Guest Column: Winston Churchill's Supply Chain (Part 4)

A look at how supply chain leaders adapt and overcome in difficult circumstances


Conventional wisdom is that the concept of a demand-driven supply chain is relatively modern. Part 1 and Part 2 of this lessons-from-history series looked at how in May 1940 the concepts of supply chain agility, just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing and zero inventories were introduced to offset a pending disaster for Britain's Royal Air Force with regard to the amount of fire power they had compared to Nazi Germany. This was done within an incredibly short timeframe to respond to the demands of a nation in crisis under the leadership of Lord Beaverbrook.

Part 3 looked at how Air Marshall Hugh Dowding initiated an integrated air defense system and the first of three components. This lesson-from-history article looks at the other two unique components, decision making and responding, to complete what became known as the "Dowding System" that helped turn the course of Battle of Britain.

"An adaptive system is a system that is able to adapt its behavior according to changes in its environment or in parts of the system itself. A human being, for instance, is certainly an adaptive system; so are organizations and families. Some man-made systems can be made adaptive as well; for instance, control systems utilize feedback loops in order to sense conditions in their environment and adapt accordingly. Robots incorporate many of these control systems. Neural Networks are a common type of algorithmic implementation of adaptive systems."
Source: Wikipedia, definition of an Adaptive system.

Dowding's Preparation for Battle

In May 1940, despite the lack of funding but because of his preparation and prudence, Dowding had made the right investments (Radar, Observer Corps, distributed hierarchy of stations) to create all the basic components of a complex but sophisticated sense-and-respond system. This could not come soon enough; despite Air Marshall Hugh Dowding's best efforts the RAF Fighter Command was facing a major challenge. With massive losses in the air battle over Flanders and France the remaining numbers of fighters would have to be carefully managed and deployed them in the forthcoming Battle.

By June 1940 an integrated air defense system was almost ready with Bentley Priory, the operational headquarters, at the center. Developed by Dowding, it had three unique components:

  • Sensing — an early-warning system consisting of three lines.
  • Decision Making — a real-time environment with tools like executive dashboards and real-time event models and processes for institutionalized decision making.
  • Responding — a system feeding information to a hierarchy of Group/Sector operations centers beneath it capable of responding to the threat.

Decision Making
The filter room at Bentley Priory headquarters was the communications hub that aggregated all this disparate information collected from the early warning system. Occasionally there were other sources that passed new information to Bentley Priory, namely other operations centers and pilots. All this information was integrated in real time and passed directly into the operations room (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: RAF Operational Center (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London)

The Bentley Priory operations room, in reality, was a sophisticated real-time event model with an elegant user-interface. Run by the Women of the Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs), the purpose of the model was to visually map the skies above the United Kingdom. The map table was used to show the location of both friendly and enemy aircraft on a scaled map of the UK. The WAAFs would receive information from the filter room through headsets. Enemy planes taking off in France were tracked and plotted onto this real-time model, reflecting every change. The counters on the glass-covered table were color-coded:

  • a red F on white background was for friendly aircraft,
  • a black X on yellow meant unidentified, and
  • a black H on yellow was for hostile (representing enemy formations) aircraft.
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