In the half century since the creation of the Defense Logistics Agency (called the Defense Supply Agency from 1961-1977), a great many pre-existing Department of Defense (DoD) services and agencies have been brought under its banner. That is especially true for the broad category known as Defense Business Services.
Among the largest and most active of those are the DLA Logistics Information Service in Battle Creek, Mich., which manages a wide range of logistics information and identification systems; DLA Document Services in Mechanicsburg, Pa., which supplies automated document production, printing services, digital conversion, and document storage; and DLA Transaction Services at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB), Ohio, which is responsible for the editing and routing of logistics transactions, network interoperability, and eBusiness services.
Business Services comprise a crucial, if often unseen, part of DLA’s “face to the warfighter,” providing complex – and often “just-in-time” – services critical to the success of U.S. military operations at all levels, from contracts to combat. And in the fog of war, it is more than a little comforting to those in the field to know they can, if necessary, call directly to one of those services and have a human being answer and deal with their needs quickly and efficiently.
DLA Logistics Information Service (DLIS)
First established as the Defense Logistics Services Center in 1952, then renamed Defense Logistics Information Service in 1961, DLIS was set up to replace the individual inventory descriptions each military service had applied to the supplies they used. Without a common nomenclature, it was not uncommon for the Navy to have an excess of some item on which the Army was experiencing a shortage – and neither knowing the other’s situation.
“There was no redistribution across the military services, so you had duplication, yet shortages, and no standardization,” said DLIS Director Deb Greger. “At first, a lot of our work was done manually, but in the 1970s we instituted the Defense Integrated Data System, the precursor to what we now know as the Logistics Information System [LIS], which was implemented in 1993. And we are about to do another major upgrade because the things we do have continued to evolve.
“These systems are IT, but it is the business processes behind them that are really important. Naming and identification characteristics, form and function, standardizing across a number of users, both national and international, means the taxonomy of the system is what is really important. And this is not just a DoD system, but has been adopted federally within the U.S. Because we have such a structured way of identifying what an item is, who is using it, and the vendors, our standards were adopted by the international community as well, beginning with the original NATO nations, now all 28 in NATO, and a great many non-NATO.”
Almost every U.S. military engagement since the start of the 20th century has involved a coalition, so not only using the same platforms and systems, from handguns and bullets to aircraft and communications systems, but using the same names, descriptions, and inventory numbers has become increasingly important.
“We have gone from cataloging descriptions for ourselves to handling it for 63 different nations. You can see that today in Afghanistan, for example, where we actually teach the same codification we do here in Battle Creek. As a result, people in Afghanistan are cataloging Russian weapons systems they have in inventory, aided by our Polish allies,” Greger said.
“This cataloging system also is being used in Iraq, where we have had senior logistics advisors helping the Iraqis better understand how to do military weapons systems logistics support so they can better handle that themselves as we draw down in Iraq and transition to their national system.”
Although now responsible for some 17 million items internationally, DLIS does not maintain the catalogs for every U.S. ally. But ensuring the standardization of names and descriptions, combined with electronic interlinking of national and NATO catalogs, has significantly reduced confusion, costs, and delays within both individual nation and coalition logistics chains.
“We don’t interface directly with other nations because that would be a nightmare, but as each country updates their information, according to their business rules, there is an interface that leads into the NATO catalog,” Greger explained. “So if Poland buys a new item, it will show up in the NATO catalog.
“We also assist with other systems [involving commercial vendors and DoD] and have the electronic versions of catalogs anyone can use, with proper authority, to order online, as well as systems that house material data safety sheets and hazardous information resource systems, which provide value added information for transportation and labeling.”
Given the level of electronic support and high-tech systems now in place, it may be hard to imagine that what is now DLIS was still using “tub files,” microfiche, data cards, and paper printouts even after the last astronaut walked on the moon.
“In the 1970s, we formed the first Defense Integrated Data System, which was the first enabler of the Electronic Data System, but we were still using microfiche and data cards. As technology advanced, we had the ability to do more with our data, such as look for duplication and refine our business processes. At that time, we probably had 300 to 400 ‘online’ users, such as DARPAnet and specific systems we developed internally,” she said. “And we were still using microfiche and printouts.
“On the business side, we created the Federal Catalog System to take care of what happened in World War II. The interesting thing is that system has remained very solid over time and continues to show its relevancy, even today, when applied to the private sector. The way we would describe an item and the types of things we collect have proven to be the benchmark standard, even within industry. And as companies are bought or merged and apply our rules and tools, they find they can more easily take care of their catalogs and inventory issues.”
DLA Document Services (DLA DS)
Decisions made to radically change how an agency or department works, based on new technologies or procedures, tend to draw considerable opposition from those happy with the familiar, suspicious of new technologies, or concerned for their jobs. Even after a new approach is instituted, it may be years – even decades – before its benefits become obvious. And there may be a spike in problems during that time, especially in the beginning.
The original operation now known as DLA Document Services pre-dates DLA by more than a decade. Until about the time of the Korean War, each service handled the printing, maintenance, and distribution of documents internally – even those common across military services. In many cases, that effort was further divided among sub-elements of each military branch, leading to even more duplication and excess cost.
In 1949, the Navy Publishing and Printing Service (NPPS), under the Naval Supply Systems Command, consolidated that effort for the Department of the Navy.
“In the late ’70s, there was a strategic decision made in our organization that, in our market space of document services, technology was beginning to really change things and we wanted to take advantage of that and ride it into the future with our customers,” current DLA DS Director Steve Sherman recalled.
“Many organizations, both in and outside government, chose the opposite tack, actually saying the technology would go away. We disagreed and, instead of ignoring the technology as just a quick flare-up, acknowledged it as the wave of the future. Since then, we’ve been evolving and applying technology to our business.”
Eventually, others began to see the benefits of what NPPS was doing and, rather than trying to re-invent the wheel, turned to them for an enterprise-level solution.
“In April 1992, DoD, thinking we had the most successful business servicing model in the department, decided to transfer all similar assets to us. In October 1996, we became part of DLA because it was more appropriate to be with a defense agency than a Navy agency with DoD-wide operations,” he continued. “Since 1992, more than 4,700 people and 555 buildings have been transferred to the new organization, at that point known as the Defense Printing Service, as a result of consolidations. And since then, there has been a decrease of more than 80 percent in personnel and 70 percent in buildings.
“At the same time, however, our business has increased by more than 35 percent and our customer satisfaction rate, as reported by an outside agency, is 93 percent. So we are a very efficient organization through the use of technology and good business practices, requiring much less resources. In fact, in 2009 OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] identified us as one of a handful of high-performing organizations in DoD. It’s a relatively new recognition, created about five years ago; once you get that designation, the organization is monitored every year after that.”
The evolution from a Navy-only printing department to a DoD-wide Document Services agency reflected far greater changes than just the name or how many people worked in how many buildings. During those years of change, it became far more than DoD’s printer – and even that part has changed dramatically and continues to evolve almost daily. For example, since the start of this century, traditional offset printing has dropped from more than 75 percent of DLA Document Services workload to slightly more than one-quarter, with print-on-demand (PoD) accounting for 38 percent and online services about 35 percent.
“If we had not made that strategic decision 30 years ago, today that 27 percent [traditional printing] is all we would have,” Sherman said, adding the push from offset to PoD to online will continue. “We’ve been around 60 years and people still tend to associate us with printing or quick copy, sort of the Kinko’s of DoD. But true digital is now bigger than print.
“I can’t even guess how that will break down even two years from now, much less five or ten. I expect that trend to continue, but how do we know what the next breakthrough will be? Even five years ago, no one would have thought you would be reading books and magazines on a Kindle or accessing your entire workspace on your smartphone.”
Such new tools and methods, spawned in the commercial sector, are in increasingly high demand throughout government. But they also raise new security issues DLA Document Services must address before committing to something new, no matter how popular.
“Convenience and effectiveness have to be balanced against cyber security. There are COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] electronic document management capabilities available, but it is not the document that is secure, it’s the system,” he said. “You can encrypt at the document level, of course, but what we do is house digital documents in an electronic database with controlled access. So only those who are supposed to have access to a particular document can get it. Once they download it, of course, then you have to rely on document encryption capabilities.
“PDF is a very popular format in the government, for example. We were involved, back when we were NPPS, with the initial development of Adobe PDF. We saw it as a breakthrough for the exchange of documents that went beyond just a raster image file. And at the document level today, that is still what we use.”
Seeking even greater improvements in efficiency and cost through the adoption of new technologies is far from over. For DLA Document Services, the status quo is how things used to be done.
“Essentially, we are a government business, with all the requirements of being a government organization with government employees, but we operate just like a commercial business. And that’s an important concept,” Sherman explained. “We charge for our services and all our expenses are offset by those charges, from top to bottom.
“There are two unique things about us, even compared to those in the commercial sector. One is we have a pretty robust portfolio of services – really one-stop shopping, in its truest sense, as far as document processing goes. We have quick-copy-on-demand, full-range printing and online services, which is a collection of digital documents customers from around the world can access instantly, 24/7. The second is we are actively driving DoD toward the use of online services, because of the efficiencies and cost-cuttings and increased accuracies. So it is a continuing evolution of what began in the late 1970s, when we made the strategic decision to jump into automation.”
DLA Transaction Services (DLA TS)
The Defense Automatic Addressing System Office (DAASO) was officially established in January 1966, replacing individual military supplier interfaces with a central DoD logistics transaction processing and data collection point. As part of a 1989 DLA reorganization, it was renamed as the Defense Automatic Addressing System Center (DAASC), then again as DLA Transaction Services in 2010.
“What has evolved in the last 10 to 15 years are more modern transaction sets – electronic data interchange [EDI] – which use more modern file formats, sizes, field lengths. You can do a lot more with flexible field lengths than with the fixed lengths of MILS [Military Standard],” according to DLA DS Director Bradley A. Lantz. “That led the military services to modernize their transactions toward an EDI-based standard. Even though it has not outpaced MILS in terms of overall volumes, we’ve seen more growth in that area in the past decade than MILS, which has remained fairly flat even as our business activity has increased by 300 percent from a decade ago.
“Not everybody at the military service level will modernize, so MILS will be around for a long time. But in rough orders of magnitude, it’s about a 60-40 split, MILS over EDI, compared to 100 percent MILS 15 years ago. In rough numbers, in calendar 2010 we processed 6.3 billion MILS transactions and about 3.3 billion on the EDI side. That’s about 26 million a day – or 1 million per hour – combined. Obviously, when we are at war the OPSTEMPO and ordering patterns for the military services go up, but, given the technology to support a wide variety of business transactions and the military services no longer having to do this on their own, they still would be coming to us more frequently today.”
DLA Transaction Services accomplishes its ever-growing tasks with only 104 government employees and about 94 contractors at two operating locations – Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio and Defense Distribution Depot San Joaquin, Calif. That, too, is possible due to the use of new technologies and software, optimized to automate throughput.
“We couldn’t afford to hand-hold this many transactions, so robust software and state-of-the-art servers and hardware, at both locations, enable us to handle this many transactions and continue to grow,” Lantz said – especially given three new initiatives DLA is handing them.
One of those will be merging DLA Transaction Services’ existing EDI workload with that of the Business Transformation Agency, which was recently re-assigned to DLA corporate. Another is picking up the integrated data environment (IDE), transferring from a DLA program management structure for which Transaction Services will be the sustaining arm in the future.
“It is a data service infrastructure for consumers of information, so those wanting to share data with other systems can do so through IDE. We will handle software enhancements and maintenance, based on incoming customer requirements,” he said.
The third initiative is an internal DLA re-engineering effort of the architecture middleware product that supports Enterprise Business Systems (EBS), which Lantz said is his group will build the functionality to support the external interfaces. That tool will reach its intended end-of-life in 2013, requiring a re-engineering of internal products and external interfaces with other systems.
“We do more than just logistics transactions, including financial, transportation, shipping and other transactions, which I put into a business services category,” he said. “We do that by capturing all the data on all the transactions moving in and out of our facilities. By doing that, we become the authoritative source for some key metrics, including two basic supply chain data components – logistics response time [LRT] and customer wait time [CWT]. CWT shows the total time from issuance of a customer order to satisfaction of that order, while LRT is a subset of this time [customer requisition to receipt of material].
“With all the data we have archived in the past 10 years, we have built some user-friendly Web-based apps tied directly to that data. With the required security credentials – that is, the DoD Common Access Card – customers can come into our system and query this supply chain data. So if a soldier wants to know the status of his transaction and where it is in the pipeline, at any time of day, he could log in, execute a query and get status immediately.”
The underlying mission did not change with the branding-related name change to DLA Transaction Services in 2010 and continues to apply to all trading partners. Those include not only the military services and agencies, such as Defense Finance & Accounting Service and the DoD Dependent School Program, but also the U.S. Postal Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Foreign Military Sales (a State Department activity), and commercial shippers, such as UPS and FedEx.
“We’ve always been looked at as a transaction service provider, but with the assumption of the IDE sustainment mission on 1 October 2011, we also will have a data-sharing mission beyond those business transactions,” Lantz said, but added extra capability does not mean extra personnel. “We are augmenting our staff with contractor support to help with the IDE sustainment mission, but there will be no increase in actual government.
“We are a DoD provider of service and our funding comes from the military services and DLA, which is one of our major customers. We provide interoperability and value-added services on business transactions and support between DLA EBS and DSS – the Distribution Standards System, which is the DLA warehousing service.”
As is increasingly true throughout DLA business services, nearly everything is now automated, resulting in significant transaction processing speed increases, such as in support for the Air Force Base Relocation and Closure (BRAC) initiative.
“There is a five-minute turnaround time on a transaction coming out of an Air Force retail account to us, which we route to EBS for processing, then, when it comes back, if all goes well – inventory on hand, etc. – we then send into the DSS and an order is shipped back to the Air Force customer at the BRAC location,” he noted.
“All of that has to be done in five minutes, but our current average cycle time on roughly 4,000 transactions of this type every day is 45 seconds, from start to finish. There are exceptions, of course. If we don’t have stock on hand, instead of a receipt saying the order is on its way, they may get a report that it is on backorder.”
DLA Transaction Services also handles all food orders for some 1,030 sites – base dining halls, ships’ galleys, etc. – for all four DoD services and the Coast Guard, as well as medical and pharmacy supplies for some 150 military hospitals, clinics, and other facilities in 39 states and 14 foreign countries.
“For example, all the behind-the-scenes transactions to get just-in-time delivery on food and medical supplies to a forward operating base in Afghanistan go through us,” Lantz said, adding that also applies to a host of other supplies, from airplane parts to a common interdepartmental/agency logistics communications link. “We will finish this fiscal year with 10 billion transactions; in FY2005, that was 4.7 billion.
“Given the additional workload coming to us, by the time those have all been fully integrated, I would say our growth in EDI will be around 20 to 30 percent in the next three years. Then it will flatten out, in part due to overall DoD downsizing and reducing our presence in Afghanistan. I don’t really see a growth in total transactions, but a change in the mix, with more MILS migrating to the EDI format. The current 60/40 split, in the out-years, as the military services continue to modernize, may be 50/50. So a fair estimate for 2015 or so would be about 12 billion annual transactions, MILS and EDI combined.”
For DLA, the Status Quo Is How Things Used to Be Done
DLA Logistics Information Service, DLA Document Services, and DLA Transaction Services represent the largely behind-the-scenes efforts of a few hundred highly skilled individuals – aided by constantly evolving and improving technologies – to handle billions of transactions related to requests from throughout their customer base.
Many might be compared to breathing: No one really gives it much thought – until something goes wrong. Others, such as having the right parts and supplies critical to winning a battle in place where and when they are needed, are more obvious.
In point of fact, all play their own crucial roles in keeping America’s military properly supplied, from training to combat to recovery – and doing so as efficiently, cost-effectively, and seamlessly as possible. And what began with a series of decisions others often dismissed as wrong-headed continues today and into the future.
“What we try to do is ask ‘where do you want to go today?’ Our customers are constantly changing and we are trying to push them to on-demand and online, but we must be agile enough to change on the fly to meet their requirements,” Sherman said.
And it has succeeded, according to Lantz, because of the caliber of people involved: “The folks who do this work are highly skilled and specialized; for all we do here and the systems we have created, they are a prized commodity. There is no other business model like this around, especially in DoD, so all the people who have built these systems and infrastructure are just incredible.”
The evolution, structure, and operations of all DLA Business Services, the keys to success throughout the military enterprise, were succinctly summarized by Greger: “In the end, it’s all about items supplied and suppliers of items and the people who use them.”