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R&R: Reading and Reviews

The Second Battle of the Marne. Michael S. Neiberg, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2008, 217 pages.

The Second Battle of the Marne moves our understanding of the pivotal World War I battle forward in ways that should particularly appeal to logisticians.

The preparations for offensive actions in France crippled the operations as much as they helped. The massive artillery preparations that preceded an infantry attack caused so much damage in the immediate battle area that moving forces forward across the battle zone became problematic. Furthermore, transportation infrastructures had matured behind the battle area, making the rapid movement of enemy reserves to the threatened area relatively simple. Every threatened penetration “breakthrough” or the lesser “break in” could therefore be easily thwarted.

The German Spring Offensive of 1918 wilted in part from a dwindling ability to sustain the forces at the forward edge. Studies of the beginning of World War I discuss the centrality of the German railway system to the German Army’s efficient mobilization. Broader studies note the importance of the expanded Russian railway system’s contribution to Russia’s unexpectedly rapid entry into the war.

Few studies have dwelt on the French railway system other than to note that everything ran through Paris. However, Michael S. Neiberg suggests in The Second Battle of the Marne that the French were as adept as the Germans at moving forces laterally along the front. The French rail system delivered men to points close to their tactical sectors almost all the time. Standard interpretations of the battle still hold true. Neiberg, however, expands on the strengths of French logistics.

Moving from a consideration of railroads, Neiberg calls the reader’s attention to the critical role of “French industry…[which] performed truly amazing feats to supply French soldiers with new weapons.” (He could have addressed the critical role French supplies played in equipping American Soldiers.) Nieberg then proceeds to detail French tank and aircraft production. Noting the strength of the artillery assigned to each division, he points to the emergence of an artillery reserve topping 11,000 guns—half of which were heavy-caliber weapons. This reserve belonged to an Army whose main prewar assets were infantry soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets.

As the Germans pushed their offensives forward, they inevitably formed salients. The Germans’ capture of the key road and railroad center of Soissons enabled them to sustain the 40-odd divisions holding the Marne salient, but Soissons was near the western shoulder of the line. Neiberg argues that further German success demanded the seizure of Reims because sustainment capabilities through Soissons were barely adequate to support the force required to hold the salient. (As I wrote in Soissons 1918, the vulnerability of Soissons was a major factor in what became the opening move of the Allied Aisne-Marne offensive, the beginning of the second battle of the Marne.) The Germans had to either abandon the route or open the only other available route through Reims. French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch saw that vulnerability and began planning to attack it at the first opportunity. This, Foch divined, meant the capture of three rail centers: Reims, Epernay, and Châlons.

Neiberg argues that while Paris became a German objective later, the Germans understood that the seizure of this rail network was crucial to anything else they might want to consider. Nieberg writes, “Before the Germans could hope for a big victory, they had to improve their supply arrangements.” This rail network, not Paris, he argues, was the immediate objective. Without it, Paris was unobtainable.

The rail network should not be viewed as the single cause and single solution to the search for mobility and victory on the Western Front, but Neiberg’s presentation is the most logistically focused presentation to appear in many years. The Second Battle of the Marne persuasively shows that logistics considerations trumped all others in this closing campaign on the Western Front. This book is also a good companion to studies of the final campaigns in Palestine and Mesopotamia.

Douglas V. Johnson is a professor of national security affairs at the Army War College Strategic Studies Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.

Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation. James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, Free Press, New York, 2003, 396 pages.

Lean is a technique that has been embraced by all branches of the military. The Army has merged the concepts of Lean and Six Sigma, and the Air Force has AFSO–21 (Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century), which incorporates Lean, Six Sigma, and the Theory of Constraints. However, making Lean a policy does not ensure that the individuals in the organization understand the theory of Lean. This is where Lean Thinking comes into play. While authors James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones certainly did not invent Lean, they did manage to compile the concepts that make up Lean in one, easily readable book. I would suggest that anyone interested in Lean make this their first reading assignment.

The authors begin with the basic concept of “muda,” or waste. They contend there are various types of waste everywhere. Lean thinking is the antidote for muda. Lean is the elimination of waste—anything that does not create value. And value can only be defined by the customer in terms of a specific product at a specific price at a specific time. Thus, Lean is a value-added concept based on customer satisfaction.

The first steps in Lean thinking are identifying the value and the “value stream.” Value stream is the set of all actions required to bring a specific product through the three critical tasks necessary to put a finished product in the hands of the customer.

Next is the concept of “flow.” Flow is the antithesis of the common batch-and-queue manufacturing mentality that permeates most manufacturing companies. Small lot production is required, based on the “optimal lot size of one” view.

Following flow is changing to a “pull” strategy, where the product is pulled by the customer, rather than pushed by the producer. Producing to a forecast only creates more waste.

The last principle of Lean thinking is “perfection,” or the elimination of all waste. This should be the ultimate goal of any firm, and it is one of the reasons the authors are not keen on benchmarking. Why should one emulate an existing firm that may itself be full of waste? Why not use the concept of kaizen, or continuous improvement, to drive the company?

The authors stress that any firm wishing to transition to Lean needs to have a change agent. This is a person who is knowledgeable and adamant about the value of Lean and who can, if necessary, force changes upon the firm. The authors spend considerable time on the problems of culture change in firms and the necessity to use Lean principles continually to eliminate waste. In short, the true Lean company is never satisfied with where it is but is always striving to improve or reach perfection, even if perfection is an unreachable goal. Employee buy-in is a necessity, and it is crucial that employees do not view Lean as another reengineering attempt to reduce employment. Many of the authors’ examples (after an initial reduction of the workforce) guarantee that no employees will be terminated because of Lean events.

The book is replete with examples of successful Lean implementations that are broken down by size of firm, type of industry, and country of origin. It also includes a general action plan for implementing Lean. Repeatedly, the authors emphasize the difficulty of implementing and continuing a Lean strategy. In many cases, success is a firm’s worst enemy, as the emphasis switches from the continuing elimination of waste to simply managing the initial success. The authors contend that the best time to switch to Lean is during a crisis, and they even suggest inventing one if no crisis is handy.

Anyone involved, or contemplating becoming involved, in Lean, or anyone who thinks they under-stand Lean, should read this book. It will not make one a Lean expert overnight, but it will make the point that Lean is a vastly different way of thinking. As such, it requires major changes in an individual’s viewpoints. Lean is not a one-time event or a simple cost-saving measure. It requires a dramatic restructuring of a firm and must encompass both suppliers and customers if it is to be done completely.

The authors finish up with a discussion of what they call the Lean enterprise, which includes the entire supply chain, from supplier’s suppliers to customer’s customers. They could find no examples of this in the “real world.” The book is an easy read and is packed full of information. It should be required for anyone in any line of work.

William A. Cunningham, Ph.D., is a professor of logistics and supply chain management in the Department of Operational Sciences at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.