Guest Column: Winston Churchill's Supply Chain

How the RAF's WWII supply chain is a model of excellence for today's businesses


Standardization provided everything needed for the production of the Hurricane and Spitfire aircrafts so that it could be immediately stepped up. Standardization also safeguarded the supply of materials and equipment already allocated for these planes and made it possible to divert from other types the necessary parts, stocks of materials and components, and reserves of production capacity for immediate use. Aircraft parts were sourced from hundreds of large and small suppliers to ensure availability, avoid bottlenecks and a continuous flow.

Business processes were mapped out and infrastructure components for fighter production were connected. This better understanding of the production process allowed the production line to be broken out from large-scale factories to much smaller facilities, like garages, that could be dispersed across geographic locations, creating a network of integrated manufacturing. This was useful as all fighter production facilities were top priority targets for Germany's Air Force, the Luftwaffe. In addition, new processes were introduced that eliminated the elliptical wing production problems.

With raw materials scarce and expensive, a Civilian Repair Organization (CRO) was established to recover downed pilots and aircraft. Using small civilian workshops and garages, recovered aircraft were either immediately repaired or cannibalized for spare parts. In such a lean operation, even enemy planes were salvaged and thrown into smelters to provide raw materials for new fighters.

Fighter production was simplified by reducing the number of small and disparate components by concentrating on completed subassemblies (fuselage frames, undercarriages, instrument panels, engines) shipped straight from suppliers. This reduced complexity from business process execution.

Further, Beaverbrook had good relationships with industrialists in the United States and leveraged these to secure supplies of precious raw materials and key parts and subassemblies.

Expertise and best practices were brought in from the automobile manufacturing industry to speed up fighter production. Modularity was introduced where reusable parts and subassemblies could be redeployed from bomber production. These could be switched back with changing needs after the air battle. Thus the parts and subassemblies were decoupled from physical linkages to the business processes.

The Supply Chain in the Clutch

By the end of May, fighter production hit 325 fighters in one month as Beaverbrook's changes began to bite. By mid-June a spare parts inventory secretly run by the Air Ministry was brought to Beaverbrook's attention. Following an internal battle Beaverbrook ordered its immediate seizure, and the parts put back into fighter production, as he mandated zero inventories. The whole supply chain held absolute minimum inventory to maximize the number of fighters available.

By July, with good visibility across the supply chain, Beaverbrook closely aligned supply to RAF Fighter Command demand as the RAF was engaged in the Battle of Britain, which took place between the July 10 and October 31, 1940. The RAF entered the fight with 640 fighters, but the Luftwaffe had 2,600 bombers and fighters, so numbers were crucial to the success of the British. Beaverbrook was in contact with RAF Fighter Command's leader, Air Marshall Hugh Dowding, every evening throughout the battle. As Dowding reported his daily fighter losses, Beaverbrook introduced the concepts of JIT Manufacturing to build to demand and deliver specifically to depleted squadrons on a daily basis.

By the end of August, fighter production hit an astounding figure of 496 per month. When the Battle of Britain ended, Beaverbrook's supply chain was a significant factor in the story of the conflict.

Lessons Learned

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