What business can learn from the war

9 April 2003
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10 April 2003

The battle to protect supply lines in Iraq is not all that different from what purchasers outside of the military do, suggests David Arminas

British and American soldiers involved in allied logistics efforts have been fighting off Iraqi troops as they attempt to cut the allies' lengthening supply lines.

As our news story shows, it is vital that the lines are protected. There is the possibility of soldiers' lives being lost in the process. But it also means even greater loss of life among front-line troops if the goods never arrive.

It is a never-ending job to achieve totally secure supply lines, as former Brigadier Frank Steer told SM.

It is sadly the case that the effectiveness and efficiency of the military's supply chain is fully tested only in a war, where death is the worst consequence of failure. Logistics personnel are soldiers first, as Steer says. If they cannot fight to protect their lines, then there will not be any lines to protect.

But the battles to protect supply lines as depicted in our newspapers and on our television screens nightly seem in another world. There are, however, similarities with civilian life. Indeed, that is why many logistics soldiers go on to successful business supply chain roles after leaving the armed forces.

There are three issues highlighted by the military logistics in Iraq. The first is teamwork and execution of operations, essential for a co-ordinated supply chain. This issue is hardest for supply managers in small companies and local authorities, who don't have a team and may be the only people involved in the process. Nonetheless, it is just as applicable as it relies on cross-departmental co-operation.

The "team" will have to be made up of people whose jobs are not officially recognised as having a supply chain role even though they handle goods and services. Getting them on-side to think as part of a supply chain team will be difficult.

Part of the answer is to convince them they all have a common goal, to improve the performance of their company by thinking more consciously about how they buy. However small the order, they will be doing their bit towards reaching that goal.

The second lesson is communicating and sharing information. Front-line troops and logistics personnel must fully understand each other's requirements, limitations and strengths. There is no room for Chinese whispers where the result is the wrong material arriving at the front at the wrong time and place.

None other than Allan Leighton, the controversial chairman of the ailing Royal Mail Group, drove home the communication message at last year's CIPS annual conference: communicate or fail.

"Only two things matter in business: your colleagues and your customers, including your suppliers. You get to all of them only by communication," he said.

Purchasers must be consummate gatherers of information and share it with decision-makers at all levels. As Steer suggested, military strategists look to their supply chain as a prime intelligence source for gauging troops' performance. This is similar in business, as no other function touches as many levels as purchasing and supply management.

Lastly, a review of military operations is carried out to see what lessons can be learned and to spare lives in the future. It is essential work because it will save time, money and possible heartache.

This can, however, be most daunting for many purchasers and supply managers as their own performance is open to scrutiny.

In particular, reviewing performances in a culture of blame is certain to lead to obfuscation of facts, misleading information and close people's minds to the possibility of improvement.

Purchasers must take a lead in breaking down that negative culture and they will probably be thanked by many people who have lived under its shadow for too long.

It seems likely that the war will rage for some time yet. Supply managers in the UK can gain an insight into military logistics through lateral thinking. They should transpose problems and issues from one framework (the military) to another (a private company or organisation).

When the war ends, Britain's military will be reviewing its logistics performance in the face of hard-fought and bitter battles in inhospitable Iraqi deserts.

Civilian purchasers have much to learn from them in reviewing their own supply chain practices and performance.


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