Wednesday, 28 March 2012

"They don't understand you...... just shout louder"

"They don't understand you...... just shout louder"  
This; I would love to claim as an overheard conversation between tourists abroad trying to communicate in some market scenario.  The truth is, that it is a cliche of British humour that when we can’t communicate with a foreign national we just talk louder.  One of my great heroes, Wilfred Thesiger, observed this to be an unspoken policy in parts of the Sudan Political Service back in the early 20th Century.
It is a cliche because it is so near to the truth about brits abroad but I have also managed to see this trait in French, Aussie, Brazilian and Italian logisticians the world over.  When the pressure goes on....the volume goes up.  In fact in some cultures it is not the logic that you argue with but the passion so being able to argue your logic loudly is a definite advantage.
But not understanding you, goes way deeper than language difficulties.  I could call this post “Adventures with Kwesi”; Kwesi was my driver in Ghana whilst running logistics operations for a commodity broker.  Kwesi however is representative of almost every driver I have worked with in some way or another.  They get stuck with the crazy Obruni/Gweilo/Blan (insert your own local term for “white guy”) who listens to the BBC World Service to convince himself that home is one turn of the tuning dial away.  The white guy operates at a pace that seems totally unnecesary and more importantly has an unseen rule book called “common sense” which he often refers to but no-one you know has ever seen.
I have half a dozen favourite moments in my time with Kwesi when he taught me how common sense is regional.  One day we had an important banking document that needed to be transported to the company accountant for signature.  
“Can you take this to Albert and get it signed?” I ask Kwesi
“Yes Misser Alistair”  He politely and dutifully replies
4 hours later and Kwesi is not back from a 45 minute journey.
A phonecall ensues.....
“I told you to go to Albert and get the document signed, where are you”
“I am at Albert’s and the document is signed” Kwesi proudly declared.
(pause - with some stifled giggling at my end)
“OK Kwesi, can you come back now”
The problem was the brief, at no point did I mention coming back....I mean why would I surely that speaks for itself.  Quite often when we track back our logistical failures it is what my old Flight Sergeant used to term “insufficient brief”.  This was his catch all for there was enough information in the brief.  I have illustrated this in cross cultural operation because that is the bulk of what The Logistics Project in remote and austere settings.  It is however applicable in almost any leadership setting.  As I steadily work my way through the local work instructions for a central warehouse and the logistics element of 14 operating sites I keep Kwesi in mind.  Is the brief sufficient, where can I deviate from the prescribed path and how regional are my assumptions.
If you want to hear more tales of Adventures with Kwesi you’ll have to petition me in the comments, I don’t have a plan for the next blog yet...but I am sure something will crop up in my day to day to trip my logistics sensibilities.

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Logistics Project Goes All Philosophical

Well it has been all a little quiet from me over the last week or so.  We have moved the office and I now write to you from The G.I.M.P's kit locker.  It is my haven of peace and quiet and has a sofa and you can't beat that.  So why so philosophical I hear you ask well maybe I have been head down in process mapping and local work instruction writing as author an ops manual I need to come up for air.

In fact heads down and heads up is what this post is all about.  The whole idea for this post came from my walk back from the gym this morning....I was walking pretty tall after a killler session and noted the tudor facades above the natural eyeliner of shop signage.  I took a moment to think how much more you see when you are heads up.

Take a look at this picture I would post it but it belongs to JPHRO and I think they deserve the credits on it.  This is their HQ tent on September 24th 2010, I remember that date well because I was in it when it came down.....ouch.  By the grace of God steel fell around me but not on me.  At the same time their tented hospital was completely demolished and vital drugs blown all over an IDP camp of 155000.  Throughout the whole thing they didn't lose a patient, they kept receiving casualties and managed to bring 3 babies into the world.  Pretty impressive huh?  People mock JPHRO because it is run by Sean Penn but most of the mockers don't have first hand experience of their work.

My point isn't about them though it is about how you ride out catastrophe; that is as true in logistics as it is when you get hit by winds that rip your big ole tent right off it's moorings.  It is about being a HEADS UP kind of a person.  It is all too easy when problems start to press in on you to get focused on the problem, in fact so focused that all you can see is the problem.  You are head down in the problem and nothing happens.  Heads up allows you to see the solution around you, the people, the resources and the opportunities.  If you live in a world of people resource and opportunities problems rarely stick around.

I know this is short and doesn't involve my kids or the hilarious happening of the Al of the Logistics project household but I promise to try to light you up with a post called "They don't understand you just shout louder" sometime next week ....local work instructions permitting.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Great Myth.......and lycra clad athletes.

It is olympic year and I think we need some sporting imagery but I don't want to be gratuitous about it.  I want to pick a team going to London 2012 and build a blog post round them and somehow the Great British Rhythmic Gymnastics Team is going to bring us to The Great Myth.

"Gymnasts striving to prove a logistical point"
"Surely this is just a cheap excuse for pictures of females, what possibly can these lycra clad athletes teach us about logistics", I hear you cry.

They refute The Great Myth....... a myth so old and engrained in lay logistics thinking that it has almost become a gospel.....without question it has been a mantra of both commercial and not for profit institutions all over the world. Today we at The Logistics Project expose it for the lie that it  is.  Those of a nervous disposition should look away now as we reveal it in all its ugliness.....


"I challenge you not to wince a little"
There......I said it, and you too may have said it; and if you have ....we forgive you.  To me it is the greatest fallacy in the operational world.  The more flexible and dynamic your output the less you can afford not to have a structured system and my gymnastic friends here prove it.

No one would argue that the three fine athletic specimens here show anything less than the utmost flexibility.  I think we can safely say the ability to place your head between you knees in a back bend is beyond the needs of day to day life....but I welcome comments for those who can think of a mundane use for it.

But what allows them to do this is below the lycra, beyond the flesh, the muscles and is the skeleton....and here we have our myth busting analogy.  The institution is very similar to a human body; an institution has constituent parts that allow it to perform its operational function.  Perhaps we can break it down very simply to this:
"There are better way to suspend a ball 50cm above the floor"

Back Bend= Output

Skeleton = System

Muscles = Production/Logistics

Tendons = Auditors/Quality Staff

Flesh & Lycra = Sales and Marketing

Without a skeleton there is no way you would be able to perform a back bend.  The muscle would have nothing to pivot around to bring the desired effect, tendons would lie in the same slack heap and the flesh and lycra would hold the whole sorry mess together.

It is important that your institutional systems skeletal structure is sound to allow your operational muscle engage to perform the exceptional production and logistics feats that you require.  Necessarily you need the tendons of auditors and quality staff to keep the whole thing in check and the beautifully turned out sales and marketing team to keep the working parts from necessarily distracting the client from the actual output.

But to finish there would be half the story, take the picture just above.  The caption says it all, if you wanted to regularly suspend a ball 50cm above the floor surface you would not design an implement such as the human body to do it.   Most of us will have looked at the above pictures and thought "it is just not natural!!!".  It is a correct that a system needs to work in tension but working at that level of tension for long periods suggests that the structure is wrong.  Quite often the outcome of that realisation is to scrap the structure rather than to engineer it or look at how it is used.  If I were to want to use the human body to suspend a ball 50cm above the floor I would most probably recommend a forward bend or even a kneeling position with the ball held out in front.  The same skeletal structure used with different muscles in a different way to achieve the same objective but without the "ouch" factor.

An example of this would be a situation I found myself in.  My boss tasked me to put in a Logistics IT terminal on the far side of the runway from our logistics base.  His outline plan was to take a large team of men and dig a 5 mile communications trench around the runway....."ouch".  Instead we looked at the team we had assembled and equipment and chose to use  a diamond disc cutter to make a 2mm groove in the runway surface to place the communications cable in and then PVU glued over it.  I filled out the same requisition forms for my solution as I would have for my boss' solution but applied our operational muscle in a different way.

So whenever you hear that terrible myth consider donning your lycra and disproving the assertion I guarantee they won't ask you again!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Logistics of Laura's Birthday Present

I am wiser now than to brave the horrors of a make up department as I did for Valentine’s Day.  For those of you concerned my vision has returned to normal and I can no longer taste Jo Malone.  I have decided to approach Laura’s birthday from an alternative direction.....the internet.  Yet again the truths of my professional life have failed to penetrate my personal life.
"Laura...this present is not to actual scale"
In Haiti I spent some time with members of a senior management team explaining the concepts of ‘lead in time’.  It is all too easy as a leader to make decision in a one hour meeting that have a 6 month tail to them.  We were applying this to pharmaceutical orders, noting that the decision for what to order needed to be made 6 months in advance of the actual distribution of stock to the sites.  It needed to take into account the growth or reduction in operational tempo, new projects and even impending known risks.

Laura’s birthday is on Sunday and it is one of the important ones.  I can’t therefore reveal any of the actual gifts but I can say that I didn’t obey my own rules for making sure that goods arrive on time and on budget.  The first thing you need in any procurement is a need event and Laura’s Birthday is my need event.  Easy to spot on iCal, same time every year March 11.  The next part of the strategy is a little trickier....statement of requirement..... I am an old romantic at heart and like to surprise Laura.  One day I will let you in on the story of our engagement that shows the lengths I will go to make sure things are surprise.  So throughout the year I like to recall things she liked, little bits and pieces she wanted and then trying deduce something that she hasn’t necessarily asked for but that she will love. Laura has this year chosen to assert her femininity through the prerogative to change her mind.  This resulted in the statement of requirement being assembled at a late stage.
The next stage is sourcing and verifying the product is fit for purpose.  Sourcing is reasonably easy; the web is chock full of people want to sell their wares and if all else fails you have Amazon.  Verifying the product is fit for purpose is even trickier than the statement of requirement in the birthday present system.  You cannot blunder into the demanding authorities office asking if this product is OK, it requires a little subterfuge.  Some advice is below with remedial pointers for men in bold.
Tactic one:  Leave the webpage open on the item you are thinking of getting and see what her reaction is.  Note always leave a few dummy pages open so your partner can’t latch on to the scent.  NB: Gents, if considering buying lingerie do not use tactic one!  It sends the wrong message.
"The all important tick in
a box"
Tactic two:  Casually mention the thoughtful present your close friend bought for their partner and gauge the reaction, this needs to be a true story or the friends need to be in on it. NB: Gents if the thoughtful present was a domestic appliance do not use tactic two and return to rethink the statement of requirement.
Tactic three:  Forget the romance and do what you would do in the office, take the statement of requirement and tick of the criteria against which you were asked to source.  Take said tick list and product specification to your partner and ask them to sign off on said birthday purchase.  NB: Gents safe can be good, especially when considering clothing sizes.
Well for Laura’s presents this process took a little longer than I thought!   I had failed also to account for the fact that specialist manufacturers don’t always have a next day delivery service or have a charge that can put the project out of budget where time and objective are not negotiable (ROT!).  And now I am hoping that I am a logistics genius and I have stumbled to an amazing JITL solution rather than a slightly too late solution.  One element of the birthday extravaganza is due to arrive today with DPD between 1341 and 1441 - got to love those fleet trackers!!.  I will have to arrange some secure storage for said gifts, perhaps I will consult Joel on disaggregated storage.  I will keep you posted on how things go on the in use date.
Remeber folks, Demand Event, Statement of requirement, Sourcing, Verification of fit for purpose, Ordering, Manufacture/Delivery time, In-use date makes for a Happy Birthday for everyone as well as a well stocked pharmacy, it is a Logistics fact!!!!