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FEATURE ARTICLE  

‘Common Sense’ Tactics Suit Marines Corps’ Business Plan 

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by Sandra I. Erwin 

An unresponsive bureaucracy that delays repairs of equipment and deliveries of supplies for weeks and months makes for many frustrated Marines, says Col. Robert E. Love. But he avows that relief is on its way.

Love is the head of a year-old Marine Corps agency, with a staff of nine, created for the sole purpose of shrinking the bureaucracy that is to blame for “poor customer service,” he said in a recent interview.

Marines should not have to wait 57 days to have a truck fixed, nor should they have to operate the nearly 200 disparate computer systems that today are used to manage battlefield logistics, said Love. “Some of our young Marines know we can do better. ... They are frustrated with the system.”

The organization created to overhaul the cumbersome logistics processes is called the Integrated Logistics Capability Center. Love was among a selected group of Marines “hand-picked” by Lt. Gen. Gary S. McKissock, the Corps’ deputy commandant for installations and logistics.

“We selected Marines who were forward thinking, risk takers, not afraid of uncertainty, and comfortable with innovation. And we put them in charge,” McKissock said in an interview at his Arlington, Va. office.

“My interest in logistics reform had its genesis in the Gulf War,” he explained. “We watched the Army’s ‘iron mountain’ [of supplies]. We thought there was a more efficient way of doing it.” At the core of logistics reform, McKissock believes, is the “smart” use of information technology and a lot of “common sense.”

The Marine Corps often finds itself victim of the “tyranny of square and cube,” he added. The term refers to the difficulties Marines have in finding enough space on ships to carry all their supplies. “We only have so much space on board ships. You have to be very precise in your planning,” said McKissock. “It’s a tyranny because we have to think about it all the time.”

To get relief from that tyranny, he said, the Marine Corps needs to decide what equipment and personnel are essential to accomplish a given mission, and leave the rest back home.

Such an obvious solution to the problem would have been unrealistic years ago, before information systems revolutionized the way organizations manage inventories and deliveries, said McKissock. Since World War II, the U.S. military services have been told that, wherever they go, they must bring 60 days worth of supplies. “That was a reasonable approach, because we didn’t have sophisticated means of distribution or communications. The use of mass made sense.”

Today, supplies and requests for repairs can be tracked on a Web site. “We can identify the requirement much more efficiently,” McKissock said, so there is no reason to bring large stockpiles of gear to every deployment. Nearly 95 percent of the Corps’ ammunition and fuel moves by ship. In the future, the goal is to increase reliance on air freight for critical equipment, such as spare parts.

The management of maintenance workloads and spare parts is far more advanced for Navy and Marine Corps aviation units, he said. On the ground side, “we have some catching up to do.”

Supplier Chain
Part of McKissock’s plan is to change the “supply chain,” so that when Marines need equipment delivered to the battlefield, they can contact a vendor or a government supplier directly, without intermediaries. The Corps, for example, traditionally has used five administrative echelons to manage shipments of spare parts and vehicle repairs. Each one has its own inventory and its own paperwork processes. The upshot is an unduly long turnaround time to accomplish routine repairs and maintenance, McKissock said.

The Corps now is consolidating the five echelons into three. “We probably will never get to the Caterpillar, or L.L. Bean standard of 24-hour delivery,” he said, “but we hope to reduce it significantly.”

Rather than having to wait 57 days for a vehicle to return from the shop, Marines should expect about the same turnaround time as they experience at their local car dealer, McKissock said. “We want our units to be demanding customers and complain bitterly if it takes too long.”

Much of the slowdown is attributed to excessive paperwork and administrative chores that have nothing to do with actual maintenance work, he noted. “We are absolutely convinced that a large percentage of activity taking place is ‘non-value added,’” said McKissock. His own records indicate that, every time a piece of equipment goes into the repair shop, only 10 percent of the time is spent “turning wrenches.” The remaining 90 percent of the time, “we are ordering parts, we are inspecting, we are moving between echelons.”

Eliminating “non-value added” work will mean fewer Marines working in support roles during combat operations, said McKissock. These troops will be reassigned to combat units within the Marine Corps, he said. “The opportunity to reshuffle the deck will be looked at.”

McKissock expects that the entire Marine Corps will benefit from these changes. A year ago, he said, “I briefed every three-star in the Marine Corps. They have embraced the idea [of logistics reform]. They are convinced they are going to get a better product and equipment will be fixed more efficiently. They also see the potential for redistributing the manpower. Finally and least importantly, there are dollar savings.”

He emphasized that the creation of the Integrated Logistics Capability Center (ILCC) was never about “trying to save people or money.” But in the process of changing the current business practices, he said, “we found out that it was too manpower intensive and too expensive.” About one-third of the workforce in the Marine Corps is in the logistics business.

The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James L. Jones, specifically stressed the financial savings expected from logistics reform in a letter to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, last December. Jones estimated that the ILCC pilot program would cost $11.8 million in fiscal 2000, $24.9 million in fiscal 2001 and $12 million in fiscal 2002. The expense, wrote Jones, is a “small cost,” considering the potential of $500 million to $700 million savings, “primarily through reduction of inventory.”

There is potential, additionally, for “recurring benefits” of approximately $100 million a year by fiscal 2004 or 2005, Jones said. These savings “will be reinvested in [force] readiness.”

McKissock believes there are “tens of millions of dollars of cost avoidance in secondary repairable systems alone.” These are major vehicle components, such as engines, generators and transmissions.

On October 1, the ILCC moved a step forward in logistics reform, with the worldwide consolidation of the management of secondary repairable components, he said. That means there is central control of every unit’s inventory, which will make it possible to redistribute the supplies based on need. The Corps’ inventory of secondary repairable systems is worth about $1 billion.

Stovepipe Systems
“We are still doing business the same way we were doing it 20-30 years ago,” said Love, the director of the ILCC. “We haven’t used technology in our behalf. Some systems we developed are very good. But they are also very stove-piped.”

A case in point is the use of separate computer systems to support various lines of commodities, such as ammunition, food and spare parts. That adds inefficiency, said Love. “Inventories should be managed under a single supply chain.”

The Corps today operates 168 maintenance shops. “They are robust, staffed by trained mechanics,” Love said. But it makes little sense to have each infantry battalion run a full-fledged shop. “Why not have someone whose core competency is to provide that service to them?”

By consolidating “selected maintenance” activities, the shops would not be so concerned that a vehicle is from their own battalion or from somewhere else. Under the current system, “you have your own money and your own tools and you worry about fixing your own.”

A battalion commander should be able to perform the basic organizational-level maintenance. But more advanced services, which fall under intermediate-level maintenance, should be provided by logisticians, who may be on base but may not be part of that unit, Love explained. The “beauty” of this arrangement, he said, is that a “logistics commander can reorient capabilities” to fulfill the most pressing needs at any given time.

Within the existing 168 organizational-level shops in the Marine Corps, there are 3,205 maintenance workers and 1,269 supply personnel. “There is redundancy in this area,” said Love. “We think we can use these people better.”

The 168 shops also carry 126 tons of organizational-level publications, many of which are “redundant,” he said. Collectively, the shops use $102 million worth of tools. “Every shop has to have its own maintenance tool kit.”

One of the ILCC’s goals is to consolidate the 168 shops possibly into 75, Love said. That process will be made easier by the decision to collapse what used to be five echelons of maintenance into three levels: organizational, intermediate and depot.

The consolidation will assist in cutting down the repair cycles, which range between 50 and 60 days. The average is 57 days. “We think we can reduce that cycle by 27 days” when you remove administrative echelons, “just because you are only opening one repair order, only one quality control, one parts requisition transaction. You are not going to waste any time transitioning from battalion to intermediate-level maintenance.”

As a result of the time required to transport equipment, “as soon as I can cut repair cycle times, I can reduce inventories,” said Love. “We base our inventories on how long it takes to fix equipment. If it takes longer, I have to have more stuff on the shelves.” The current average of 57 days to repair equipment is “ridiculous,” said Love. “We should have higher standards than what we have in our personal lives, for our personal vehicles.”

The ILCC also plans to categorize processes and inventory based on their importance to the mission and their uniqueness, he said. Under the traditional supply structure, for example, “almost everything is handled as if it’s critical.” Certain staples that are not critical to the military mission should not occupy storage space, said Love. Conversely, essential pieces of equipment, such as tank engines, may need to be stocked far forward, close to the battlefield.

“Today, the way we manage inventory, we pretty much try to move everything forward. That means we tie up people and airlift assets,” he noted. In the future, “we will only push forward things that are critical and have high mission value.” Love admitted that these ideas hardly qualify as revolutionary. “This is common sense stuff. But, frankly, the military is just now beginning to realize this. Sometimes you stumble and bumble onto these things.”

The Marine Corps currently uses between 140 to 200 computer systems for logistics applications, some of which are Pentagon-wide systems, said Love. “It’s a big spaghetti bowl.”

The ILCC is working to simplify the “spaghetti bowl” into a single “war-fighter portal,” he said. It will be a Web-based storefront, where Marines can order spare parts and supplies just as easily as anyone orders books from Amazon.com. The portal will be available on secure and non-secure communication lines.

Love’s nine-person staff is not attempting to do this work by itself. They are receiving help from contractors and from the Pennsylvania State University School of Logistics.

In the logistics arena, said Love, “we think that [private] industry has a more responsive set of metrics. ... But we are not embracing everything that is out there in industry. Some of it doesn’t apply to combat operations.” The one set of metrics that Love wants to adopt from the private sector is the response time, which is measured in hours, days or weeks. “We measure in days, weeks and months.”

Within the next two years, he said, he expects the ILCC will succeed in “institutionalizing the changes.” The goal is to achieve substantial reforms by 2005, “so the Marine Corps may not need this ILCC organization any more.”

McKissock predicts that it will be “three to four years before we see things happen.” The bottom line, he said, is whether Marines in combat will get faster service. Otherwise, the current reform efforts will become just one more of those inside-the-Beltway “battles of the brochure.”

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