Building a Better Mousetrap: COVID-19 Adaptations Improve Team Whidbey’s Efficiency

By Brian Davis, Office of Corporate Communications, NAVSUP Fleet Logistcs Center Puget Sound

If there is any silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud casting its shadow over the world, it is the innovation and creative energy people are calling upon to adapt to the situation. The ongoing pandemic and the Navy’s subsequent response has required military organizations to rethink how they do business. At times, in the course of seeking ways to carry out the mission while ensuring the health and safety of personnel, a unit can discover new procedures and protocols that make an operation more efficient overall, pandemic or not.

Such a case occurred with NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center (FLC) Puget Sound’s Aviation Supply Department. When the staff revised warehouse procedures to accommodate social distancing and limited resources, they found that the changes they implemented also resulted in more efficient fleet support.

Cmdr. Llahn McGhie, director of NAVSUP FLC Puget Sound Aviation Supply Department, pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic hit western Washington at a challenging time.

“The timing of the pandemic occurred during Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s (NASWI) most active flight schedule,” said McGhie. “We had to adapt to the new COVID-19 protocols, but we also had to keep the fuel and parts moving to meet the increased demand,” he said.

The NAVSUP FLC Puget Sound Aviation Supply Department, also known as “Team Whidbey,” supports operations at NASWI. Team Whidbey stores and issues aircraft fuel and operates an aviation warehouse for the naval air station and the squadrons that operate there. Along with receipt, storage, and distribution of fuel, parts, and supplies, Team Whidbey also runs a shipping office that moves items into storage and delivers excess property to the regional Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) disposition services facility.

The biggest changes implemented due to COVID-19 would affect Team Whidbey’s warehouse operations. Only about 10% of the warehouse staff is active duty military, the rest civilian employees. When COVID-19 response measures were implemented, most of NAVSUP FLC Puget Sound’s administrative workers were shifted to telework status, but Team Whidbey’s warehouse had to stay in operation to keep the squadrons flying. The warehouse crew needed to keep coming to work despite the growing pandemic spreading through western Washington and making its way across the country. The ones that could, that is. Some employees had to stay home because of their age or the state of their health.

Every month, the Team Whidbey warehouse crew moves an average of approximately 17,000 items, processes 2,000 shipments, and packages 1,200 aviation depot level repairables for shipment. To maintain workflow and adhere to social distancing guidelines and group size limitations, Team Whidbey instituted additional shifts, and divided the warehouse staff into teams to work each shift. Previously, the warehouse operated during normal working hours, with a two-person duty crew after hours and on weekends. The new plan had a morning and afternoon shift, which kept the warehouse open and running 16 hours a day.

Before COVID, packing and receiving operated with a two to three-day backlog, with an occasional one to two-day backlog in shipping. Team Whidbey quickly resolved the issue with the new schedule. Before the COVID-19 response, warehouse leadership was already seeking a solution to the backlogs.

“We had been looking at reorganizing the warehouse for some time, but of course we had concerns about implementing around mission requirements and dealing with personnel resistance to change. COVID-19 forced our hand and gave us a clear path to making those changes. Everyone understood what we wanted to do and why we wanted to do it. Employee buy-in made it easier to put everything in place for the reorganization,” said Ric Dutton, deputy director, NAVSUP FLC Puget Sound Aviation Supply Department.

“Today, post-COVID, under the new reorganization, all material is processed within 24 hours, despite having 13 employees on safety leave due to age and/or underlying health concerns,” said McGhie. “Even when the installation eventually goes back to its normal routine, we will still keep with this system… it works, and our people seem to like it.”

The warfighters that rely on Team Whidbey’s support like it too. Employees sanitize work areas on every shift. They established specific traffic patterns for material handling equipment and foot traffic. Customer service interactions are done by appointment only, and policies regarding social distancing, use of face masks, self-screening, and minimal contact are strictly enforced.

“It took a bit of a learning curve, but we have an obligation to protect our own people as well as the mission partners that come to us for support. Everyone at NASWI now understands and respects our new system, and they seem to appreciate the faster turnaround,” said Dutton.

As an additional safety measure, employee shifts are staggered to avoid any personnel overlap. Only supervisors meet to conduct shift turnovers. Just one Team Whidbey service is currently reduced during the COVID-19 response. The transfer of excess property to the DLA Disposition Services regional facility was paused due to key employees being placed on safety leave.

NAVSUP FLC Puget Sound Commanding Officer Capt. Bernie Knox noted that mission focus and communication with mission partners is now more critical than ever for logistics commands to keep operating forces healthy and mission ready. Team Whidbey’s experience is an example of how adhering to guidance while employing innovation and flexibility can bring a positive outcome to all involved.

“Today the Navy is in a new state of normal, and we are expected to leverage all of our tools and resources to continue to operate and accomplish our assigned missions while keeping workforce health and safety top priorities. Team Whidbey answered the call and, in the process, made significant improvements to its support of the warfighter,” said Knox.