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Retrospective Innovation

Updated: Jan 25, 2019

The Marine Corps ground logistics enterprise aspires to information age initiatives like Sense and Respond Logistics, Predictive Analytics, and Data Driven Logistics. Unfortunately, as a service, we tend to embrace an industrial age culture that is focused on transportation and warehousing, and we fail to value or understand the culture that thrives on the collection of data and flow of information. Transitioning from the industrial age to the information age is no small undertaking, particularly if we try to do it all at once. An effective approach might be to look back at how commercial industry’s path diverged from our own. Then identify which technologies, processes, and ideas led them to their current state. If we go backwards in time and change paths to one that leads into the information age, we might have more success with information age initiatives.

There are many cases where adopting an industry standard practice would be sufficient to modernize our supply operations without the expense of a new program of record. Using a sports analogy, we could use a whole lot of singles, rather than a home run right now. Global Combat Service Support – Marine Corps (GCSS-MC) provides a case study that could be considered a swing and a miss.

The fields of logistics and supply chain management (SCM) saw significant innovation and technology advancements in the early to mid-nineties with the introduction of emerging technologies that allowed for the collection and processing of data. During this same time frame, the Marine Corps justifiably focused on combat operations in the Iraq and military downsizing brought on by the conclusion of the cold war. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) was the cutting edge SCM technology in industry, demonstrating huge advancements in speed and efficiency.

Prior to Iraq, the Marine Corps began discussions to adopt ERP technology titled GCSS-MC as a replacement for the aging MIMMS/SASSY system that dated back to the 1940’s. Unfortunately, fiscal constraints prevented an early acquisition of the technology until supplemental operations and maintenance (O&M) funds were available nearly a decade later during Operation Iraqi Freedom. At that time, the Marine Corps selected Oracle Systems which had a proven track record as the ERP system of retailers, to include Walmart.

ERP experts are quick to point out that costly ERP systems do not guarantee improvements or savings. Many companies that attempted implementations were forced into bankruptcy or had to abandon the systems. One of the primary causes cited of failed ERP systems, is attempting to duplicate old processes with new technology thereby failing to take advantage of new system capabilities. Unfortunately, the Marine Corps lacked trained personnel to manage the Oracle business suite efficiently and fell back on a system that largely followed MIMMS/SASSY processes. When paired with the fact that most Marine Corps warehouses were lacking computers and connectivity, it becomes apparent that the implementation plan was missing some key components. GCSS-MC has been struggling to identify quantifiable improvements provided by the system ever since.

We haven’t struck out with GCSS-MC yet, and the folks at Headquarters who work the program are doing great things to improve it. As a service we should try to learn from this example and not fall victim to the same type of thinking going forward. Marine Corps logistics leadership has recently sought disruptive technologies like 3D printing and Unmanned Logistics Systems to give the service a competitive advantage. These technologies at best, could only marginally affect the Marine Corps supply chain. Other initiatives like data-driven logistics are probably on the right track for a larger impact, but we are swinging for the stands if we think there is a solution that can simply be bought.

Our aspirational modernization goals are not necessarily flawed, but our implementation approach is. All institutions, including our own, are designed to resist sweeping change. Expecting a disruptive technology to take hold is counter to institutionalism. Change is possible, but we must adopt an approach of pragmatic, incremental improvement that includes processes and enablers. If something new and unproven like Artificial Intelligence (AI) is our target, then we need to develop a road map of lessor enabling technologies and techniques that get us on the right path. By taking this approach, we can achieve valuable improvements even if we never reach the final goal.

Many technologies and processes that would allow us to attain our aspirational information age goals are no longer considered disruptive and have been fully implemented by industry. Simple, mature technologies like bar code scanners may not seem like large advancements, but they are absolutely required to enable the information age data collection that commercial industry started over 20 years ago. This retrospective approach might be a hard sell to our leaders; bar-code labels don’t compete well for resources against sexy weapons systems, and no one will be remembered for getting the labels to actually stick to a HMMWV. Our institutional attention span is short and our leaders want results. The incremental approach will get us to our goals eventually, but that may exceed the tenure of the leaders pressing for change.

A few examples of readily available technologies, processes, or ideas that are ripe for adoption include:

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) – Data collection enables the calculation of indicators that allow an organization to manage in near real time. KPIs that support the goals of the organization must be defined. Any implemented system must include the automated reporting of the KPIs. Industry has already figured out the math. While we do not have a profit motive, we are still concerned with responsiveness and efficiency – so many of industries KPI’s apply.

Bar code scanning – The fundamental data collection tool in the world of transportation, warehousing, and distribution operations is the bar code scanner. While newer technologies such as passive RFID tags and computer optical recognition exist, none of them can compete with bar code for simplicity, low cost, and wide spread adoption. Plus, modern advancements to tie bar code information within the label to Internet of Things (IoT) and smart phones has reduced the total landed cost of implementation and on-going operations. Let’s get our processes oriented around the simple industry standard before we go after the newer technology.

In-transit-visibility (ITV) – Knowing exactly when and where a shipment is going to be allows for the war fighter to carry less inventory on their back. This is accomplished by bar-code enabled gates that each piece of freight passes through from the source of supply, through the intermediate distribution channels, to the final destination. This level of ITV is apparent in GCSS-MC data until the Marine Corps takes possession. Then the shipment disappears in the system until the requesting unit hand enters a receive date, opening a huge opportunity for error and lost shipments.

Containerization – The entire global shipping industry relies on ISO containers to move goods and equipment. The quadcon and the Joint Modular Intermodal Container (JMIC) are steps in the right direction, but the Marine Corps falls short of fully adopting containerization. Acknowledging that the Marine Corps is largely beholden to Army container policy, the Marine Corps needs to take a serious look at taking more responsibility. With available amphibious lift dwindling, the Marine Corps should consider containerizing deployment packages for shipment on black bottom vessels as the standard means of unit movement. Acquisitions should also consider container transportability for any new system.

Over the years, many of the above examples have been attempted or are in the works today. Some of these topics have significant baggage associated with them. If the rest of the world can figure these out, then the Marine Corps should be able to as well. We just need to have a complete implementation approach that gets the foundation laid before we attempt the next new thing.

To go forward, we need to adopt a policy that includes some innovation in retrospect. We must acknowledge that today’s bright shiny object is built on a foundation of ugly, boring, back-office work that must be adopted to enable the truly effective changes. We need to prioritize investment in the basic technologies and concepts that make the new systems perform. We must identify and adopt the once disruptive processes, ideas, and technologies that are now mature, available, and for the most part inexpensive in order to attain our information age aspirations. For every new initiative, we have to focus on fully implementing basic solutions rather than buying another fancy black box that falls short of expectations.

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