by Captain Curtis D. Taylor
The author proposes replacing the hierarchical structure of the current Army maintenance management systems below division level with a knowledge-based network that hyperlinks all critical logistics data in one seamless data base.
Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the Army's Force XXI initiative is the emphasis placed on the total reengineering of current doctrine and processes to take advantage of new technology. In the past, we simply sought ways to accelerate the performance of current systems through automation. Now we are attempting to revolutionize those systems completely to take full advantage of new technological realities. Nowhere is this reengineering needed more than in the management of logistics information systems. Although almost two decades have elapsed since the advent of the personal computer and the beginning of the digital revolution, the Army still manages critical logistics information in fundamentally the same way it did during World War II. If a mechanic needs a part, he contacts his prescribed load list (PLL) clerk, who passes the request to the support battalion, which passes the request to the division materiel management center (DMMC), and so on. We certainly have accelerated this process by automating it, but the process itself has not changed much.
In an article entitled "Log Internet" (Army Logistician, March-April 1996, page 6), Colonel Merle D. Russ provides a profound and insightful assessment of the process-oriented flaw I have just described. In his article, he advocated a shift away from the hierarchical logistics system currently in place to a "knowledge-based" network that immediately matches customers with suppliers and provides users at all levels visibility of a virtually limitless data base of information. He suggested that the hyperlinked architecture of the current World Wide Web serves as a model of what the Army needs.
To avoid ambiguity, it is important to define precisely what is meant by "knowledge-based network." A network is simply a set of activities that relate to each other in some way. This can apply to computer terminals, phone lines, or business contacts. Most networks are designed with a strict protocol controlling the flow of information through the various activities. The intent of this protocol is to maximize efficiency and ensure a consistent operating procedure. A knowledge-based network does not rely on a consistent protocol but instead links different activities together for specific tasks. The World Wide Web is an example of this type of network. Activities (or web pages) are linked together not through a rigid procedure, but according to the contents of the page and the intent of its designer. As a result, a user has the ability to navigate easily through mountains of data.
Information protocols in the Army's logistics network generally mirror the chain of command. Information passes through battalion, brigade, and division levels of support. This made sense from a practical standpoint for two reasons
· It ensures that commanders and staffs at every level can maintain control and adjust the logistics priorities within their units.
· Historically, lines of communication have followed the supply lines, forcing information for the rear areas to flow through each echelon of support.
The first of these reasons remains as important today as it was 50 years ago. The second, however, is no longer a legitimate constraint. The success of logisticians in Task Force Eagle in Bosnia demonstrates that critical logistics traffic can be blasted to and from forward areas of the battlefield without the physical movement of personnel. A knowledge-based design for logistics must, therefore, account for the continuing validity of the first reason while reaping the benefits from the obsolescence of the second.
The velocity management concept adopted by the logistics community provides an excellent tool for understanding the requirements of a knowledge-based network. Velocity management is founded on three basic tenets
· Improved flow of materiel in terms of both speed and accuracy.
· Substitution of velocity for mass.
· Elimination of functions that do not add value.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of a knowledge-based network will be in relation to the third tenet of velocity managementthe elimination of functions that do not add valueparticularly below the division or installation level.
The two major information management systems that operate between the battalion and division level are the Standard Army Retail Supply System-Objective (SARSS_O) and the Standard Army Maintenance System (SAMS). Both systems are overrun with information redundancies stemming primarily from the hierarchical nature of the system itself.
As SAMS passes information from one echelon to the next over a period of hours or days, we experience a steep decline in accuracy at increasingly higher echelons. This is particularly true during critical training events such as a gunnery exercise, where vehicles are breaking and being fixed around the clock. The net result is a reconciliation nightmare. Managers at all levels spend inordinate amounts of time simply resolving conflicts between status reports generated at the battalion, brigade, or division level. In most units, the weekly brigade maintenance meeting is devoted almost entirely to reconciling the SAMS-2 C026 (not mission capable) report with the "ground truth" in the motor pool or on the gunnery range.
The same is true of SARRS_O, the system that tracks all unit-level requisitions and status. All requisitions processed on the Unit Level Logistics System-Ground (ULLS_G) computers at the battalion are compiled into an automated document control register (DCR). Each day, new requisitions are passed from the ULLS_G to the SARRS_O computer by diskette or telecommunications, depending on unit policy. As with any human activity, mistakes occur. Disks get dropped in the mud or phone lines fail to connect. As a result, the unit DCR and the DCR at the SARRS_O site no longer agree. This generates yet another reconciliation problem. The current solution is a once-a-month manual reconciliation between the ULLS clerk and the SARSS_O clerk.
Single Data Base
If the Army were to adopt a truly knowledge-based system as Colonel Russ advocates, the redundancies would disappear. Instead of providing repetitive and conflicting versions of the same information, we could capitalize on telecommunications technology and create a single data base with information provided by users at all levels. The ability to input information to the consolidated data base would be limited solely to value-adding functions at each level. For example, a clerk at the battalion could deadline a vehicle or order a part, but he could not modify the status of his documents. Meanwhile, a SARRS_O clerk could modify status but could not open or close a customer document. All users would access the same data base with unlimited visibility but with limited ability to edit the data. There would be no more redundancy, because all data would originate from a single point.
Indeed, the World Wide Web has provided us an ideal off-the-shelf information protocol for handling this type of system. Using the standard hypertext markup language (HTML) found on any Internet web page, we could generate a powerful tool for leaders from the company level on up. With a data base maintained at the Logistics Support Activity, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, users could log on from remote sites all over the world and input appropriate information. Of course, some may object to the idea of maintaining such critical data at a remote site. We could circumvent this problem by requiring backups on local hard drives and maintaining interconnected servers at all echelons. The physical location of the data storage is not nearly as important as its seamless integration into a single data base available to all users.
The Power of Information
The old adage that "information is power" is never more relevant than in the area of logistics management. A seamless logistics data base will push that power down to the level where maintenance is performed and requisitions are generated. For example, a tank company commander could log on to his unit's web page and see all the information the Army maintains on the status of his vehicles. If he finds that the laser rangefinder he is waiting for is not available on post, he may decide immediately to cross-level the part from another deadlined vehicle so the crew can complete their gunnery exercise the following morning.
Even greater benefits are possible if we link this information data base with the best the Army has to offer in terms of maintenance and supply expertise. Alert messages could be hyperlinked to out-of-date stock numbers to warn customers before they process an order. Safety-of-use-messages, maintenance advisory messages, and ground precautionary messages could be hyperlinked to relevant stock numbers.
Units could submit supply discrepancy reports electronically, giving item managers instant visibility on specific discrepancies found and the origin of the faulty parts. A project manager concerned about the performance of a new vehicle could review the maintenance worksheets (Department of the Army [DA] Forms 5988-E) for all vehicles of that type to see what faults were being reported across the Army.
With any of these applications, users in the field would have a much better sense of what is going on at higher levels, and logistics managers would have a better picture of what the issues in the field are. These data are already out there in electronic form. They just need to be linked in a manner that allows them be useful.
Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties in the supply management business is ensuring that a stock number or nomenclature actually matches the part. Currently, our only effective way of matching a stock number to a part is by looking up that part in a manual. Again, automation in the form of electronic technical manuals (ETM's) may have accelerated this process, but it has not changed it fundamentally. Imagine, however, if every stock number listed in the consolidated data base were hyperlinked to a FEDLOG data base containing not only manufacturing specifications but also a complete image of a part. The emerging virtual reality markup language (VRML) technology already in use on the Internet provides exciting opportunities in this area. Users at all levels then could have an instant picture of what a part actually looks like and could use that information to confirm that the part is in the warehouse and labeled correctly. Further, users could determine if a unit machine shop is capable of fabricating a critical item.
This knowledge-based approach to information management, once proven in the maintenance and supply arena, could expand to assist in a boundless variety of management areas. Awards, personnel and pay records, and evaluation reports could be managed similarly.
In the days of decreased fiscal resources, budget tracking has become a high priority for units down to the company level. Whether or not a unit received a part they were billed for is now an issue of major concern to the commander burdened with doing more with less. SARSS_O was not designed for this environment. Parts are billed to a customer unit the instant that the SARSS_O terminal identifies the part as available for issue. The actual transfer of the part to unit personnel does not affect the automated billing process. The clerk's manual signature on a materiel release order (MRO) is the only way to verify that the transfer occurred. The obligation of funds occurs whether or not the MRO is signed.
Fortunately, the Army already has provided us with a potential solution to this dilemma. The new military identification card (DA Form 2) includes a bar code on the back. This allows us to identify the card's owner with the same technology used to scan bar codes on the MRO. An ULLS clerk signing for parts could use the remote scanners already in use at the warehouse to scan each part as he picks it up and then scan the back of his ID card to indicate his receipt of those parts. The computer would verify his name as among those authorized on the signature card to pick up parts for the unit and immediately bill the unit for the transaction. This would save both customers and support units the endless frustration of reconciling billing errors through supply discrepancy reports and denials. More importantly, using the computer to document receipt and prepare billing for repair parts would tighten the chain of custody of the parts while they are en route to the using unit.
Information Management Tool
The current process-oriented, hierarchical system is a byproduct of a previous era, when the Army moved slowly and carried mountains of supplies with it as it marched. Information in the form of hand-written requisitions moved to and from forward units along established supply routes, and asset visibility across brigade boundaries was unknown. The telecommunications revolution has brought that era to a close. The Internet has demonstrated that a knowledge-based system can be an excellent information management tool that is available using current technology. Already we have established the capability for tactical units to access global information networks from forward locations. At a time when the Army is increasingly pressured to do more with less, the efficient management of information is of paramount importance. A knowledge-based network will accomplish this and, like the Internet over the last decade, continue to evolve as rapidly as we can develop new ways to use it. ALOG
Captain Curtis D. Taylor is currently attending the Armor Advanced Course at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He served previously as the battalion maintenance officer of 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, the Armor Officer Basic Course, and Ranger School.