Decision-forcing cases for logistics: practicing logisticians to overcome ‘wicked problems’

By Bruce Gudmundsson.

Ed. note: on occasion, LIW examines the art of training and educating logisticians. LIW is privileged to have Dr Bruce Gudmundson, USMC University, discuss a teaching method very relevant to training leaders in ways to overcome ‘wicked problems’ in war. A link to his site can be found here.

A military logistician is a study in contrasts.  On the one hand, he is a custodian of public property.  As such, his cardinal virtues are thrift and efficiency.  On the other hand, he takes part in the waging of war, the most wasteful of all human activities.  Sometimes he must think like the manager of a large business.  At other times, he must look at the world through the eyes of a warrior.

A military logistician can easily find ways to plumb particular portions of his paradoxical profession.  The shelves groan, after all, under the weight of books about business management and military operations.  Board games on both subjects abound.  And, when his eyes grow tired, a logistician can profit from any one of a growing array of podcasts on martial and commercial topics.  The one thing that the military logistician cannot so easily do is find activities that help him engage the whole of his métier.

 The great exception to this rule is provided by the decision-forcing case.  Also known known as a ‘historical immersion problem,’ a decision-forcing case is an exercise in which participants take on the role of an actual person who, at some point in the past, was faced by a particularly challenging problem.  In that role, participants compose, and, if called upon by the facilitator, propose practical solutions to that problem.  This leads to a discussion (known as a ‘Socratic conversation’) in which participants critique, refine, and build upon those proposals. 

 One such decision-forcing case, ‘The Road to Habbaniya’, places participants in the shoes of Brigadier John Joseph Kingstone of the British Army, an officer who, in the spring of 1941, was charged with leading a heavily reinforced brigade to link up with the beleaguered garrison of a Royal Air Force base in Iraq.  The first problem set before the participants is a calculation of the number of 3-ton trucks needed to carry the food, water, fuel, and ammunition needed to move the column for a distance of more than 900 kilometers.

 This problem is not as straightforward as it might seem.  In addition to making allowances for maintenance, breakdowns, and security, the participants playing the role of Brigadier Kingstone must factor in the supplies needed by the trucks that carry the supplies for the column, as well as the supplies needed by the additional trucks that carry the supplies for the trucks, and so on.  As might be expected, participants rarely achieve consensus on the number of 3-ton trucks needed to get Brigadier Kingstone’s column to its objective.  Indeed, each time this decision-forcing case is taught, the solutions offered by participants differ considerably, with the largest estimate reliably exceeding the smallest by a factor of two or even three.

Once the participants have shared their calculations with each other, the facilitator of ‘The Road to Habbaniya’ provides them with a detailed description of the solution arrived at by the historical protagonist.  This ‘historical solution’, which includes a reconstruction of Brigadier Kingstone’s calculations, allows participants to compare their own thinking with that of ‘the man on the spot’.  In particular, it gives participants an opportunity to identify the assumptions that support their plans. 

‘The Road to Habbaniya’ is a two-problem exercise.  That is, the presentation of Brigadier Kingstone’s calculations is followed by a surprise, a development that requires the complete recasting of both the original plan of operations and the logistical scheme for supporting it.  Thus, participants enjoy a second opportunity to work through the cycle of devising, describing, and defending courses of action, followed by a second historical solution.  (As several fine books have been written about the operation in question, this sometimes takes the form of an invitation to visit the library.) 

A decision-forcing case drawn from the annals of the South Atlantic War of 1982, one called ‘Commando Logistics Regiment’, presents participants with a comparable conundrum.  This problem puts them in the boots of Lieutenant Colonel Ivor Hellberg, officer commanding the unit charged with providing material support to the landing force sent to the Falkland Islands at the start of that conflict, the 3rd Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines.  Optimized for service in northern Norway, the Commando Logistics Regiment was organized in a way that made extensive use of both motor transport and reservists.  However, as the shipping available to transport the 3rd Commando Brigade had little space for trucks and the government of the United Kingdom had decided to refrain from calling up reservists, Lieutenant Colonel Hellberg found himself engaged in a great deal of design work.  In particular, he had but a few hours to decide which elements of his command he would take with him on his 13,000-kilometer journey to the other side of the world, and which he would have to leave behind. 

A third decision-forcing, ‘The Hunt for Geronimo’, involves no motor transport at all.  Set in 1885, it asks participants to make a plan for supporting an ad hoc unit charged with a delicate diplomatic mission.  Composed of units of the United States Cavalry, companies of Apache Scouts, and civilian contractors, the improvised battalion will have to cross an international border, make a journey of some 800-kilometers through the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, and, quite possibly, provide both aid and protection to a group of indigenous people who are being hunted by mercenaries in the service of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.  To further complicate matters, there will be little in the way of host nation support and few opportunities to acquire fodder for cavalry horses along the way. 

Like many of the classroom exercises used in the training of military logisticians, all three of these decision-forcing cases ask participants to do a great deal of arithmetic.  They are, to borrow a phrase from American Marines of the twentieth century, “stubby pencil drills.”  At the same time, they require those taking part to make sense of a unique situation and, having done so, design a solution that is custom-tailored to the peculiarities of the problem being faced.  In other words, these three decision-forcing cases require logisticians to engage some of the many contradictions at the heart of their particular art.

Bruce’s work can be found here, a portal to resources for any military professional seeking to document and used decision-forcing cases (case method studies) in education.

Bruce Gudmundsson served as a truck driver, logistics clerk, and logistics officer in the United States Marine Corps.  Currently working as an historian and case teacher in Quantico, Virginia, he is the author of, among many other things, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 4:  Logistics.  Between 2007 and 2017, Dr. Gudmundsson held the Case Method Chair at the Marine Corps University.

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