June 11, 2020

Lessons for the future Defence Supply Chain: A COVID-19 response

The COVID-19 crisis has had a massive impact on global supply chains, placing unprecedented levels of demand and scrutiny upon Defence’s relationships with its suppliers as well as highlighting issues Defence faces within its own construct. Oliver Grieve, a Consultant in the Operational Analysis team, has been embedded in the Defence Support Operations Centre to help Defence respond to the challenge whilst helping to protect NHS capability.

Adapting at Operational Pace

The escalation of the COVID-19 crisis was so sudden that there was no time to prepare for the spike in demands for medical stock. The Defence supply chain was quickly overmatched set against its holdings; multiple organisations began demanding stock without regulation, poor historical practice meant that those organisations were unable to predict future demand, and boundaries within Defence or with contractors meant that data was not visible where needed. The Strategic Support organisation required rapid situational visibility to regulate and control the critical stockpile, leading to the rapid creation of the Defence Support Operations Centre (DSpOC). As analysts within DSpOC, our job is to collate data from disparate sources into a single version of the truth, to identify what stock we need to prioritise from suppliers, and to show the most efficient ways of distributing critical stock to those who need it most. This is then used to inform strategic-level decision-making in terms of alignment with the NHS effort whilst maintaining critical Defence outputs.

It’s been an honour to be able to influence key decisions which have shaped Defence’s COVID-19 response: we’ve provided a clear and up-to-date picture of our PPE stock to the Secretary of State, we’ve enabled quicker processes to release controlled stock and we’ve proved that the centralisation of Defence’s oxygen stockpile can assure the delivery of vital resources to those who need it most.

Lessons for the Future Supply Chain

Despite the many successes of the DSpOC response, lessons should still be learned about how to prepare the Defence supply chain for future challenges. Single-Service and contractual silos still exist to an extent; while a lot of the data we’ve used existed within Defence, it wasn’t necessarily available to those who needed it. Increased collaboration and more visible data could allow exponential improvements in the quality of insight that could be made, making the supply chain much more efficient. Indeed, industries across the world are able to use geospatial and contextual data to refine their supply chains – Defence should be able to take advantage of these insights as well. Work is in hand within Defence Support to exploit these capabilities.

The crux of the problem, however, is not the available data that Defence isn’t taking advantage of – it’s that Defence isn’t currently able to capture and exploit the data to its fullest extent. Data exploitation must go hand-in-hand with more effective demand scrutiny, scenario planning and contextual data capture, otherwise the insights drawn will be imperfect regardless of the technology used to draw them.

By taking control of the critical stockpile during the COVID-19 crisis, DSpOC has shown that collaboration within previously-disparate parts of Defence can lead to a more efficient supply chain. As we look for innovative solutions in future to make the supply chain more efficient, we must be careful to collaborate in the same way via the control of a single organisation. This would help Defence to avoid the potential risks of wasting resource in silos to achieve a similar result to the pre-COVID supply chain and permit a centralised ‘solution’ that efficiently services all areas.

The capability is out there for Defence to enable improved demand forecasting and supply chain efficiency; work is in hand for Defence to embrace it, with improvements starting from within.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the original author(s) and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.