Authentic Trust & True Leadership Drive Complex Reform: Sensible Themes from DoD’s Logistics Reform Effort

By Nicholas J. Avdellas, Department of Defense Logistics Reform Team

In February 2017, a Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) memorandum directed the Deputy Secretary to establish cross-functional teams to address improved mission effectiveness and efficiencies across the Department of Defense (DoD). The teams were to address key lines of DoD business, including logistics and supply chain management, in order to “free up” limited resources to contribute to fielding a larger, more capable, and more lethal Joint force.

In response to this directive, the Logistics Reform Team (LRT) was formed in late 2017. Because of the size and complexity of the department’s approximately $150 billion logistics enterprise, a strong, experienced leader was critical to optimize reform opportunities in this space. Dee Reardon was appointed as the LRT reform leader and immediately populated her team with a unique blend of functional and military service logistics expertise. Guided by Reardon’s leadership, the LRT quickly developed a vision for the future of the department’s logistics functions to help focus their activities, emerging initiatives, and outcomes.

DoD Logistics Vision:

A resilient and agile, best-in-class logistics force delivering cost-effective readiness to improve lethality, while constantly innovating to outpace our adversaries.

The vision was firmly supported by key near and long-term outcomes, including:

  • Improve readiness; increase weapon system availability by 15 percent over the future years defense program (FYDP)
  • Strengthen sustainment; reinvest approximately $25 billion across the logistics portfolio over the FYDP
  • Maximize buying power: apply limited resources more effectively and efficiently
  • Establish single process owners and governance structures
  • Steer by authoritative and aligned performance measures
  • Leverage logistic enterprise data to improve decision making

Once this DoD logistics vision and associated outcomes were established, the LRT immediately got to work soliciting input from stakeholders for reform ideas consistent with this reform framework. The LRT also assessed their own, as well as leadership-directed reform proposals, and conducted thorough business case reviews of all potential reforms. From November 2017 to the present, the LRT has reviewed 64 potential logistics reform initiatives, resulting in 24 on-going enterprise LRT initiatives (with three complete) and 12 of which are component-led initiatives. The initiatives run the gamut from business process improvements (such as updating maintenance work packages and associated bills of material) to resource optimization (such as non-tactical warehouses and bulk fuel infrastructure) to decision support enablers (such as enterprise metrics and the munitions readiness initiative). The majority of these initiatives include six to nine month proofs of concept to determine if the initiative warrants full enterprisewide implementation.

The initiatives the LRT generated demonstrate a great deal of work accomplished in an extremely short period of time–all while major strategic directional change was occurring in the department’s mission set, and unprecedented organizational change was underway in its senior logistics management structure.

The remainder of this article focuses on several unique leadership organizational change themes that enabled this progress to occur in an extremely challenging environment.

Innovation sparks through trust and believing in people who care deeply about the mission and each other.

The LRT’s initial Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and Supply leads, Jim Liberko and Bryan Jerkatis, worked several initiatives together – many ideas they discussed over time culminated in Bryan’s successful reform initiative designed to establish improved, enterprisewide strategic munitions management. Bryan, who made the sacrifice to be a “geographic bachelor” to be a part of the LRT, has taken his personal car over to Jim’s house for various repairs on weekends during this assignment. These interactions led to a friendship that enabled trust to develop and true “out of the box” thinking to occur between the two. In this case, the power of “looking under the hood” proved to be exponential.

Diversity is a good thing, particularly in a reform environment.

In building the LRT, Reardon knew she needed input from various perspectives and all areas of logistics management. In order to achieve this richness, she found people from two programs to support LRT activities. First, the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) Mobility Program provides temporary assignments of personnel between the federal government and eligible organizations. As IPAs, Nick Avdellas, Mark Van Gilst and Brad Silver supplemented the LRT with significant senior expertise based upon their many combined years of logistics experience. Second, the LRT leveraged the OSD Sustainment Fellows Program. Wendi Duffy and Christine Morelli joined the team and offered cutting-edge concepts and insights that reflected the visits and practices they observed in both the public and private sectors.

Successful reform activity requires a unique style of day-to-day management.

Dan Blake had the perfect amount of logistics knowledge to be incredibly effective as the LRT’s director of staff. His background as an operator, auditor, and congressional liaison enabled him to review a tremendous amount of logistics reform proposals with a level-headed realism that quickly separated the wheat from the chaff. His feedback on reform proposals did not discourage; in fact, it pressed staff to be more innovative and clear in the reform initiatives being formulated. In short, Blake was an efficient, hard-nosed clearing house for logistics reform proposals.

Reform initiatives that seem nearly impossible are anything but if driven by a truly visionary Marine.

Dan Ermer spent a very successful career in the Marine Corps and is now revolutionizing the way the department views and measures materiel availability and its contribution to fleet readiness. This is an incredible challenge. He is not using brute force, but rather a collaborative performance improvement process that serves as a model for generating true reform results that will eventually become part of the institution. Ermer’s on-going efforts continually reinforce the important concept that reaching out and making new organizational connections is often an important starting point for reform in organizations as large and complex as the DoD. Innovation can often spawn quickly, just by demonstrating great passion and understanding of the reform you are trying to advance–and by solving problems in an empatheticway from the customer’s perspective.

DoD top-down reform requires frequent, transparent, and clear communications, especially with the military services and defense agencies–the LRT’s service and agency leads provided this role with the appropriate point of view.

Rex Curry (Air Force), Capt. William Booth (Navy/Marine Corps), Paul Hay (Army), and Jim Liberko (DLA), supported by Mike Boone, also from DLA, properly advocated for the perspectives and equities of their service or agency as logistics reform initiatives were developed. However, given the LRT’s charter to increase materiel availability, generate savings, and apply limited resources more effectively and efficiently enterprisewide, these individuals were also open to and often generated reform initiatives that focused on the power of collaborative solutions, particularly when duplication was evident or technology insertion could overcome challenges through a Joint perspective. This kind of service and agency lead perspective, which they communicated frequently throughout their communities, was absolutely essential to the LRT’s success. Reardon put full confidence in their capabilities to communicate effectively to all echelons of their stakeholder communities, and fully supported their positions when required.

On the DoD LRT, nobody took the credit or blame, they took the responsibility. Genuine reform requires individuals willing to take the ball and run–fully dedicated to the mission and their teammates.

As described above, the DoD LRT included functional, military service, and integrative personnel that requested and implemented reform initiatives identified across the DoD logistics enterprise. While roles and responsibilities were well defined, many times the team had to address unexpected, time sensitive requests directly from senior DoD officials. This meant that priorities often changed quickly while firm deadlines remained in place. Without hesitation, “back-ups” quickly jumped in to pick up on task requirements when normally designated subject matter experts (SMEs) were required to address “wolf at the door” requirements. Three individuals, Randy Kendrick, who was known to Reardon for several years to be a top-notch OSD analyst and leader; Helen Newell, who was in the final stages of her DoD Sustainment Fellowship and responsible for integrating and reporting LRT initiative status and results to the CMO and other senior leaders; and Robyn Smith, Reardon’s administrative assistant, regularly monitored and balanced tasking assignment and accomplishment. They were absolutely essential to the success of the LRT.

The success Reardon achieved as leader of the DoD LRT will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the department’s complex logistics management processes–directly contributing to the SECDEF’s requirement for increased lethality of the force. In order to be successful, Reardon knew her reform team had to include change agents who could innovate as they developed and vetted logistics reforms, both individually and as a group. Reardon’s rare leadership quality in this case was to trust her instincts to assemble a diverse, talented team that she knew could hit the mark. She then set the team’s mission and objectives, and let them go to work. Her team worked within a clear structure and communicated clearly and frequently with all appropriate stakeholders–but as the examples above make evident, what they did was to demonstrate that the whole is greater than any individual contribution and that a true leader that trusts in her team can achieve far reaching and, potentially, enduring change in a very complex and challenging logistics organizational environment.

Winter 2019