I take a stab at logistics

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Memorial Day, May 31, 2010: Hot – blazing hot, actually. It’s so hot that despite drinking water and Gatorade nonstop for 10 hours, I haven’t required a single bathroom stop.

I’m piloting an Isuzu NPR model “city van” rental truck from Ryder (something similar to what you see below) through crowded local roads on my way to the second of three soccer fields on the route I’ve got – dubbed The Northern Route as testament to my lack of imagination at this stage of what’s become something of a waking logistical nightmare for me.

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Somehow, someway, I seemed to have morphed into the very stereotype drivers in the trucking industry have worked so hard to dispel for decades now. I’ve got on grungy home-made cutoff denim shorts, a T-shirt splotched with old paint and soaked with sweat, a dingy baseball cap, and I haven’t shaved in three days – definitely police blotter material.

[And NO, I will NOT be subjecting anyone to photos OR videos of me in this state!]

The A/C ain’t working too well, so I’ve got the windows cranked all the way open and the AM/FM radio’s cracked speakers are blaring out AC/DC’s Highway to Hell – theme music that’s more than a little appropriate to my situation at this point.

So this, I tell myself, is but a small taste of what the world of logistics is really like.

That’s one reason I took on the volunteer position of “logistics coordinator” for a local soccer tournament earlier this year – to really live and breathe (albeit on a VERY small and limited scale) the trials and tribulations of what occurs daily in the transportation sector.

Of course, to a logistics veteran, what I did barely amounted to child’s play: plotting the delivery and pick-up routes for three trucks and a series of drivers over the course of four days, shuttling tents, goals, and various other soccer field gear across Fairfax County in Northern Virginia.

It’s a task that didn’t even hold a candle to the daily undertakings of logistics operations of regional or even national scope, let alone at the global level. Yet learned an awful lot awful fast – some of which, considering how long I’ve covered the transportation industry as a reporter, I should’ve known from the outset.

Still, I hearken back to an old saying I’d learned from my father – sometimes burning your fingers is the only way you learn. (He always stressed that his drill sergeants in the U.S. Marine Corps were EXCEPTIONALY well versed in this training method.)

With that in mind, here’s what I learned from my logistical baptism of fire:

You’re it: Everything in some way, shape, or form revolves around logistics. Soccer games can’t be played without goals; merchandise is handled better when organized under tents on tables. Yet none of that happens unless the trucks deliver it all. So everyone is going to be looking at you at some point because their jobs can’t happen unless you do yours first; thus, expect a lot of scrutiny. And if something goes wrong, you must fix it. Case in point: several folks had to drop out as drivers. Thus I ended up behind the wheel piloting a truck – no one else was available and the trucks needed to roll.

Plans change constantly: I had three routes to organize and I must’ve redone each of them four or five times to meet various needs that cropped up, such as a driver helping set up a tent. No matter how many times I thought, “There, that’s done,” I’d have to go and redo a route again – usually late at night when utterly exhausted.

Expect the unexpected: One of my biggest fears centered on the weather – what if it rains? If that happened (and thank the good lord it didn’t!) trucks and drivers would’ve been pressed back into service to help re-locate playing fields. I also worried about breakdowns and accidents and again, though neither occurred, I had to be ready with a backup plan. Would my “Plan B” ideas have worked? Thankfully, I did not have to test them, for I regarded them as half-baked at best.

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Be prepared: This weathered Boy Scout motto remains oh-so-true. Each driver got a map, turn by turn directions from stop to stop, list of field addresses (in case they wanted to use their own GPS device to plot their tour), as well as cell phone numbers for the contacts at their stops. Also, instructions for how to assemble the large tents used at several sites as well as the specific count of cargo for each drop went with each driver, too. Each driver also had detailed instructions as to what to do in case of an accident. Was it overkill? Probably, but I also think it made everything roll more smoothly, too.

How you load a truck is critical: I spent a long morning on my last day unloading and then reloading a truck by myself because I knew it would save me a boatload of time at the end of my run. Simple reasoning: tents, tables, and field equipment were being returned to different places. So neatly segmenting all of those items at the start would result in a faster finish for all concerned – especially for the folks at the equipment warehouse. I can’t credit myself as a genius, for the FIRST truck on that last day was an absolute mess – and I helped load that one. It’s but one of many logistics lessons I learned the hard way.

In the end, it all worked out – but not perfectly, mind you. We were way late on several pickups despite my attempts to build in extra time for cargo loading. I also endured a long morning where the actual location of a truck differed from what I had on paper – requiring me to make an emergency “re-positioning” run with the help of my neighbor (who, thankfully, was up early despite the holiday weekend. George, my friend, my hat’s still off to you!)

This experience also increased my admiration for the folks to do this for a living – the truck drivers, dispatchers, route planners, and logistics managers that deal with all of these hassles day in and day out to get the goods we take for granted in our everyday days where they need to be.

It also surely proved something else: that I am NOT cut out for this line of work! I'll stick to writing, methinks, which is safer for all concerned ... at least, I think it's safer ...

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