The Supply Chain Orchestra

In August of 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.  The United States of America led a coalition of nations to counter the invasion via a military campaign that started with Operation Desert Shield and then with Operation Desert Storm

In November 1990, General Fred Franks, Jr., commander of the US Army VII Corps, deployed the Corps’ five (5) army divisions and support groups to Saudi Arabia, to prepare for an offensive into Iraq and Kuwait. 

It was a deployment that was far from perfect.  

The VII Corps encountered a slew of issues as it deployed to forward bases in Saudi Arabia.  There were delays in transportation of supplies and troops from Europe.  Soldiers, supplies, weapons, and equipment got stuck in traffic snarls at ports.  Troops received the wrong camouflage uniforms.  Tanks, trucks, and spare parts were mixed up during shipment such that logistics officers had to sort them out upon arrival.[i]

The deployment of the US VII Corps can be likened to moving a small urban city to a different country thousands of miles away.  The Corps had to move almost a 150,000 men & women, 1,487 tanks, 1,384 infantry fighting vehicles, 568 artillery pieces, 132 multiple rocket launchers (MLRS), 8 missile launchers, and 242 attack helicopters. Logistics commanders had to synchronise and transport aircraft such that the divisions that left from their point of origin would swiftly deploy as soon as they arrived at their destination. 

General Franks and his logistics commanders got the job done despite the snags and their soldiers were ready to attack by February 1991.  Within a few weeks, the VII Corps all but annihilated the Iraqi opposition. 

One of the lessons learned from the deployment of the VII Corps in the Gulf War was that for it to be successful, there had to be synchronisation and collaboration.  No matter how much planning was put in, if stakeholders don’t sync and collaborate, any operation would fall apart. 

We invest a lot into the operations of our businesses.  We buy state-of-the-art enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.  We hire talented people.  We build warehouses and factories.  We invest in what we believe are the most efficient and cost-effective equipment. 

With all the talk about artificial intelligence, automation, and e-commerce, we are contemplating further investments into more technology to make sure our supply chains will continue to run well and contribute to our businesses. 

Supply chains, however, don’t run well just because they have the latest technologies.  They run well when functions like procurement, manufacturing, and logistics synchronise harmoniously and actively collaborate between themselves and with their links, that is, vendors, customers, 3rd party service providers, and the other departments of the enterprise (e.g., finance, human resources, R&D).    

Harmonious synchronisation and active collaboration are two must-have characteristics of a successful supply chain.  Getting to demonstrate them requires not only capable structures and systems, but also a great deal of preparation.

Supply chains are like musical orchestras.  For an orchestra to successfully perform at a concert, it must not only play good music but also prepare well. 

An orchestra preparing for a concert is very challenging, more so at times than the performance itself.  There are the auditions to select the musicians, the tuning and maintenance of instruments, the rehearsals, the checking of acoustics & sound systems, the lighting & ambience of the venue, the marketing & selling of tickets, the ushering of the audience, the catering of food & beverages, the accounting & finances, and even the negotiations & legal reviews of contracts & agreements. 

How well an orchestra prepares itself determines how well it will perform.  All the preparations that go into a concert must lead to successful results in six (6) categories:

  1. The successful execution of the music (delivery);
  2. A performance the audience delights in (quality);
  3. Expenses that didn’t exceed the budget (cost);
  4. Comfort and convenience enjoyed by the audience (service);
  5. Safety and security throughout the preparations & performance (risk);
  6. Compliance to regulations & good relations with local communities (environment-social-governance [ESG]);

Supply chain management covers these same categories and calls them competitive priorities, in which we perform vis-à-vis the successful execution of the enterprise’s operations strategy.  Delivery, quality, cost, service, risk, and ESG are our modern-day priorities in our highly competitive and challenging world. 

Supply chains are like orchestras.  They need to be prepared to operate harmoniously and to do that requires management via synchronisation and collaboration.   It requires the engineering of systems and structures to become capable to sync and collaborate effectively. 

We, however, often fall into the trap of managing each category separately.  We set up, for example, separate departments for delivery, cost, quality, risk, and services.  And we sometimes pass on the responsibilities of ESG to someone else not in the supply chain.  When we delegate any of the six (6) categories, we end up arguing for one category’s importance over another.  We end up fighting each other rather than working together for all.  Synchronisation and collaboration go out the window. 

It is therefore important to have structures and systems that would bring about synchronisation and collaboration.  Building these structures and systems do require some engineering and when they are set up, would still require much in the way of preparation, such as hiring the right people, purchasing the best equipment, and planning the correct policies. 

The individuals of an orchestra work together.  They collaborate and they synchronise.   What matters is the orchestra gets their desired results manifested in an audience happy with the performance. 

Gen. Franks led like a conductor of an orchestra. He and his staff were successful because they stayed on top of the situation in real-time and persisted to synchronise and collaborated with all parties involved.  Everybody played their part, and they got what they wanted and more so. 

So must we when we manage our supply chains.  No state-of-the-art artificially-intelligent automated-robotic system can substitute for the engineering of capable structures & systems that lead to synchronicity and collaboration in the pursuit of meeting our priorities. 

We are the conductors of our supply chains as well as we are the builders of them. 

About Ellery’s Essays


[i] Tom Clancy with Gen. Fred Franks, Jr. (Ret.), Into the Storm, A Study in Command (New York: Berkley Books, 1997), Chapter 8.

Published by Ellery

Since I started blogging in 2019, I've written personal insights about supply chains, operations management, & industrial engineering. I have also delved in topics that cover how we deal with people, property, and service providers. My mission is to boost productivity via offering solutions and ideas. If you like what I write or disagree with what I say, feel free to like, dislike, comment, or if you have a lengthy discourse, email me at ellery_l@yahoo.com ; I'm also on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/ellery-samuel-lim-40b528b

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