Lessons from a logistics challenge

Lessons from a logistics challenge

We have all received those last-minute calls from the office, calls that are somewhat of an annoyance and can be dealt with tomorrow. On a recent Thursday afternoon, I received a call advising me I had some guests in my office. Who are they? I asked. "The White House staff and the Secret Service," I was told.

Of course, I said, "Nice try," and began to hang up. Well, some things are exactly what they seem; it was in fact the Secret Service and the White House staff. The president's staff was preparing for a speech to highlight the free-trade agreement with Colombia, and they were researching possible sites for the speech. So we were asked one simple question, "Can you host the speech?" Without thinking, I said yes, figuring it would be in a few weeks; in actuality, it was the next Tuesday. Needless to say, I took a deep breath and paused. That was only a few days away. A few weeks, not a problem, but a few days is a whole different story.

We now had just less than four days to prepare for the president and continue our normal operations. As most would agree, in any marine terminal, space is a luxury item, and one of which there never seems to be enough. So we had to handle normal cargo operations while preparing a stage, seating for 350 guests, pathways for the motorcade, and shelter for more than 150 members of the press.

The president's visit went off without incident. To many, it was the company's chance to be in the spotlight, but for me, that day was different. It was the culmination of my greatest logistics event. I didn't get the glory, but most logistics professionals will tell you it isn't about the glory, but rather it is about making a difficult task come off almost effortlessly. My goal that day was to make all the effort, time and energy just appear to disappear for even just a few hours. Like I tell all employees, the key to the logistics business is to move cargo without ever having to touch it. If you can do that, you have attained perfection.

All logistics professionals will have that one event that they remember more than any other of their career - those opportunities that we either put onto our resumes, or bury our heads in the sand and just pray for them to end. I choose to call these situations opportunities. In the end, these challenges are really what draw all of us to logistics. In many people's minds, we are there to specifically solve problems - if we all had smooth operations, we may put ourselves out of a job.

So what can one learn from this event? There are several key items to remember when faced with a logistics challenge. One might call these the golden rules.

-- Turn all activities into an opportunity. Look at challenges not merely as things to be resolved or overcome, but as moments of opportunity. The simplest task can be career- or life-changing. Make sure you view each and every challenge as one that will be able to make a sizable change with yourself, your career or your company.

-- Never lose sight of the purpose. What is the purpose of the cargo movement? Why is it here? Why are you even involved? Too often, people lose sight of the purpose. In other words, they get too wrapped up in the process. At times, we all need to take a simple step back and ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing.

-- Who is paying the bill? This may sound simple, but it is often very confusing. Who is paying the bill can be far different from who is asking for services. Assigning priorities to the various individuals involved in any logistics movement can become critical. Too often we find ourselves concentrating too much on the wrong individual.

-- When in doubt, act! Don't let them see you sweat and don't let them see you not act, or rather, make sure you react. You need to always stay involved. Failure to stay involved makes one sedentary, and the sedentary manager does not succeed.

-- Delegate, delegate, delegate. Learn who to lean on, and who not to, but never under any circumstance try to do it all yourself. That in itself is always an exercise in planned failure. We all have a team there for a reason, and as leaders we must continually foster and grow that team.

My greatest logistics challenge turned out to be just one man, and while I didn't attain perfection, I did get to shake his hand.