Surprising as it may sound, supply chain management (SCM) is more than a century old. Most mark 1913, the year of the introduction of the Ford Model-T assembly line, as the birth of CSM. From there, it rapidly evolved and reached one of its finest moments during World War II. Some even credit savvy supply chain strategy with helping the Allies win the war.
The supply chain the Allies built is often hailed as the most advanced of its time and potentially since. The incredible speed at which it was built makes it all the more impressive. According to Fortune, “in wartime, logistics eats strategy for lunch.” In other words, many historians believe military success hinges more on logistics than strategic thinking. In fact, all the logistics planning that went into the war gave birth to a new field called operations research.
During the world wars, the United States created the Department of Defense and the materials industry. The Allies had similar needs for their armaments and pooled their factory outputs. The result was nothing short of astounding. A captured German soldier may have best summarized the effect of the importance of these logistical triumphs. Marching past one of the roadside supply dumps he muttered, “I know how you defeated us. You piled up the supplies and then let them fall on us.” WWII was what the Germans called materialschlact, or “matérielbattle.” (History buffs can read more here.)
The result was an international supply chain, with purchasing, logistics, and materials departments of various countries reporting to the same entity. This structure helped define the role of the supply chain manager in an organization. At home, women entered the supply chain by joining the workforce to sustain the country’s production capacity.
The Allies used supply chain management principles to develop the practice of island hopping, the method of moving military supplies and armaments across the Pacific Ocean at strategic times. To give you an idea of the preparations involved to invade France, from January 1942 to June 1944, the U.S. shipped more than 17 million tons of cargo to the United Kingdom. Those shipments included:
- 800,000 pints of blood plasma
- 125 million maps
- A replacement rail network
- Prefabricated harbors, called “Mulberries”
The logistics of invasion
The invasion of Normandy is, to this day, the largest amphibious invasion in history. The Allies faced logistics concerns in every aspect of planning the invasion. In amassing supplies prior to the invasion, the Allies faced the challenge of inhospitable environmental conditions. Strong winds and heavy surf regularly interfered with landing operations.
The ingenious logistical solution to these constraints was the construction of an artificial harbor on Omaha beach. The harbor, known as Mulberry A, included a floating pier, breakwaters, and three causeways. The harbor boasted a capacity of 5,000 tons per day. By the end of June 1944, the Allies had delivered 289,827 tons of supplies on Normandy beaches.
World War II played a pivotal role in supply chain history. And the basics of successful supply chain management—how to know what you need and how to get it where you need it when you need it—are the same problems faced by procurement officers, COOs, and others today. By displaying its worth in contributing to the Allies’ success, supply chain management as a discipline proved that if it could win wars, it could certainly improve organizations.
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