Basic supply chain management has been in practice for centuries, millennia even. To build the Egyptian pyramids, a specific group of laborers quarried massive stones from one location so that another troop could transport the rocks across the desert via wooden contraptions to the thousands of workers at the actual construction site, who then used the delivered materials to complete the overall project. That’s fundamental supply chain management.
As Gary Gittings, Ph.D. and director of the Master of Professional Studies in Supply Chain Management program at Penn State, explained, “Where the rubber meets the road, the big issue is getting the right goods to the right location in the right quantities for the right people.”
Fortunately, things have progressed quite a bit since ancient Egypt, and as technology continues to advance, 21st-century logisticians can be more efficient than ever when it comes to managing their supply lines. Computers, of course, are only part of the equation. Service men and women who are tasked with moving critical equipment from a base in America to a depot in the field to the soldiers on the front lines have to understand supply and demand strategy, be able to analyze situational circumstances, and act with a certain degree of flexibility.
These are learned skills, and as supply chain management has permeated every nook and niche of the commercial sector (recent estimates put logistics at about a $1 trillion industry in the United States), more and more educational opportunities have come about. A host of universities and institutions offer an assortment of college-level supply chain management and logistics programs, ranging from short-term classes and certificates to bachelor’s degrees and post-graduate work. What’s more, the curriculum is on the cutting edge of best practices. Some of it is geared to specific issues encountered on the battlefield, and most of it focuses on the ever-changing business world. All of it can make men and women in the armed forces better military logisticians.
“We do not have specific classes that say ‘Okay, you’re in the military so here are your unique circumstances,’” said Gittings. “We’ve always found that our students who also are soldiers already know the military side the best, so they appreciate learning what other people are doing. They take the commercial best practices and say, ‘How can we apply these to what we do, what innovations are happening and how can we make use of them?’”
According to Gittings, one of the biggest of those innovations is visibility. “And that doesn’t mean that you’re actually looking at the object,” he explained. “It means that you have access to information about what is in your supply chain of whatever particular items you need.”
Regardless of whether it’s a military or commercial setting, there are customers to serve, and supply chain managers have to constantly figure out the demand and what is needed in order to meet that demand. The goal is to achieve the tricky balance between having just enough on hand without wasting money and space by storing too much.
“In prior eras we didn’t have a lot in the way of information about how much was in transit, how much was in process, how much your suppliers actually had of critical materials, and so on,” Gittings continued. “You relied on your customers telling you with sufficient advance notice how much they were going to need and you’d check with your suppliers to see how much would be available. With the information systems available today, however, it’s possible to actually see your customers’ cache and set up alerts so that if they’re getting unexpectedly low, you can go to your supply base to expedite volumes coming in.”
While managing the supply and demand balance for customer stockpiles is at the core of logistics for both military and commercial settings, there is one key element that can have a dramatically different effect on the two.
“Supply chain management in the commercial world is different than that of the military supply chain and logistics because of the competitive nature of private commerce,” said Jack Elson, Ph.D. and professor and faculty lead in the College of Business Administration and College of Information Systems at Trident University. “Suppliers and customers can rapidly change as they compete for business and businesses can come and go depending on economic conditions. Therefore, the business focus is much more on process and repetition. The military focus, however, tends to be much more on achieving the specific mission, which is a more project-based focus.”
Elson believes understanding this particular dissimilarity is not only the biggest challenge that military logisticians face, but also the most important because it dictates the type of structure that will provide the best solutions. “Military supply chains tend to be concerned with a large-systems view since the organization is much bigger in nature, spanning many different levels of organization where there is no real competitive motive,” he said. “This lends itself to using systems design methods for developing their procedures and organization.”
What doesn’t vary in Elson’s opinion is the skill set that’s most important for every logistician, military or commercial. “They have to be able to collect and use data,” he said. “This requires an ability to analyze information both quantitatively and qualitatively, and put to use various modeling methods, such as inventory control, forecasting, queuing theory, optimization and stochastic (probabilistic) methods to predict, analyze and problem-solve. “Finally, they must also be able to quickly assess the situation and make gut reaction decisions.”
The Military Focus
As is the case in any field, being able to make the correct gut reaction has a lot to do with experience and overall knowledge of the circumstances. The staff at North Dakota State University (NDSU) are doing their part to further students’ knowledge by offering a handful of supply chain options, including the Master of Managerial Logistics (MML) degree.
“That degree program is specifically geared to military logisticians,” said Denver Tolliver, the director of NDSU’s Transportation and Logistics Graduate Program. “It’s offered online under a memorandum of understanding with the Army Logistics University at Fort Lee, Va., and addresses all 12 points of the National Logistics Curriculum.”
Furthermore, NDSU recently eliminated the program’s residency requirement so it’s now available to service men and women wherever they may be located. Access may have gotten easier, but the curriculum itself remains rather intense—exactly what military supply chain managers need in order to handle their particular real-world happenings. “They have to manage and move large volumes of inventory and personnel efficiently while tracking costs and inventory location, forecasting demand, and maintaining quality,” explained Tolliver. “They do all of those things in a global environment that is dynamic and unstable. Overseeing that supply chain under peacekeeping and battlefield conditions introduces huge uncertainties and difficult physical conditions that most businesses will never have to face.”
To that end, “NDSU’s unique program employs an innovative learning strategy that stresses the need for coordinated and integrated actions in complex emergencies, consistent with the goals of the joint logistics enterprise,” continued Tolliver. “The MML curriculum is built around a supply chain/logistics concentration of 17 credit hours, complemented by courses that build a broader understanding of the technological and operational context of modern logistics.”
The course of study culminates with a capstone project during which students conduct a scenario analysis and develop a set of recommendations and conclusions regarding the logistical capabilities of a nation or region. It necessitates applying concepts and practices from the learner’s courses and professional experiences. “We use this type of study so they can integrate as much of the knowledge they’ve learned and as many of the tools as they’ve been given into a single project,” added Tolliver. “It’s an approach they’ll be using frequently in their military careers, so we want them to be confident in their skills and abilities.”
The Institute for Defense and Business (IDB), an independent, nonprofit organization that was established in 1997, also highlights competencies that soldiers will be using frequently during their supply chain careers. “We develop and deliver custom-designed curriculum primarily to military and government students using academic faculty from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a number of other universities, as well as experienced practitioners,” said Mark Cramer, president of the IDB.
The most recent of IDB’s custom logistics courses is called MedLog21: Supply Chain Skills for Medical Logisticians in the 21st Century. “It was developed in collaboration with the Veteran’s Health Administration of the VA,” said Cramer, “and explores a number of topics such as supply chain fundamentals, risk management, forecasting and demand management, and technology and organizational innovation.”
One of the most popular programs at the IDB is Logistics for the 21st Century (LOG21), a weeklong executive-style seminar designed specifically for early-career logisticians.
“The military supply chain must be able to support everything from small units of special operators to deployments of hundreds of thousands on land, sea and in the air,” Cramer said. “This environment requires very strong fundamental knowledge of systems, processes, and planning--and increasingly also critical-thinking, flexibility, agility and adaptability.
“LOG21 is designed to ‘open the aperture’ of recently-minted logisticians (even if it may be a second career field for them) to provide a look at cutting-edge private sector practices and technologies, innovative ways to think about and approach the above challenges, and exposure to professionals from other services, agencies and the private sector.”
As crucial as the lessons are to streamlining the military’s processes as a whole, Cramer also noted that LOG21 provides for some personal growth, too. “It can be a key piece of their professional development plans and also energizes students about the potential of a logistics career.”
Backward to the Future
Perhaps the newest path to a long-term career in supply chain management is what’s being called reverse logistics. “One of the largest challenges with supply chain and the military is the retrograde action taking place as the U.S. reduces its military presence in certain nations,” explained Dr. Jennifer S. Batchelor, CPP, and program director and associate professor in Transportation & Logistics Management and Reverse Logistics Management at American Military University (AMU). “It becomes a logistical challenge to bring back military materials while at the same time reducing the soldiers in those areas.”
AMU is a fully online institution that offers flexibility in terms of how military students participate in classes, as well as a range of available courses that emphasize various specific disciplines. There’s an undergraduate concentration in air cargo and a graduate track in maritime engineering; graduate certificates in logistics management and leadership and logistics are offered, and both bachelor’s and master’s degrees can be earned with a specialty in reverse logistics.
“The Reverse Logistics Management program is the first of its kind,” said Batchelor. “We’re constantly identifying areas for enhancing our courses and overall programs based on the current and future state of the industry. This was the basis for adding reverse logistics curriculum. Retail, manufacturing, production and even service industries struggle with the reverse flow of products, packaging and supplies due to returns, recalls, defects and many other reverse logistics activities.
“For military logisticians, one of the challenges is the need for multi-branch cooperation as all the services are tasked with bringing back useable materials and supplies for use in the next theater of operation. In AMU courses, we discuss various scenarios and case studies in order to make sure students have the theories as well as the practical knowledge in order to handle those challenges.”
The Short Course
Case studies are an integral part of the syllabus at Georgia Tech, too. “Almost all of our courses incorporate them in one way or another,” said Tim Brown, the academic program director for the Supply Chain & Logistics Institute at Georgia Tech. What is very unique, however, is that the school’s Supply Chain and Logistics Program is housed within the College of Engineering as opposed to the College of Business, where it typically resides at other institutions of higher learning.
“As an engineering program, our supply chain courses of study are analytically intense and focused on developing superior decision-makers who can effectively manage complex supply chains,” said Brown. “The use of optimization and simulation techniques coupled with hands-on use of computing techniques helps prepare logisticians for ever-changing supply requirements.”
Some of the school’s available preparation can have a rather immediate impact, as in supply chain managers becoming more skilled and efficient in just a few days rather than a few months or a couple years.
“The Supply Chain & Logistics Institute at Georgia Tech offers a number of short courses--two to four days--in addition to the degree programs,” Brown added. “Military personnel often participate in short courses such as Demand-Driven Supply Chain Strategy, Strategic Planning of Supply Chain Facilities, Building the Lean Supply Chain Problem Solver, Lean Warehousing, Lean Inbound Logistics, Transportation and Distribution Planning and Management, Building the Lean Supply Chain Professional, Defining and Implementing Effective Sourcing Strategies, Effectively Managing Global Supply and Risk in an Increasingly Complex World, Building the Lean Supply Chain Leader, and Inventory Planning and Management.”
Whether through these types of short training seminars or full-length degree programs, “by gaining a solid education and understanding of business logistics, military officers are better prepared for what challenges lay ahead and the questions they’ll face when they begin their Unit Movement Officer duties,” said Adam S. Betz, assistant director of military marketing for Central Michigan University’s Global Campus.
Among other possibilities, Central Michigan’s most coveted supply chain educational offering is their Master of Business Administration (MBA) in logistics management, a concentration that became available in the online MBA program in 2009.
“By combining MBA core courses that focus on finance, accounting, marketing, management, human resources, and so on with logistics-specific courses, students can better understand how all of the pieces of an organization fit together,” Betz said. “Understanding how the shipment, storage, and handling of materials impacts human resources or a different department is incredibly powerful when it comes to making informed data-based decisions for the entire organization.”
This is especially true when considering how the military functions and the sheer size of the operation. “It requires a tremendous amount of coordination to distribute the essentials around the world,” Betz added.
“Whether this is strategically storing meal rations, erecting temporary housing, or transporting military vehicles and all the items needed for them to operate, every function needs to exist in some environment (storage) and be easily transported (movement) to the desired destination,” he continued. “And ultimately, it’s the logistician who must deliver.”
Indeed, ultimately it’s up to the military logistician to get the right goods to the right location in the right quantities for the right people, which is why taking advantage of the right educational opportunities can make such an incredible positive impact on supply chain management. ♦
- Issue: 6
- Volume: 8