Kuwait, this was critical to keeping the workforce, comprised of soldiers, contract employees from the United States and contract workers from other countries, motivated and focused. Granted, making distribution operations work when there is a constant threat of rocket attack or the occasional Patriot Missile being fired overhead is something that most distribution professionals will never have to endure. However, some of the distribution centers that I have been in over the past few years faced the same challenges of keeping employees motivated and focused. It is easy to motivate soldiers that are being shot at; it is not an easy task to motivate a forklift driver making a little more than minimum wage. However, the techniques are very similar in nature. When you show the workers that you are genuinely concerned about them as individuals, and you try to better understand their backgrounds and working conditions, you will find that you can get more out of them. There is an amazing power in leadership. Regardless of your operations, remember that you are in the people business and people need leadership to help them reach new levels of operational success. Leadership can turn average operations into world-class operations. Do you have an employee turnover problem? Take a look at your leadership that will give you a clue as to why there is a problem in that area. You may be surprised to discover the link between the power of leadership and the morale of your organization.

Stress affects all of us, but it is how we deal with stress that separates leaders and survivors from everyone else. While the stress of operating a distribution center in a theater of war is a bit higher than operating a distribution center in Southern California or Kansas City, there is stress nonetheless. As a leader in the distribution business, it is your job to help your employees handle stress. Okay, so how do you handle stress of your own? In Kuwait, one General Officer did not handle it so well. One night, during a SCUD missile alert during dinner, this particular General started running through the dining facility and yelling at everyone because he did not think they were responding fast enough. In fact, the only one that was not responding fast enough was him. Do you take you stress out on your employees? Do you take your job-related stress out at home, or home-related stress on your employees and co-workers? Find someone that you trust enough to be able to talk about anything, and use that person as a sounding board or outlet valve to blow off steam. I have been lucky enough to have a couple of close friends that fit those criteria. I know I can call them at any time and talk about a problem or idea, and they know they can do the same with me. This is critical for maintaining your own sanity and not allowing stress to affect your job performance, health or family.

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