Guest Column: Winston Churchill's Supply Chain (Part 3)

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 series looked at how, in May 1940, the concepts of supply chain agility, just-in-time manufacturing and zero inventories were introduced to offset a pending disaster. This was done within an incredibly short time frame to respond to the demands of a nation in crisis under the leadership of Lord Beaverbrook. This lesson-from-history article looks at the demand side of the Supply Chain, namely where the fighters were directed to: Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command.

Today's organizations are striving to move to a more effective demand-driven supply chain and the ability to respond quickly to shifts in demand. To do this, they employ a variety of business strategies and models, coupled with leading management practices, and consistently measuring performance through key indicators. Not only must it be more resilient and cost-effective, but it should also be able to respond directly to continually shifting customer needs and be able to reduce lead times.

Computer giant HP operates the IT industry's largest and most complex supply chain. HP purchases approximately $53 billion of products and materials, components and manufacturing, transport, and other services annually from approximately 7,000 suppliers globally. However, HP's supply base is heavily concentrated on a limited number of suppliers — approximately 500 suppliers make up 99 percent of the amount HP spends on product materials.

In June 1940, despite Air Marshall Hugh Dowding's best efforts, RAF Fighter Command was facing a major challenge. In the last two weeks of May 1940 the RAF sustained massive losses of close to 500 operational fighters in the air battle over Flanders and France. With 620 operational fighters the RAF was about 50 percent below its set target (in 1939) of 1,200 fighters, thought to be the minimum number to win an air battle over the United Kingdom (U.K.). The fighters were outnumbered by a ratio of 2:1, and Dowding had to very carefully manage the remaining numbers of fighters in how he deployed them in the forthcoming Battle.

Dowding's Preparation

To better understand how Dowding was able to go into an air battle against such bad odds we need to go back to July 12, 1936, to the birth of RAF Fighter Command and look at the evolution of this organization. Dowding formed his headquarters at Bentley Priory (Stanmore, Middlesex) where he was the first Commander-in-Chief. He had great determination and foresight in fighting the "old guard" of senior military chiefs and politicians who wanted to equip the new RAF with inexpensive and well-tried string-and-canvas biplanes. Fortunately, Dowding won and specified a design to British industry that could take off from a grass field. Eventually, he obtained high-performance heavily armed monoplanes, taken from R.J. Mitchell's S6b float plane that had won the final three Schneider Trophy races in 1931. In 1935 the Hurricane flew, and a few months later the prototype Spitfire was released.

Dowding wanted the aircraft to be armed with heavy wing-mounted cannons and the cockpits fitted with armor plating and bullet-proof glass to protect his pilots, forward thinking for the time. Despite strong opposition he later got these once the need was proven in battle.

Dowding was aware that the Air Ministry was very slow in scaling up its fighter production schedule and unlikely to reach the minimum target number of squadrons for many years. So he looked to other means to assist his fighters in an air battle. In 1935 he asked Watson-Watt to follow a line of research that led to the world's first operative radar network, called Chain Home, which became operational in 1937. Radar testing proved the success of the technology in providing early warning of incoming aircraft detected at ranges of 80 miles.

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