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From Just In Case to Just In Time

In Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, mountains of materiel were sent to the area of operations because no one knew precisely what was needed. Commanders anticipated the worst and ordered supplies accordingly. In his book, Moving Mountains: Lessons in Leadership and Logistics in the Gulf War, retired Lieutenant General William G. Pagonis wrote, “Running logistics for the [first] Gulf War has been compared to transporting the entire population of Alaska, along with their personal belongings, to the other side of the world, on short notice. It has been likened to relocating the city of Richmond, [Virginia].”1

Operation Desert Storm provided the impetus for change in the logistics system. This paper will examine the change that took place in the Army from the “just-in-case” logistics system to the current “just-in-time” logistics system based on the resource dependency theory. Applying the resource dependency theory explains the weakness of the just-in-time logistics system in Operation Iraqi Freedom and shows that not all critical resources were considered. The basic history of the transition from just-in-case to just-in-time and an overview of the resource dependency theory are important to understand before delving into the analysis.

Transitioning From Just In Case to Just In Time

The traditional approach to logistics—which was used during Operation Desert Storm and earlier—was just-in-case logistics. Using this approach, the Army kept vast quantities of supplies, such as spare parts, ammunition, vehicles, and medicine, on hand just in case they were needed. This system required large storage facilities and thousands of warehouse personnel to manage the stockpiles. Units were forced to carry large stocks of common replacement parts (such as tires) with them when they deployed. The bulky items often caused units to slow down considerably as they tried to keep up with a rapidly evolving operation.

To make things worse, the just-in-case logistics system was often unreliable, inefficient, and expensive. The drawbacks of the just-in-case method were learned the hard way during Operation Desert Storm when the Department of Defense shipped tons of medical supplies to the Persian Gulf region. By the time the supplies got there, many of them were out of date and useless to the doctors in theater. Tons of supplies went to waste.2

To fix these problems, the Army turned to private industry to find the most efficient means of providing necessary logistics support. Industry’s solution was to implement the just-in-time logistics model. In this model, supplies are ordered only when they are needed or shortly before they are needed. Suppliers then deliver the required supplies, usually within a day. The just-in-time approach saves the Department of Defense time and money (warehousing costs in particular) and reduces waste by ensuring that products do not sit on shelves so long that they become stale or obsolete.3

Resource Dependency Theory

The resource dependency theory is an open-systems theory, which means that the theory views organizations as complex entities that interact with their environments rather than operate independently from outside factors. The resource dependency theory maintains that organizations lacking essential resources will seek to establish relationships with other organizations—or become dependent on them—to obtain needed resources. Resources are controlled by the physical, political, and social environments and can be raw materials, labor, capital, equipment, knowledge, and commercial markets for goods and services.4 An organization works toward two related objectives: controlling resources to minimize its dependence on other organizations and controlling resources to maximize other organizations’ dependence on those resources. Succeeding in either objective is thought to affect the exchange of resources between organizations, thereby affecting each organization’s power.

A resource dependency analysis begins by identifying an organization’s needed resources and then tracing them to their sources. This procedure can be visualized with a combination of the open-systems and interorganizational network models. The open-systems model identifies resource inputs and outputs. The network model defines where the resources and outputs are located.5 The figure above represents the resource dependency analysis and can be applied to either the just-in-case theory or the just-in-time theory.

The final step in the process is to use the resource dependency perspective to evaluate the environmental actors that support or interfere with the organization’s resource exchanges. To make this process practical, resources are sorted according to their criticality and scarcity. Criticality is an estimate of the importance of a particular resource. Scarcity is an estimate of the availability of the resource within the environment.6 After the resources are sorted, the organization seeks to manage (or avoid) its dependency on the resources or to make other environmental actors dependent on the organization.7

Evaluating Resources

The just-in-case logistics method would evaluate its resources like so—

  • Funds: scarce and critical.
  • Labor: critical.
  • Facilities: critical.
  • Materials: neither scarce nor critical.
  • Lines of communication: neither scarce nor critical.
  • Knowledge: neither scarce nor critical.
  • Equipment: neither scarce nor critical.

Since funds are both scarce and critical, the organization would seek to reduce its dependency on this resource first. However, Army logistics would not benefit from reducing its dependence on the Department of Defense budget. As such, the organization would then move down the sorted list to resources that it can influence and on which it can be less dependent.

The labor and facilities resources are both critical. In the just-in-case logistics method, labor includes not only the personnel needed to maintain the large stockpiles in the warehouse but also the personnel required to purchase them. The facilities resource includes depots and warehouses that are necessary to house the stock piles. Because both of these resources are critical and expensive, the logistics organization would seek to reduce its dependency on them.

Because the just-in-time logistics method relies heavily on quickly providing supplies only as they are needed, there is no need (or the need is greatly reduced) for warehouses and depots and the personnel to work in them. Ordering supplies through an online ordering service also allows the organization to eliminate procurement personnel. In short, it is the perfect method to reduce the dependency of the logistics organization on the resources of labor and facilities.

Unfortunately, reducing dependence on labor and facilities results in an increased dependence on the resources of suppliers and lines of communication. In the just-in-time logistics method, the organization is completely dependent on the supplier’s ability to provide the supplies that it needs and the transportation assets to get them delivered quickly. The organization is forced to assume that industry is holding a lot of inventory “just in case” it wants it “just in time” or that industry can surge to meet its needs. When the just-in-time model was implemented in a predictable environment, these dependencies and assumptions were acceptable. Just-in-time was efficient, reducing inventories and saving the Army a great deal of money.

However, problems arose when the just-in-time model was attempted in a deployed (unpredictable) setting. Suppliers often did not have enough material resources, such as repair parts and tires, to meet the operational need. When they did have the material resources, they often could not find adequate transportation or secure routes to get them into the combat zone and to the units fast enough. Logisticians started to get worried after the first couple of deliveries did not arrive in time. To ease their worry, they reverted back to what they knew. They started to increase their inventories of the things they knew they would need and basically returned to a just-in-case logistics method.

This article has briefly examined the movement of Army logistics from the just-in-case method to the just-in-time method. A critical analysis of both systems using the resource dependency theory has shown that both methods have dependencies that support or interfere with the organizations’ resource exchanges (strengths and weaknesses). Which system is best? Clearly, logistics is a balancing act. The just-in-time method has problems in a combat zone. A stockpile created by the just-in-case system is just a best guess of what will be needed. The logistician must decide on the proper combination of both systems depending on the situation. If he does not find the right combination, the mission could fail. Perhaps this is why Alexander the Great said, “My logisticians are a humorless lot . . . they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay.”8

Major Eric T. Wallis is the chief of clinical operations at Bassett Army Community Hospital at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. He has a master’s degree in health information systems from the University of Pittsburgh, and he is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Lee and the Combined Arms and Services Staff School.

1 William G. Pagonis, Lieutenant General, USA, and Jeffrey L. Cruikshank, Moving Mountains: Lessons in Leadership and Logistics in the Gulf War (New York: Harvard Business School Press, 1994), p. 1.

2 Brian Friel. Doctor’s Orders. Government Executive website, 2002. online at www.govexec.com/top200/02top/dmlss.htm; accessed 23 March 2007.

3 Ibid.

4 Mary Jo Hatch. Organization Theory: Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 78.
5 Ibid., p. 78.
6 Ibid., p. 79.
7 Ibid., p. 80.
8 Alexander the Great. HighBeam Encyclopedia Logistics Quotes Site. (HighBeam Research, Inc., 2007) online at www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-101940760.html; accessed 25 March 2007.