In the movie Heartbreak Ridge, Clint Eastwood as Gunny Highway says, “You're Marines now. You adapt. You overcome. You improvise.”
With more than 40 plus years of seasoned and practical supply chain experience, I would like to share with you a military perspective on what Gunny Sergeant Thomas Highway meant and its application to the supply chain. This military perspective was gained from my 11 years of active duty during the Vietnam and the Cold War eras, where I served in infantry, transportation, and logistics US Army officer slots at various posts in the US and overseas.
One thing I learned in the military is to adjust to whatever situation being faced. And that adapting requires an agile mindset. As Helmuth von Moltke, the German military strategist, identified in a famous military dictum, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” They say in the Army that no battle plan survives the first five minutes of combat. So when things are not going as planned, you need to adapt to the situation at hand and make the necessary adjustments. Sometimes you just have to understand the situation has changed and look at it from a different perspective.
What will you do if your company is faced with a major supply chain disruption?
In the military, you learn to create contingency plans. A contingency is a provision for an unforeseen event or circumstance. Having options will help you remain optimistic and provide alternative routes to success. Effective contingency planning can compress response timelines and improve the likelihood that you have the agility necessary to adapt and overcome adversity. It requires having multiple backup plans so you can remain focused in any emergency situations. Remember the advice given by Patrick Swayze as Dalton in the movie Road House: “Expect the unexpected.”
Contrary to what you may have heard, Darwin didn’t define the fittest as those that survive. His “fittest” were those endowed with the best equipment to survive, and that makes all the difference. The fittest are defined as those that survive, so the catchphrase amounts to “those that survive, survive.”
In the supply chain, it’s about how well you can adapt to each situation and make the most out of it. In reality, this is what the supply chain comes down to: constantly adapting to VUCA (an acronym used to describe conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) situations many times throughout a day, week or month.
Adaptability can quickly be summed up as your ability to move in a given direction at any time. As Hannibal, the famous Carthagian general, wisely stated, “We will either find a way or make one.” Therefore when problems arise, tackle them head on or go around it, over it, under it, or through it. Rarely is there never anything you don’t know, it’s only things you haven’t figured out yet. So if you don’t know, then learn how.
In the military, you need leaders who can adapt rapidly to unforeseen circumstances. Hence, being inquisitive about new opportunities is crucial to successful change as well as adaptation. By way of example, changing technology in the supply chain and the resistance to it is part of this “adapt and overcome” that Gunnery Sergeant Highway put forth for his Recon Marines. What matters in technological innovation is how well new and improved technologies are incorporated into effective and intelligent concepts within the supply chain framework and with the least resistance—adaption.
Dr. M. Scott Peck wrote in his bestseller The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult… It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.” In the military, you are constantly presented with classroom situations, field exercises, and computer simulations that test your ability to prevail in adverse situations. Within each setting, you come out more knowledgeable and in a better position to handle future adversity. As Horace, the Greek philosopher understood, "Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant."
In a wartime environment and fluid battlefield, the military have to be able to handle the pressure. For that reason, you want proof that you are someone that’s going to overcome whatever is thrown at you. What better way to prove it then if you’ve had the opportunity to observe some realism as well as learned how to adapt yourself to your supply chain environment.
General Gus Pagonis, retired President of Sears Logistics Services and Chairman of GENCO, describes it best in his own words: “Logisticians deal with unknowns. They attempt to eliminate unknowns, one by one, until they are confident that they have done away with the possibility of paralyzing surprises. This is what we did in the First Gulf War in 1991.”
In the military, I became accustomed not only to assessing situations and quickly formulating actionable plans with an Operations Order (OPORD), but also to performing After Action Reports, which require all members of a team to identify areas that should be improved for the next time out. The ability to define clear goals, and then work with a high degree of discipline and focus to accomplish those goals is paramount to how you handle and overcome adversity.
Resilience is the word I would use when describing the degree of fortitude people are able to show in the face of adversity. How much resilience do you have? It comes from having experienced situations in which there is no clear precedent or path forward. Thus resilience builds your confidence to overcome obstacles.
It was said that Napoleon won most of his battles in his tent. He would look at the plan of battle and his maps and consider all the different things that could go wrong and think through what he would do in response to each of those things. In the heat of the battle, when things went against him, he had already thought out completely what to do and was able to give answers and orders instantly.
Problems, large and small, present themselves to us throughout our supply chain career. While some may experience more than others, everyone will suffer setbacks and periods of difficulty. Once you have had to perform under stress in resource scarce environments like the military, I believe you will learn to be comfortable in overcoming adversity.
For most of you reading this column, this isn't your first supply chain rodeo, which is convincing evidence that you've been capable of overcoming adversity. As John Wayne put it, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway." If you don’t believe in yourself and you are not willing to persevere, then adversity will always get the better of you!
Working in logistics equates to operating under extreme pressure. Despite the rigidity of military regulations and the certainty provided by standard operating procedures, officers and enlisted personnel alike are accustomed to making significant decisions in stressful conditions, under the threat of physical harm and in a myriad of uncertain situations. The ability to creatively solve problems using the “field expedient method” in the face of unprecedented situations is a quality which I believe is of immense value in the supply chain. As Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company put it, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”
The “field expedient method” is akin to the term “jury rigging” which refers to makeshift repairs or temporary contrivances, made with only the tools and materials that happen to be on hand. Some may have also used the term “jerry rigging” which is creating contraptions out of whatever materials you have on hand. For example, MacGyver, the TV Series genius, who never carries a gun and always thwarts the enemy with vast scientific knowledge—sometimes with little more than a paper clip and the duct tape in his pocket—was a very good at “jerry rigging”.
When you improvise it’s because things didn’t go as planned. As we have said previously, the best laid plans can go awry as well as your contingencies. You improvise in the sense that adaptation must allow for flexibility by being agile. As a result, it forces you to leverage your supply chain knowledge and available logistical resources by being creative to solve the situation you are going through.
In the movie The Martian, which tells the story of an astronaut played by Matt Damon, who finds himself stranded on the surface of Mars after his team assumes him dead, we find an excellent example of improvising. With only meager supplies, he is forced to use his intelligence and ingenuity to survive and also to find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive for a rescue mission. To improvise is devising an answer to a given situation by making-do, despite the absence of resources that might be expected to produce a solution such as the use of a butter knife in place of a screwdriver to turn a screw.
During the height of the space race in the 1960s, legend has it, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in space. They needed to figure out another way for the astronauts to write things down. So they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a pen that could put ink to paper without gravity. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed their cosmonauts pencils.
If you have learned to adapt and overcome, then you have had to improvise on occasion. Consequently, action is required if skill at improvising is going to be attained. Repetition of actions to adapt and overcome is what leads to true improvisational capability. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle said that, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” The more you’ve successfully used field expedient options in the supply chain, the more leeway you will be given to improvise on the fly!
“We like to think successful people were just lucky, but the key is they were ready when the opportunity presented itself,” from the blog Planned Serendipity Inc.
So the next time the supply chain throws you a curve ball or drops a tree in your path and the opportunity presents itself, will you adapt, overcome and improvise? Remember that it’s not what you say, it’s what you do that matters.
Thomas L. Tanel, CTL, C.P.M., CCA, CISCM, is the President and CEO of CATTAN Services Group, Inc. specializing in Logistics and Supply Chain issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 979.212.8200.