By Maj. Daniel J.N. BelzerOctober 4, 2018
Red. Regardless of our branches or warfighting functions, we have all watched someone brief a battalion or brigade commander that a unit is nearly or totally out of a commodity, only to discover later that either the report was incorrect or the item in question had no impact on future missions.
Circumstances like these beg a lot of questions. Why do we cede positions of influence on a commander's staff by allowing arbitrary data to funnel commanders into bad decisions? You may not even realize that your unit codifies this practice in its standard operating procedures.
If your logistics status (LOGSTAT) report assigns colors to percentages, then you have fallen victim to data-focused metrics for sustainment reporting. Capability focused assessment metrics are a better way to communicate with higher and adjacent headquarters.
Somewhere out there, a private has the daily task of dipping a wooden dowel in fuel trucks and fuel bags to approximate the volume of the remaining contents. Precision is neither terribly important nor easily achieved, and (for the moment) no one is terribly concerned whether a unit has 10,003 gallons (50.01 percent of its capacity) or 9,904 gallons (49 percent) in those bags.
At the tactical level, units are right not to be concerned over the difference of 99 gallons of fuel. But when reporting formulas establish that 9,904 is red while 10,003 is amber, the color-coded LOGSTAT could corrupt a commander's decision if it is absent of any analysis.
Percentages (and the representative colors) are meaningless. They do not enable decisions or assist a commander with identifying problems. Sticking to this system lets data masquerade as knowledge or analysis. (See figure 1.) Ubiquitous as it is, this system leads senior commanders into making different decisions than they would make if they had contextual assessments from their subordinate commanders.
Situational understanding, the ultimate goal of the cognitive hierarchy shown in figure 1, requires that humans analyze situations and make decisions based on experience, mathematics, or instinct.
In preparation for Warfighter Exercise 17-04, the error of percentage-based reporting was abundantly clear. Despite reticence to change, the 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC) found and employed a new system for reporting commodities to III Corps. This system enabled commanders to communicate in common terms across warfighting functions with assessments and context that gave senior commanders greater understanding.
The 593rd ESC's model acknowledges that supplies are consumed every day. (See figure 2.) The wave on the chart shows how stock on hand is consumed and resupplied. The requirement line highlights the unit's use rate over the distribution cycle. For Warfighter Exercise 17-04, the wave followed a daily delivery cycle, but the graph would look the same if the delivery cycle was every two or three days.
The requirement line shows how much of a given commodity a unit requires to maintain its current stocks. Put another way, it is the "break even" line. Everything below that line highlights consumption, while everything above it highlights the stock delivered and stored upon arrival.
The height (amplitude) of the wave represents total distribution capacity or the sum of the commodity delivered. The distance between the waves demonstrates delivery frequency. The implications of figure 2 are substantial because the waves can help commanders and staffs identify reporting and planning errors that may alter their supply chain assessments. Redefining the colors is even more critical because it is a simple way to put commanders back in positions of influence with their higher headquarters.
In the 593rd ESC model, colors reflect a commander's assessment of his supply and distribution chains. His assessment highlights opportunities and risks in situational terms and demonstrates analysis and evaluation of the tactical and operational environments.
This system is easy to employ, and the assessment is easy to reach. The commander simply needs to answer this question: Will the current supply chain or distribution network compel maneuver forces to pause or halt? If not, the status for a given commodity cannot be red or black.
Next, is the supply chain keeping up (amber), or is the unit receiving enough to build stocks (green)? The answers to these simple questions dictate whether or not the supported maneuver commander can retain momentum and freedom of action based upon the stance of and balance in his supply chain. This new system leads to more effective and complete assessments.
The current system is broken. It denies commanders an opportunity to communicate understanding on a regular basis with their existing products. The system forces commanders to analyze data second- or third-hand.
The new system transitions information well between maneuver and support staffs, is easily implemented, and improves the common understanding across tactical and operational units.
Maj. Daniel J.N. Belzer is the executive officer of the 308th Brigade Support Battalion, 17th Fires Brigade. He was previously the lead support operations planner for Warfighter Exercise 17-04 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the Virginia Military Institute and a master's degree in supply chain management from Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a graduate of the Red Team, National Security Policy, and Theater Logistics courses.
Brig. Gen. Jack Haley, Col. Dennis Kerwood, retired Col. Dave Saffold, Capt. Jon-Michael King, and many other members of the 593rd ESC contributed to this article.
This article is an Army Sustainment product.