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Federal government silos - can they be broken?

By Steve Geary | 04/09/2017 | 5:05 PM

I’m a supply chain guy, so I hate organizational silos. 

Logistics, by its very nature, cuts across silo boundaries.  In a vertically organized company, an order drops into Sales and Marketing, flows through Operations to be configured, and then heads over to Logistics for fulfillment.  The final stop in the journey is likely Accounting, who handles billing and collections.

Many companies understand the inherent challenge of inward-focused silos.  Not all situations are the same, not all customers are the same, so a one-size-fits-all structured response rarely meets the specific requirements.  Through this lens, effective customer-facing organizational structures work to cut across functional boundaries and orient horizontally, focused on the customer, rather than vertically by function. 

At DC Velocity, we love to talk about Omni-Channel – a tag line describing synchronized market-driven responses tailored for individual customers, a horizontal construct if there ever was one.

Instead of a horizontal orientation, the federal government is built around silos.  The skeletal infrastructure of the United States Government is clear; just look at the names of the cabinet departments in the executive branch.  State, Treasury, Defense, Education, Homeland Security, Transportation, Justice are just a few examples of cabinet departments, and they, like the rest of the departments, are all silos.

The silo approach to organization is recursive:  it repeats and repeats and repeats, giving us silos within the silos. 

Overnight on April 6, 2017 we launched 60 cruise missiles – 59 made it to the target, a single airfield in Syria, in a response to Bashir Al Asad’s used of chemical weapons – AGAIN.  A recap of what has happened up to this point.  First, let’s imagine a red line and pretend we’ll do something if chemical weapons are used.  These idle threats from the previous administration obviously didn’t work, so the previous administration gave it to the VP and sent him off to work with the international community.  Yeah, like that moved things along - not.  Then we arrived at the final policy posture, let’s wait for the EU to do something . . .ah, they’re busy with Brexit. 

After a recent change of administrations, we wake up one morning to hear that the new President launched a missile strike. 

President Trump and his team weighed the variables and decided that throwing 60 cruise missiles at Shayrat Airbase might produce the desired outcome – no easy task considering the dramatic shift in our new national security approach.  If the desired outcome is to demonstrate that business as usual is no longer in play in Southwest Asia, maybe it was achieved, again no easy task because of the international actors involved.  And, to reinforce the more aggressive American stance against rogue actors internationally, on April 8 the Pentagon said that a group of US warships is headed to the western Pacific Ocean to provide a physical presence near the Korean Peninsula, instead of sailing to Australia, as previously planned. 

Military operations are government supply chains in action on a massive scale.  As with any supply chain decision, launching a military action considers an array of variables other than cost.  Cost is just one factor considered in the context of national and global security priorities.  We can only hope that the decision to launch these missiles was made with a clear understanding of the cost of the cruise missiles, but also with a clear understanding of the desired outcome. 

Does it take a sledge hammer to kill an ant?  NO.  But if you do it once, especially when you are trying to overcome 8 years of destructive paralysis on the world stage, slamming Asad’s forces makes sense if it produces the desired outcome on the global stage.  Based on comments from the international community, the world seems to understand that the United States is again ready to lead in Southwest Asia.

There are too many actors, too many agendas, and until now the lack of a cohesive strategy reduced the United States to play tit for tat on the global stage in the past – with the Trump administration, should this missile strike be viewed differently?  The previous administration was unable to assemble a proactive integrated action plan across the functional silos, but with a new President, the United States may now be beginning to behave in a different way.  That said, we don’t know the behind the scenes thought process of the administration, but we can hope they are taking a different approach that includes synchronization across the silos.

But true synchronization across silos costs money.  In just one night of missile launches aimed at Syria, we threw almost $100 million of metal at one airbase.  According to the Washington Post, our total economic and development assistance to Iraq budget for fiscal year 2017 is a little over $300 million.  There is imbalance among the silos.

If this was a straight up logistics problem at an operational level, we’d have a cross functional response –not just a military response - defined to fix the problem.  In an ideal global geopolitical world, we’d have a similar cross-functional approach that cut across departments and nations, focused on Southwest Asia, orchestrated by somebody reporting up to the president, and integrating the capabilities necessary and available to meet the circumstance in Syria.  The current administration includes some very experienced individuals at the Cabinet level – let’s hope that they are working feverishly to overcome the ingrained silos of our federal government.

Is it too much to ask that government departments function the way we operate on the warehouse floor?  When it comes to government operations, why do we treat silos as a fact of life?  Reality suggests that we need a whole of government solution, but we just haven’t figured out how to do that yet, it seems.  Maybe there’s hope on the horizon.



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About Steve Geary

Steve Geary

Steve Geary is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Tennessee's College of Business Administration, and is on the faculty at The Gordon Institute at Tufts University, where he teaches supply chain management. He is the President of the Supply Chain Visions family of companies, and Chief Operating Officer at ROSE Solutions, consultancies that work across the government sector. Steve is a contributing editor at DC Velocity, and editor-at-large for CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. He is listed in Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in Science and Engineering, and Who's Who in Executives and Professionals. In November of 2007, Steve was recognized for "Selfless Service to Our Nation and the People of Iraq" by the Deputy Secretary of Defense.


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