DOD learns transport logistics the Toyota way

Transcom imports Japanese automaker’s practices to manage its supply chain

When the Defense Department’s Transportation Command recently was named DOD’s Distribution Process Owner, putting the command in charge of the entire military distribution system without any significant increase in its workforce, efficiency became crucial, said Army Maj. James Groark, a joint strategic planner at Transcom.

“We’re not your everyday supply chain,” Groark added, because the command controls more than $56 billion in military assets. With its new mandate, the command needed to develop a cadre of distribution experts that would transform the military supply chain into the most effective and efficient management system possible.

Late last year, the command sought the expertise of Toyota Motors, the Japanese automaker credited with developing lean manufacturing processes, exemplary logistics techniques and a model work ethic.

Developed in the 1950s, the Toyota Production System (TPS) goes beyond simple logistics and manufacturing to emphasize individual discipline and strong personal ties to the parent organization.

Toyota has been involved with DOD at an executive management level, and DOD officials have attended Toyota demonstrations, said Jason Korbel, assistant operations improvement manager at Toyota, who helped conduct the training.

But the Transcom training was the first time the company sent out field trainers and worked with DOD employees at distribution centers.

TPS focuses on an end-to-end value system, from factory to foxhole, Groark said.

The key to TPS is building the culture to support the program and then expanding it throughout the supply chain, Korbel said.

Transcom was pleased with the training, officials say. Although Transcom leaders don’t plan to adopt all aspects of TPS, they said the command is incorporating the overall concepts of teamwork, personal growth and personal organization to develop distribution experts who use lean thinking and industry best practices.

The Toyota sessions may be the first of many at DOD, Korbel said, adding that the automaker would welcome more tutorial opportunities from the service branches.

“We can give you the skills and the tools that we use to improve processes,” Korbel said. “But if you don’t have the culture there, you’re probably going to see process decay over time,” Korbel said.

True optimization comes when partners are also in line with the philosophy, so Toyota trains its suppliers and transportation providers in the principles of kaizen, or improving manufacturing, to help solidify those business relationships, Korbel said. Toyota’s lean logistics, focusing on smaller, more frequent deliveries to reduce inventory stockpiling, directly applies to the military supply chain, he added.

Transcom needs to get its supplies to users on the front lines. “And if they can do that in a more rapid, more efficient way,” he said, “that might be a support function that can save lives.”

Transcom told Toyota that there will be more demand for TPS courses, but no specific events have been planned.
Not lost in translation: Improving logisticsThe Toyota Production System, which the Japanese automaker originated in the 1950s, is now used worldwide, including by the Defense Department’s Transportation Command.

Some of the important concepts of Toyota’s management systems include:

  • Kaizen (ka-ee-sen) meaning change for the better. This is the philosophy of reducing waste while constantly improving manufacturing processes.
  • Muda (moo-da) meaning waste. Waste is defined as defects, overproduction, inefficient transportation, nonproductive waiting time, excess inventory and unnecessary motion.
  • Jidoka (Jee-dough-ka) meaning self-automation. This is a quality control method that requires self-policing and responsibility for achieving a goal of zero defects.
  • Heijunka (hey-june-ka) meaning a system of production efficiency that minimizes production time and eliminates the need for inventory.
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