At times the best supply chain stories—those that inspire us and remind us of just how important the supply chain can be— don't come from the commercial sector.
Consider, for example, the work that Stephen Cahill does for the World Food Programme (WFP), the world's largest humanitarian agency focused on the problems of hunger. As head of contracting, ocean transportation services for the WFP, Cahill's job is in some ways very similar to what supply chain professionals in the business world do every day. That is, he helps to move freight (in the WFP's case, food for the poor) where it's needed, when it's needed, in the most efficient way possible. In fact, the WFP's annual shipping budget of US $250 million makes it a major international shipper. Furthermore, the tools and practices that it uses are similar to those of any major corporation. For example, the agency has adopted its own version of nearsourcing, buying food as close to where it's needed as possible. Likewise, it has adopted modern visibility tools to help it manage its global supply chain.
"IT (information technology) is essential for us," says Cahill. "We operate in more than 70 countries, many of which have poor infrastructure and communications systems. We are always looking for better ways to gather and distribute information about our supply chain."
But in many other ways, the logistical challenges that the WFP faces are significantly different than those of most supply chain professionals. The organization is shipping food to some of the most remote parts of the world, areas that are notable for their poor infrastructure, political instability, and weak or nonexistent security. In those areas, it sometimes became impassable after the normal route through Libya tive routes to Chad when its has to deal with piracy and political unrest. For example, the agency recently had to scramble to find alternarebellion broke out there.
Additionally for Cahill, supply chain delays, disruptions, and costs are literally a matter of life and death. "For every dollar saved, we can feed four additional children," Cahill says. "With our annual shipping budget of US $250 million, there is a lot of scope to push for additional savings and efficiencies. I also want to ensure that we're getting the best possible value for our money. The difficulty, on a personal level, is measuring the potential cost savings against risks of delays that can directly impact people's lives."
Like all supply chain managers, Cahill wants to keep costs down and make his operation more efficient. But unlike commercial supply chains, his aim is not boosting profits for shareholders. Instead his mission is to help the less fortunate. His work shows that supply chains can both serve and inspire.