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Information management

  1. Tenacity. No, I did not put it there because I have been looking for an opportunity to use that word for as long as I can remember (although that is true): a lot of what we do in logistics needs long-term, relentless attention – you will need to follow through what you start in the long term.
  2. Patience. Hardly anything will happen as quickly as you might want to. The flip side of the tenacity is that you will need the patience to wait things out – which sometimes can take quite a while.
  3. Numeracy and maths skills. A lot of what we do requires a feel for numbers and some basic mathematical skills. You don’t have to be an operations research whizz (although a basic understanding might help), but you have no business working as a logistician if you don’t understand the sawtooth graph and its mathematical underpinnings, how it affects what we do, and how our decisions affect it in turn.
  4. A flair for administration and communication. Information management is immensely important for what we do. Without a certain facility with the underlying paperwork and with communicating the information, you will be less effective than you could be.
  5. Time management. As logisticians, we will always need to juggle several balls: it is rare that we can concentrate on one issue. If you don’t manage your time well, you are sure to drop one or more of those balls.
  6. The ability to delegate. You cannot do everything yourself. If you don’t know how to delegate (without abrogating your responsibilities), you will probably do more harm than good.
  7. The ability to ‘switch off’. People who cannot stop mulling over the daily problems and challenges when they go to bed are prime candidates for a burn-out. This is true for most aid professions, but especially for logisticians because logistics is usually a 24/7 process. I put in long hours, but most people I work with have learnt to respect that I prefer not to discuss work when I’m off.
  8. Language skills. You will hardly ever work in a country where everyone (or even a sizable majority) will speak your native language. Speaking more than one language helps, but what is even more important is a facility to quickly pick up the rudiments of a new language. Click here for more skills

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Distribution center of Kühne + Nagel in Hamburg, Germany.

Distribution center of Kühne + Nagel in Hamburg, Germany. K+N is one of the largest 3PL providers in Europe.

We have seen what third-party logistics is and what are its strengths and weaknesses; and why it will be part of logistics for global health and aid. But what does this mean for us? What will change in the way we work?

Improved information management practices

To be able to work well with 3PL providers, we will need to improve our information management: without knowing fairly well what needs to go where (and hence, what is where and what already goes where), we will not be able to enjoy the advantages of 3PL. What’s more, the more advanced 3PL providers have developed their own supply chain visibility solutions; and not only that, but often they are keen to help us to make our own systems interoperable with theirs, which almost inevitably will lead to better systems for our own use. They do that, not from the goodness of their hearts, but because their customers asked for it – you know, “no delegation without verification” – and because they think that better interoperability will also lead to better efficiency of their own processes.

Smaller logistics departments

If we can outsource all or most of our boring, ‘routine’ logistics work to 3PL providers, our own logistics departments can concentrate on those logistics that are not easily transferable: because they are in high-security settings, or because of specific sensitivities that mean that we cannot use 3PL providers without damaging our operations, or because they are in places where, quite simply, there are no 3PL providers. What remains is a small, highly specialised, highly professional, very flexible unit that delivers four types of services: supply chain management in places where 3PL providers cannot deliver or their services are not acceptable; leadership and coordination of quick scale-ups of operations in case of a sudden emergency; development and monitoring of logistics policies and contracts (including those with 3PL providers); and specialised logistics input for development of policies in other areas and for management.

Bigger logistics departments

Got you there, didn’t I?

Think of this: why would 3PL providers necessarily be from outside the aid world? We already see some 3PL activities from aid organisations themselves, e.g. WFP’s role as logistics provider of last resort in the cluster system. So why wouldn’t some of the larger aid organisations with strong logistics capacities act as 3PL providers for smaller organisations? I can easily foresee that organisations like WFP, MSF, or Oxfam, or perhaps even some governmental health logistics units would start delivering 3PL services to other aid organisations or even ministries of health. After all, they know better than most generic 3PL providers how to operate in the settings where we work, and hence can provide even better (and probably cheaper) services. These hybrid service delivery organisations will, by necessity, grow larger than they are now.

Greater logistics departments

Whichever of these choices these departments make, it will always allow them to become better than they are now: more specialised, more focused on their strengths and less exposed in their weaknesses, more flexible, more efficient, using synergies where they occur (instead of ignoring them as we often do now).

So what are your views? Is this too rosy a picture? Are you already going this way? Things I have missed?


Continue Reading 1 comment }Aid and aid work, Logistics, Public health

My previous article about I-See technology was the first post on what looks to become a mini-series on logistics information management; it gave me some fresh ideas for new posts, and why not go with the flow when you’re on a roll?[1]

This one will be about logistics data and what to do with it. Hello, are you still there?

A couple of years back, I was asked to analyse and improve on a supply line for an international NGO in an East-African country.[2] My first obvious question was: how bad is it actually? They didn’t know: although everybody knew that hardly anything was delivered on time and that there were a lot of mistakes in order fulfilment, leading to frequent stock-outs and overstocks, nobody could really give me any hard data – it was all seat-of-the-pants. When I asked what caused the problems, and where in the supply line they occurred, I was told that that was why I was hired, and could I please get on with the job?

By the time I left, I was told that the supply line had never worked as well as it did, and that I had done a sterling job; but had I?

I think it is time to let the cat out of the bag on that one: in fact, the supply line hadn’t improved a bit – at least, after I started measuring things, my indicators remained fairly flat. In fact, they showed that the supply line really didn’t do that badly even before I arrived, taking into account the context.

What did change, though, was that I used the increased supply chain visibility to give useful feedback to field managers, both logistical and operational ones. For the first time, they would know when to expect their supplies, and would be informed at an early stage if things seemed to go off-track; which meant that they could plan for it and start taking contingency measures at an early stage. I also started to churn out regular one-page overviews of how the supply chain was actually doing, which showed nicely that we didn’t do too badly. Of course I presented this as a big improvement: nobody wants to be told that they were actually quite wrong.

Now this is a nice story, but how would this have helped me if, in fact, the supply chain had been the shambles people thought it was? Having increased visibility would at least have helped me to find out where exactly in the supply line the problems occurred, and perhaps even what caused them; it would also have enabled me to see whether my remedies worked, and to which extent – it would even allow me to try out various measures, and see which one (or which combination) worked best. And finally, it would possibly have helped me to argue my case when expensive or painful measures would have been necessary.

All this turned out to be moot, and I got kudos for what was a fairly easy job. Want those kudos too? Then start working on your supply chain visibility.

[Image: Kudos Buddy by Adam Fagen. Some rights reserved.]

Back to post [1] I just love mixing my metaphors. It’s like those chemistry experiments I did in school, with sometimes similarly interesting (or malodorous) effects.
Back to post [2] Sorry, can’t be more specific than that.


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If you have followed this blog, you will know that I am very much in favour of more academic input into our logistics efforts. As you can imagine, I was tickled pink when I saw the ads for a new book about humanitarian logistics, written by respected INSEAD academics Rolando Tomasini and Luk Van Wassenhove.

Let me not mince words here: I am disappointed. Expectations are high when a prestigious university like INSEAD releases a book under its own impressum, but those expectations are not met – not even closely. The reason actually is made clear in the first paragraph of the book. The authors describe their experience in humanitarian logistics on which they base the book: case studies they did for WFP/UNJLC, the IFRC, and FUNDESUMA. In other words, they base a book about humanitarian logistics in general on limited experience with three organisations that are very unrepresentative of the sector as a whole. This has clear effects throughout the book: although they do make some valid observations (especially when they talk about partnering with the private sector, which is clearly their focus), much of what they describe is over-simplified, or even dead wrong.

All three of the organisations they worked with (especially the IFRC and FUNDESUMA) have a focus on disaster aid, which obviously skewed their view severely. It leads to occasionally ridiculous assertions; a good example is that, according to Tomasini and Van Wassenhove, in humanitarian supply chains “… time cycles are very short [and] new and unprecedented demands occur frequently …” (p. 8). Definitely true in some types of humanitarian response – specifically disaster response – but totally untrue of many other types. When the authors describe the characteristics of a humanitarian supply line (ch. 1), they very clearly have a specific type of humanitarian response in mind; a type of response that in reality makes up a minority of humanitarian work.

Chapter 5, which is devoted to information management (which people who know me will immediately recognise as one of my personal hobby horses), goes as far as basically describing the SUMA model (with a bit of info about UNJLC’s website thrown in for good measure) as the paradigm to follow, without recognising that it is totally inappropriate for a majority of humanitarian aid work. A bit of scrutiny of e.g. humanitarian.info would have been useful to inform this chapter.

The book comes into its own in chapter 7, about partnerships between humanitarian and corporate organisations. It is very obvious that this is what the authors are experts in, and it is the most useful and well-written chapter of the book. Sadly, that is not enough to justify its rather inflated price.

All in all, this is a missed chance. Gentlemen, I just know you can do better: get to it.


Continue Reading 7 comments }Aid and aid work, Logistics