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Humourless links for April 28, 2010

by Michael Keizer on April 28, 2010

[Image: Liquid Links by Desirae; some rights reserved.]


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Research wanted! A call for papers

by Michael Keizer on April 18, 2009

No sooner had I finished my post calling calling for more evidence on what works (and what doesn’t) in health/aid logistics, than an email message arrived from the HUMLOG institute, alerting me to an excellent opportunity to do so. The Supply Chain Forum, a professional journal on logistics, supply chain and operations management, will publish a special issue on humanitarian supply chains. Please see their call for papers for more information.

Now get those keyboards clicking!

(Image by Nic McPhee.)

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In my previous post on why logistics seems to be so prone to “herding cats” problem (thanks, Laura Walker Hudson!), I suggested five  reasons:

  • The complexities of logistics are “deep” complexities, and are not readily apparent.
  • Daily logistics experiences are not always applicable to large-scale logistics.
  • Our evidence base is sketchy, which has a ‘halo’ effect on all logistics activities.
  • There are hardly any aid logisticians with a recognised advanced degree in the field.
  • Aid logisticians are not the biggest fans of systems or administration themselves.

So what to do about his?

1. Work on the evidence

This is easier said than done. However, we will need something more than our gut feelings and personal experience to be able convince our colleagues. Other areas in aid routinely publish about lessons learned — why don’t we do so in logistics?

  • If you have seen (or developed) a particularly successful technique or method, or seen a received one wreak havoc in a particular setting, don’t keep it to yourself: write an article for an appropriate journal.
  • Think how you can incorporate research in your daily practice and do so. Most aid organisations, and defintely most health organisations are open to facilitate research as long as it does not inconvenience their programs too much. Health and humanitarian disciplines routinely do research within programmes, but logistics rarely does.

2. Explain, explain, explain — and learn

Too often, we do not explain why we want to do certain things a certain way: why is it necessary to fill in that request form, why can’t we just go to the pharmacy and take what is needed, why do we need to make consumption forecasts? Be didactic; and be proactive about — don’t wait for your colleagues to ask, because they will only do so when their irritation level is already high. And if you feel that you cannot explain, rethink — perhaps we are on the wrong track.

This holds true the tactical planning level as well: why do you elect to go for six-monthly order cycles and not three-monthly ones? Why do you select these suppliers and not those? Why do you procure your drugs in Europe and not locally? Include in your explanations why logistical solutions that work at the level of one patient, one time, will not work at the level of a large-scale intervention.

Make sure that everybody understands (or at least has a chance to understand) what you are doing and why, and you will see that it will suddenly is much easier to implement your systems. You will also get much better feedback — and who knows, that feedback might lead you to reconsider your plans and improve them beyond recognition.

3. Get a recognised qualification

Get that master’s degree in aid or health logistics, and see how much more recognition you suddenly get (and how much deeper your understanding of what you do will be).

I am working on my second master’s degree now (in public health, specialising in health logistics for develing countries), but my first one was only sidewise related to aid/health logistics. Already I notice that people take more account of what I am saying, just because they feel that I somehow ‘earned’ that by studying the field. Utter nonsense, of course, but it is how the game plays — and you’d better play along if you want to have the impact you know you can.

Working on my MPH has also given me an opportunity to better integrate my knowledge. It haven’t yet learnt much that was completely new to me, but I am now better able to put things in their context, and to see links between seemingly disparate pieces of knowledge that I did not see before. It also enables me argue more convincingly (not necessarily better, but definitely more convincingly) because it has given me better knowledge of the language of health and health professionals. And finally, it has enabled me to expand my network in global health, which means that I know who to call next time I have a problem that I don’t have a good solution for, or when I think that I need specialist input for.

Get that qualification — it’s worth it.

4. Don’t undercut yourself

When the unexpected happens, don’t throw your logistics systems overboard and get into emergency mode. First think how you can accommodate the issue within your existing systems. By giving the right example, you can show the importance of those systems and that they are not just impediments to getting our work done.

Don’t change systems without in-depth understanding. Many logistics managers in aid, especially in emergency aid, have very clear ideas about how things should be run and do not hesitate to change things in the first couple of weeks (or sometimes even days) after they have arrived. However, your predecessor probably was not a fool either, and would have had reasons to implement the systems the way they did — based on what they knew after having worked for some time in that particular setting. Don’t change systems before you have been in the programme at least six weeks to two months — and for developmental programmes even longer. Changing things too fast, too soon, will only serve to undercut yourself and future logisticians.

And finally: follow the systems yourself. Nothing will undercut your authority as quickly as a ‘do what I say, not as I do’ attitude.

(Image by Todd Lappin)


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Vaccination; 041028-N-9864S-021 Yokosuka, Japan (Oct. 28, 2004) - Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Tiffany Long of San Diego, Calif., administers the influenza vaccination to a crew member aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63). Currently in port, Kitty Hawk demonstrates power projection and sea control as the U.S. Navy's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, operating from Yokosuka, Japan. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Joseph R Schmitt (RELEASED)

“That would never work here.”

I have had to listen to this reply more times than I can easily remember. It will usually come up when I propose to put procedures into place instead of continous ad-hoc decisions, standardisation instead of reinventing the wheel time after time, or proven solutions from other places in a new setting. There is a little devil in all of us that tells us that we are unique, that what works there will never work here, that every little decision we take needs our 100% attention.

Reality is different, and we only need to look at our daily lives to see everyday proof. Do you agonise daily which to put on first, your socks or your shoes? Do you feel that, in your case, it really is a good idea to keep on breathing while you swallow your soft drink? Do you try to walk through closed doors, just to see if that might lead to better results? Or will you today drive to work in reverse, just to see whether that will work better? Of course you don’t; you are aware of best practice from a lifetime of experience and from the example set by peers (classmates, siblings, friends…) and authority figures (parents, teachers, driving instructors…), and you do not go about testing those practices every day again.

Perhaps more pertinently, most of us would really not appreciate if our doctor or dentist would start experimenting with new procedures or home-made drugs when we go to our next appointment (at least, not while there are other, proven possibilities to use first). We really don’t want our electrician to try out a revolutionary new insulation method he recently thought up. Yet when it comes to aid logistics, suddenly there is no such thing as received wisdom, because “every situation is different.”

What causes this behaviour? Why do we behave so differently when it comes to aid logistics?

I think there are a number of issues here:

  • Everybody is a logistician. Or at least, everybody thinks they are. “Just get the bloody stuff here when we need it, can’t be that hard cannit?” Unlike medicine, dentistry, or electrical engineering, the complexities of logistics are much further beneath the surface — so it is not as clear to the average aid worker that logistics management sometimes requires a bit more than just common sense.
  • Unlike many other areas, our daily logistics experiences are not scalable. Logistics routinely deals with complexities of scale: techniques that can be used at small scales will break down at the large scale. Vaccinating one patient is not much different from vaccinating 10,000: draw up, check, swab, inject, discard — and then times 10,000. However, the logistics of a 10,000 person vaccination campaign is many times more complex than those for a one-patient ‘campaign’. A vaccination nurse would have experience organising the logistics for a one-patient (or perhaps 10- or 100-patient) vaccination, but not a 10,000-patient campaign; and consequently would not realise how much more complex the issues become. I will write more about complexities of scale in an other post.
  • The evidence base for much of aid logistics’ best practices is comparatively sketchy. Unlike e.g. medicine, we do not have a history of formal trials; most of our evidence is based on case descriptions and anecdotal evidence. There is a small base of formal trials in logistics in corporate settings, but there results can only be applied very tentatively to aid work. As a result, those techniques that do have a base in evidence are usually not accepted as authoritative by aid workers because they are applied to logistics. No doctor would deny the usefulness of treatment protocols; the advantages of protocols (or procedures, or algorithms, or whatever you would like to call them) have been amply demonstrated, but apply this to logistics and people will loudly complain about imposed bureaucracy.
  • There are no recognised degrees for aid logisticians. Doctors need to pass medical exams. Electricians need to sit for their tests. Drivers need to pass a driver’s test before they get their licence (well, in most developed countries anyway). We expect a degree in public health from a public-health specialist. But aid logisticians come in all kinds and shapes, some with more logistics knowledge and skills than others. There are now a couple of specialised aid logistics master’s degrees, but as they are very new there are hardly any graduates in the field yet. The results are double-edged: on the one hand, not all aid logisticians have the knowledge to recognise the importance and usefulness of standard logistics operational solutions and methods; and on the other hand logisticians do not get recognition as specialists in their own right, and hence their authority is not recognised or accepted.
  • Aid logisticians tend to be an unruly, desk-hating lot. We come from all walks of life, but especially amongst field aid loggies there is an over-representation of people with backgrounds that pre-dispose them against accepting anything remotely smelling of authority, or of desk work[1]; and that includes things like procedures, administration, standardisation, etcetera. In this sense we are our own worst enemies, and tend to sabotage our own systems.

So what can we do to improve on this? How can we change this behaviour from logisticians and other aid workers alike? More in my next post, after Easter.

(Images by the US Navy and Martin Deutsch.)


[1] Or as one colleague once told me, with obvious pride: “We are the last adventurers — and the rest of them are just pale bureaucrats.”


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