The realities of logistics and strategic leadership – ‘2018 edition’

By David Beaumont.

In late 2017 I published a post of anecdotes, observations and lessons given by senior officers contacted through the course of academic research. These insights were given by logisticians, but not always, and pointed at many of the issues transforming Defence logistics over a period of nearly thirty years. The conversations continued throughout 2018 and continued to highlight significant, strategic, challenges which define Defence organisations even today, and point at the transition leaders must make as they ‘stare, mid-career, at their future in Defence bureaucracy, into an environment where the definition achieved in operational planning is not possible, and where institutional functions and logistics processes are completely integrated through the span of the strategic level’.

The disclaimer provided in 2017 applies:

This post is a collation of pertinent points imparted through these conversations. They are general in nature, raw in content, deliberately unattributed and paraphrased. Although discussed in the context of strategic logistics they are broadly applicable, and many are clearly relevant to effective strategic leadership. This reflects the inseparability of logistics from the institutional activity which defines the strategic level of defence forces. Moreover, the factors and issues described here deal with the complexity of generating institutional strategy (as distinct from a military or operational strategy) and leadership within a complex environment.

Logisticians and the ‘spirit of the age’

Defence logistics has been in a paradigm shift for the last thirty years. These times are difficult because of the pace of change, the absence of an equilibrium, people get ‘lost’ and do not know how to proceed. Outdated ideas become a refuge.

The ‘age’ is defined by the mobility of people and knowledge, dispersal of production, changing customer expectations, technological bypasses for conventional processes, short product (capability) cycles that are used for strategic advantage, cross-functional and networked organisations, alliances in shared efforts.

Trends of this ‘age’ include the move from strategic planning to strategic thinking, structure to process, physical assets to the integration and use of knowledge, single to multi-skilling, and hierarchy to networks.

The behaviours required for success in this age are cooperation rather than confrontation, cross-functional versus functional, integrated opposed to aligned, and collaborative rather than autonomic.

Success in logistics, as in any venture in this time, requires Defence to be able to take information stored passively in people’s heads and to make it accessible, actionable, useful and explicit. This applies to human and organisational knowledge.

Logistics in the Defence context:

The logistics viewpoint is essentially that of the commander, not of technical specialists.

The cardinal sin of logistics is over-insurance.

Defence financial management is a major limiting factor on progress in all areas, especially logistics. Poor standards of management and inappropriate accountability will compromise preparedness.

Defence is a command economy where resources are allocated, and capabilities are developed, in an environment distinctly different from the corporate environment. There are no market forces, no profit imperative, no capital market test, and consequently, surpluses and deficiencies are inevitable.

The single-most important relationship (human or not) in Defence is between the capital and operating (sustainment and discretionary) budget. Strategic transformation orbits this relationship, as does force structure, capability and preparedness.

Defence logistics activity is, for the reasons above, not a high-performance activity. Areas of excellence are discrete, and often temporary.

Many logistics managers do not realise they are running a business. Many leaders do not provide these managers with the skills to do so.

The concept of a ‘core organisation’ is foreign to a military culture that often links ownership with capability. In the tactical environment, this plays out in approaches to command and control. In the strategic environment, this plays out in organisational fragmentation. In the logistics environment, this plays out in how logistics managers perform as a body of essential staff, surrounded by contractors and others.

Longstanding logistics knowledge shortfalls exist in supply chain management, financial management, performance management, quality management, technical configuration management, risk management, competitive tendering and contracting. A lack of knowledge in systems engineering exacerbates logistics inefficiencies and other knowledge deficiencies.

Logistics, and the management of Defence

Senior officers are prepared to manage training and operational activities, but are rarely prepared to manage militaries as large, public-sector, institutions. Not only have they been ill-prepared in terms of managerial competencies, but they are often saddled with outdated management systems.

Because of the upbringing of military officers, there can be a tendency of some to consider senior management and logistics as a peripheral task. The problem is that at its foundations, Defence is a business like any other.

Most senior officers are not developed with an understanding of logistics other than how it applies to the combat force. Defence has never really settled on the question, ‘how much should they really know?’

Culture and change

The Defence strategic ‘sub-cultures’ which impact on performance could be summarised through the terms ‘warrior’, ‘policy’, ‘technology’ and ‘management’. Each can be categorised further in Services, Groups and organisations at all levels. Successful change requires leaders to actively avoid destroying sub-cultures, instead harnessing them through common goals and aligned objectives. Furthermore, it requires the diversity in thinking by ensuring teams are built on a span of ‘sub-cultures’.

In the context of Defence culture, external ideas – though completely appropriate – might be impossible to realistically implement. For this reason, it is important that ideas are ‘adapted’, not ‘adopted’.

Successful reforms in Defence logistics have been brought about through culture building (the difficult part), process and structure design (the easy part), and competency development (the forgotten part).

The objective of change in logistics should be to resolve excessive and sustained pressure on people, gaps in workforce competencies and to overcome highly decentralised decision making more than any other reason.

Senior leaders have a choice when embarking upon their agenda – do they conduct a brutal, sweeping, transformation or do they strive for continuous improvement? Transformation is pursued through a grand plan, initiated with a ‘big bang’, and usually aimed at a reduction in costs. Continuous improvement initiates experimentation and evolution but can include consolidation and the development of competencies.

The fact that transformation in logistics, and in other areas of Defence, is often imposed is revealing. Long term change in logistics, however, should be continuous in nature.

The difference between ‘brutal’ transformations and continuous improvement can be seen in the implementation. Transformation is led through direction, adjustments to process and structure and external advice is used to provide solutions (consultants and others). Continuous improvement is defined by a participative approach, building new cultures, and is supported by external agents.

The key to success in delivering change in Defence organisations is action. Too many have been taught to talk, too few have been taught to act.

The ‘knowing-doing gap’ is a result of:

  • Not knowing what the problem is. This is a consequence of poor strategic communication, but also a willingness to listen.
  • Perceptions of disempowerment, whether this be real or not. Disempowerment can be bred or defeated through leadership and example.
  • Change is difficult and frightening, and the effort costs individuals.
  • The propensity to compromise progress with talk; long and loud, ridden with platitudes and cliché. Language and engagement can be used to delay.

‘Smart-talk’ is negative and destructive. Be cautious of when pessimism sounds profound, and optimism sounds superficial.

Complex language is never better than simple words. Fashionable terms that no one really understands, or ill-defined questions, make progress difficult. However, never confuse ease of comprehension with ease of implementation.

Emotional intelligence is critical for organisational success. It is defined by self-awareness, self-control and the ability to suspend judgement, empathy, motivation and social skills. Credible leaders:

  • Face up to their personal strengths and inadequacies, beliefs and prejudices.
  • Reflect on their own reasoning (self-awareness).
  • Explore the reasoning of others (empathy).
  • Make their own reasoning visible through communication in all forms (social skills).

One emotionally unintelligent person among a group of competent individuals can lead to incompetent group performance.

Conclusion

Logistics might be nine-tenths of the business of war, but it is virtually all the business of peace. Defence logisticians must recognise who and why they are, and what they need to become. Yet, as described above, logistics is a command perspective – and not a technical viewpoint. It is defined by approaches to leadership, to change, and by the vagaries of human behaviour.  My conversations confirmed that many senior leaders had wished they had known more about organisations or thought of logistics differently. It was evident that most problems they encountered related to organisational management more than they did to stewarding the logistics capabilities and organisations under their care. In fact, many of the issues which burned in contention among the junior and mid-ranking staff, issues including force-structure, organisational design and policy, were only smouldering in the minds of senior staff and commanders. Solutions came from commanders and logisticians thinking about how technical, specialised, functions could be effectively combined, and the way in which processed and organisation could be bent through changes to culture.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer. The thoughts are his own, and he takes responsibility for what he borrows!

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