Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Logistics of Tea Mugs & Strip Tease Arrival

I realize there hasn’t been a blog post for a while so apologies to regular readers.  To be honest I was struggling for a bit of inspiration perhaps because I was so heads down in the writing of an operations manual that the facts were overwhelming any creativity.  Anyway this week I have been working with PIH in Boston and they have encouraged me to get posting again. So here goes.
Image borrowed from        

I am sure you have gathered by my previous blog entries that I love my family and particularly my wife.    There are however some practices where we don’t see eye to eye on and these were particularly noticeable in our first year of marriage.  For instance I have a favourite mug, this mug is capable of containing many litres of tea throughout a day before requiring’s my way of conserving water.  Not so in the world of Laura, I would quite regularly go to use my favourite mug only to find it was in amongst the dirty crockery smeared with baked bean juice......hmmphhh.  In fact Laura is such a tidier that there would be times when between me getting the mug out and the water boiling for tea it would have been whipped away for washing.
What goes on behind a man's front
door is his own business...
until married!
Now it wouldn’t be fair of me to highlight one of Laura’s idiosyncrasies with out also laying myself bare too.  I was a single man for 35 years and had kind of got into the habit of shedding the stresses of the working day as soon as I got in through the door.....and when I say stresses I really mean my work attire.   Laura once described as a strip tease show between the font door on the bedroom.  I would regularly walk in through the door and start undressing neatly folding garments and leaving them in small piles or over the back of chairs, on the edge of tables until I had made it to the bedroom and switched my attire for something more comfortable.  Now at the most basic level I have ignored any lessons I have learned on where to store things as we looked at way back with Joel’s Christmas Toys.

So what is the logistical point I am driving at here?  Well it is one of the dark corners of logistics......disposals.  Now some people will no doubt argue that this is a finance thing, that it is up to the accountant how they go about writing off unwanted stock and equipment .  To an extent they are correct but if we look at my missing mug and the neatly placed pair of socks draped over the back of a dining room chair that used to drive Laura so crazy, we can perhaps see where the logistics of this comes into playing.
This is a classic problem in warehousing - undefined disposal authority, in the disposal process there should be a nominated authority to say this stays or goes and a process to request a decision.  The symptoms of this can run one of two ways:

  1. Like my missing tea mug anyone can decide that it is time to get rid of some stock and just stock adjust it off and remove it......this is a sure fire way of incurring loss or super inflating your consumption.
  2. No one gets rid of anything because they aren’t sure if they are allowed and your logistics system slowly clogs up with expired or obsolete stock and equipment.  If you find yourself clambering over the same unopened dusty boxes of 1972 bright orange letter-headed may have a problem.
It is important not to confuse the reason or trigger for disposal with the authority.  The trigger may be expiration, batch recall, damage or just that this stock takes up too much space - the authority should rest in one person or system to say.  For those of you interested I have ceded authority of all crockery items to Laura, who is now the sole arbiter of whether the tea mug needs washing.
This also stems from not having a clearly defined process to govern disposals.  I am clearly the authority for disposing of my garments at the end of the day and I still like to make the switch into board shorts and T-shirt when I can even if it is just to draw a line under the day. What I clearly failed to do was ascertain a suitable means for disposal.

When I consulted other stake holders it turned out that the best disposal method was to place in the laundry bin provided......who'd have thought eh?  In my defence garments usually made the laundry bin eventually, but it took the stakeholders to agree an appropriate time line for this activity.

The moral of this story is that you need a disposals process that governs not only who gets to decide on what is due for disposal but how it gets disposed of.  So if your storeroom is full of dusty old boxes and obsolete equipment you may find that you are metaphorically walking around a room littered with clothes in your tight whiteys looking for a dirty tea mug....... and I think we can all agree that this is rarely going to be considered a good thing.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

General Distribution in Haiti 2010

There is a risk in reading Surely More Interesting...., that you may come to believe that logistics is so impossibly difficult with all these potential woes regarding your sock draw, feeding your children or loading them into a car how can you possibly be expected to get it right in a remote, austere or conflict environment.

So This week we are focusing on a good news story!!  As you will have come to appreciate we rarely name the agencies involved in any of our stories unless we have express permission to do so.  So this story is about a character called Miss Sandytoes (a name of her own choosing I tell you).  Miss Sandytoes is not a trained logistician more a film producer/circus performer ninja (the latter being manifest in kicking the glasses off my face in a random banana rope swinging incident - that is a whole other story).

Sandytoes was faced with an IDP camp of 55000+ people whose tarp shelters were falling into disrepair just as rainy season came.   With a little bit of charm and guile she managed to elicit 11000 tarps out of the  American Red Cross, on the rough calculation of each family group being 5 persons which proved to be pretty accurate.

Sandytoes then realised the enormity of distributing to 11000 individuals in a day and had a little wobble in confidence. The camp was reasonably peaceful for a Haitian IDP camp, they certainly hadn't had the gun battles of camps nearer the centre of Port au Prince.  The camp had however seen it's share of violent assaults and malicious woundings.  Processing 11000 people in a day could potentially cause a fair bit of conflict and see an increase in these incidents.

We sat down over a Prestige beer and talked through what the process should be.  We agreed that there were key things we needed to do keep things peaceful, principal among these was a high flow rate; meaning we needed to process between 80 and 100 people an hour for 10 hours at 5 registration stations to complete in the two and a half days we had given ourselves.

We walked our beers down to the distribution area and saw that there was a natural flow to the land which would allow people to enter the distribution at one point and flow throw to leave at another without the lines those processed and those to be processed crossing.  Miss Sandytoes had rightly identified that standing in the sun was not going to work for everyone, the aged, the sick, the pregnant could all do without a day in the heat.  The number of people expected was far too big for us to consider shade netting and no amount of animation was likely to stop anything other than a large queue.

Sandytoes came up with the idea of a mobile triage of community leaders bringing vulnerables forward to a second entrance to the process, with an appropriately trained medic assessing their vulnerability to prevent abuse.  She also knew that one of her team "Big Marc" was an amazing MC and known to most of the camp residents, she appointed him to communicate the messages for the day from a vantage point above the queue, interspersed with some entertainment (a nice touch you don't always see in humanitarian distributions but as valid in that queueing situation as it would be in a Disneyland queue).

That night Miss Sandytoes pre-positioned the stock in the distribution area with a little help from the Brazilian Minustah troops, a couple of random missionaries who turned up and a raft of  volunteers from our own organisation and placed it under guard.

The next 2 1/2 days were hard hard work but I have to say it was one of the best executed general distributions I have ever seen effected.  All the little problems that occur in distributions still occurred, small arguments and rivalries, people with lost tokens or ID cards but the high flow rate across the range of registration points meant frustrations were short lived as no one wanted to get left behind by the rapidly moving queue.

Miss Sandytoes nailed one of the hardest things to get right in aid logistics by calmly looking at the facts and doing the maths. Sure there was a little guidance required but this distribution shows how often only a little input leads to outstanding logistics performance.  Miss Sandytoes, I'd work with you again anywhere  but will bring a helmet for the banana rope incident next time.