Edition 61
Reverse Logistics Lessons from Afghanistan
by Tim Garcia, CEO, Apptricity

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Reverse logistics might be a relatively new idea for civilians, but armies have been perfecting the practice for as long as they’ve been fighting wars. You put troops and equipment in, and sooner or later you take most or all of it out, as safely and orderly as possible.

So the U.S. military has plenty of experience to fall back on during its withdrawal from Afghanistan, a process President Obama has said will wind down late this year.

And yet, many observers have called an orderly Afghanistan drawdown – the military term is retrograde – our warfighters’ most challenging mission in many years, perhaps even in decades. There are several reasons for that.

First is the continuing instability in the region. Military historians will tell you that one of the hardest maneuvers has always been withdrawing from a hostile conditions like those that still exist in some parts of the country.

Second is Afghanistan’s geography and infrastructure. There simply aren’t very many good options for moving people and supplies over often-difficult terrain. The country is huge, and almost all of it is either mountains or desert. The roads and rail are terrible to non-existent. The communications infrastructure is primitive as compared to what we enjoy here in the United States. All of those factors pose challenges for reverse logistics efforts.

Third is the sheer scale of the operation. According to published reports, the 50 countries participating in the coalition, as of late 2013, had some 130,000 soldiers, 70,000 vehicles and 120,000 containers in country. The United States alone, as of late 2012, had an estimated 90,000 containers and 50,000 vehicles scattered across Afghanistan, according to the U.S. General Accountability Office.

During the past 13 years in Afghanistan, people and supplies have been scattered all over the country, in major compounds and in remote forward operating bases, or FOBs, some of which remain in hostile territory even today.

So you’ll agree with those who call this retrograde mission a “logistician’s nightmare.” We at Apptricity like to think we’re doing our part to make the process easier and more efficient – and less of a nightmare.

Apptricity’s Role in the Drawdown
For nearly as long as U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan, Apptricity has been the Army’s partner in delivering what we call “command visibility” to military theaters all over the world. In 2004, the Army selected us to provide core components of its commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) supply chain software suite as the foundation of its Transportation Coordinators’ Automated Information for Movements System II (TC-AIMS II).

The system has managed all aspects of transportation management, from the movement of military units to the loading of supplies on vehicles and rotary aircraft headed to forward operating bases. It enabled Joint Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration capabilities associated with the movement of goods, equipment and troops from ports of debarkation to staging areas and then to forward tactical areas.

Here’s what all that means: Our software allows movements to be tracked in real time, rather than by map points, across multiple time zones. Tracking is granular to the level of an item’s location in a specific compartment on a particular ground or air transport vehicle or at its destination. The software also incorporates dashboard capabilities that display intuitive, standard reports and sophisticated, customized slices of data. The result is command visibility on a single screen, whether on desktop or mobile device.

The Army has used Apptricity’s integrated transportation logistics and asset management software not just in Afghanistan but also across the Middle East and other theaters of operation, including relief efforts following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Now, the same system will enable reverse logistics on a massive scale in Afghanistan, and Apptricity is proud to play its role.

Because of the sensitive nature of our job and national security implications, I’m restricted from discussing many details of the mission. However, there are some useful lessons I can impart in a general, high-level discussion of challenges related to the retrograde. And much of that correlates directly to commercial or other reverse logistics use cases.

How Reverse Differs from Forward Logistics
The primary thing for folks to realize is that reverse logistics is not simply the opposite of forward logistics. If only it were that easy. There is a whole other set of considerations and different dynamics that go into the reverse concept.

Generally, going forward you’re looking at how fast you can do something. There’s a need you’re trying to meet. And, generally, with forward logistics you’re moving the good stuff. Everything is new. You know it’s ready to be deployed and implemented and used.

Sometimes with reverse logistics you get some of the same parameters. Maybe in some cases the timeline is more manageable and you can look for opportunities to transport items in the most economical way.

But a whole other set of factors comes into play, too. You not only have items that must be returned, but you have many, many components to think about. And, you have to know a lot more details about those items and components than you did when moving them forward. Who owns it? What condition is it in? If it needs to be repaired, who needs to repair it? And who gets it after that?

There may even be decisions on whether to bring items back or sell (or dispose of) them as scrap metal. Commanders are going to need total visibility of everything to be moved back to the United States for repairs and refitting for use in future training or movement to other bases around the world.

Those considerations aren’t necessarily important on forward logistics, where your aim is simply to get materials to the right places as quickly as possible. The same dynamics are applicable in a commercial setting, whether you’re dealing with returns because of defective components or relocating an entire facility.

Our Approach to the Mission
In terms of supporting the warfighters in Afghanistan, our approach to the mission is no different from our focus with any customer. That is, to provide reliable, fast and complete support, from the first interaction – identifying items to be moved – through making their movement as streamlined as possible and all the way through completion.

The strengths of what we do are the same no matter if it’s the Department of Defense or a large, multinational corporation, and we obviously believe any organization should demand that the solutions they use to manage logistics have these five characteristics:

• Adaptability – A good business process solution plays well with others. In other words, it is platform agnostic. It will mesh well and be fully functional in any legacy hardware or software environment that you already have installed. It will even work with a mainframe. Our solution didn’t force the Army to transfer all their data into our system; anyway, for security reasons that wouldn’t have been smart. Therefore, we had the ability to tap into years and millions of dollars already invested into standard Army data centers and databases that did not require interfacing and reworking. We directly connected and were able to leverage all that.

The same applies in the commercial realm. In theory, companies had good reasons for making sizeable investments in their current technology stack, not just the operating system but also web servers, app servers, data sources, browsers, mobile platforms and so on. Perhaps the database you selected works best for your industry, or the network administrator you use is specific to your operating system. And, you’ve hired people and built infrastructures around those strategic decisions. When shopping for business solutions, don’t settle for anything less than a company that can adapt to the environment where you are already strategically committed. The solution should adapt to you, and not the other way around.

• Configurability – When we talk about configurability, we don’t mean solutions that are re-coded to suit your needs. Rather, we mean the ability to change settings within a solution so that it fits your organization like a glove. That includes being able to define the user interface – what the screen looks like – and how information is displayed. With the Army, we were able to configure screens to fit the warfighter’s needs. That means things like using the right terminology. In the typical commercial case, maybe that means being able to change the data that is populated in certain scenarios or that a certain workflow is supported. Again, it’s a case of the app bending to the organization and its needs.

• Integration – Logistics solutions must be very good at integrating with third-party applications, both on the front and back ends. With the Army, it’s all the existing databases and the rigid security protocols they require. In business, it might be PeopleSoft, Infor, SAP or Oracle. Whatever the case, you won’t get the all-important, real-time transparency you seek unless it is seamlessly integrated. Look for a solution with a sophisticated integration engine that makes it easy to feed upstream systems that, for example, track defective components or unsold inventory. With solid integration, the solution is automatically updated in real time.

• Cost-effective migration and updates – This can be a big problem in ERP adoptions. You spend months and many dollars to configure data and business rules only to have to do it again when the vendor rolls out an update. Your solution should require only a one-time configuration. When a new version is available, the solution should allow the quick and seamless upgrade, so you always enjoy state-of-the-art technology without the recurring expense of continual onboarding. In Afghanistan, this allowed the warfighter to always have the latest version of our software at his disposal.

• Mobility – More and more, it’s critical in all logistics scenarios to have full mobile capability that accommodates offline situations. Even in today’s connected world, communications coverage is not universal. This really comes into play for us in Afghanistan. We have to be able to support the tracking, transportation and management of items even with very limited or no communication. Even when communication is available, bandwidth is limited. Organizations need a mobile solution that is designed from the ground up with real-world constraints in mind. You need to make sure you have the data you need so that when you are in an offline mode, you have what you need to be able to perform your logistics processes. Then, when you come back online, the solution needs to make the most of those communications and effectively move the data back and forth. Instead of having to sync an entire, say, gigabyte of data, maybe the solution should be designed to move only the information that’s relevant to the operation. That efficiency and intelligence is key when it comes to mobility, and it’s often a downfall in traditional applications simply because, in a network-rich environment, we don’t think about it.

In Conclusion
From a software perspective, we learned a lot during the Army’s deployment that will now come into play during retrograde. I can’t go into detail, of course, except to say that there were operational experiences that could be adjusted to enhance visibility. And every year, better technology and better tagging capability and better tag readers become available.

With all those improvements and adjustments, the Army could keep moving forward, thanks to the basic architecture and functionality of the software they were working with. That’s the bottom-line message I’d leave with you and what you can learn from the military’s experience.

Bells and whistles are one thing, and sometimes they’re even nice to have. But when it comes to enterprise-grade logistics solutions – whether forward or reverse – what really matters are the core characteristics that help you achieve maximum visibility. Does it deliver all the data you need, in real- or near-real time, wherever you need it? And does it render that data in an intuitive way that makes the information actionable?

In military operations, “command visibility” can be a matter of life and death for a U.S. soldier in harm’s way. Almost nothing comes close to those stakes in a commercial environment, but visibility can definitely determine profits and losses, so you want to settle for nothing less.

Timothy D. Garcia

Chief Executive Officer
& President
Apptricity Co-founder Tim Garcia has more than 25 years of software sales, management and development experience in the enterprise applications market. Under his leadership, Apptricity’s growing client base now includes three of the world’s largest organizations: Walmart, AT&T and the U.S. Department of Defense. Prior to Apptricity, Garcia held management positions at Pivotal Corporation (Nasdaq: PVTL), Compuware Corporation (Nasdaq: CPWR), Peregrine Systems (NYSE: HPQ), Sterling Software (NYSE: CA), and EDS (NYSE: HPQ). He received his bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of California at Davis.

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