) -- A military operation cannot be successful without logistics and support, and neither can a business.
The initial thrust of Operation Iraqi Freedom was one of the most successful military operations in modern times but the strategy was not without significant risk. Army and Marine units bypassed enemy strongholds and avoided some confrontations for the sake of speed to get to Baghdad as soon as possible and "cut the head off the snake."
Iraqi forces not engaged in direct combat shed their uniforms and melted into the population. As the supply lines supporting the front line units grew longer, these same forces resurfaced and began to attack those lines at their own choosing, waging an effective insurgency campaign.
On March 23, 2003, a supply convoy from the Army's 507th Maintenance Company was supposed to bypass the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on its way to supply a missile battery near Baghdad. They made a wrong turn and wandered directly into irregular Fedayeen Saddam forces outside the city. A fierce battle ensued, and 11 American soldiers were killed.
The enemy forces captured five others, including a 19-year-old supply clerk named Jessica Lynch. A large rescue operation conducted by Special Forces on April 1st rescued Lynch and other survivors. The rescue made the headlines, but what the incident really highlighted was the failure of our attacking troops to destroy or neutralize these Iraqi forces on the way to Baghdad. By outrunning our supply lines and leaving them poorly protected, we risked strategic failure.
Several World War II operations provide additional examples. Operation Market Garden was a massive allied attempt to simultaneously seize German held bridges crossing various rivers in the occupied Netherlands. Led by British General Bernard Montgomery, it was the largest airborne operation in history.
The airborne forces initially succeeded in capturing several bridges, but they needed support from ground forces to hold the positions. The ground forces ran into stronger resistance than planned and the airborne troops were forced to retire. The operation ultimately failed. As one of Montgomery's aides said during the planning phase, "I think we may have gone a bridge too far."
Germany's push into Russia was initially a strategic success but turned into a crushing defeat when German forces outran their supply lines. This allowed Russian forces to regroup and counterattack as the Germans suffered through a brutal Russian winter. Outrunning your supply lines on someone else's turf is a recipe for defeat.
Some of the largest and most successful corporations also outran their logistics. In 2005,
introduced the Xbox 360, a remarkably innovative product that was an instant winner and billed as the next generation in video gaming. In fact, it was too popular.
As it turned out, Microsoft was unprepared for the gaming system's popularity and the demand brought on by the Christmas holiday. Stores turned away potential customers, telling them the Xbox was out of stock. Turmoil erupted. Inventory shortages plagued Microsoft throughout the holidays and beyond, and black-market systems sold on auction sites for many times the retail cost.
Some business leaders believe that product shortages are good for business, believing that demand creates more demand. But there's a fine line between creating demand and annoying the customer or suppliers. A leader needs to strike a balance between having too much product on hand, costing money, and not having enough product, impacting sales.
seems to do a great job with navigating this business situation. Apple notifies resellers with advisement bulletins of possible impending shortages, especially as they ramp down production of certain devices. This gives resellers time to prepare and head off potential problems.
A thorough planning process, supported by good market intelligence, will provide the leader with the right answer.
Firing Line: Plan for success and then keep a close eye on your supply lines. Outrun them or let them get too thin and suffer the consequences of a failed strategy. It can happen to the best corporations or organizations.
-- Written by Matthew Buckley in Chicago
Matthew "Whiz" Buckley is the Managing Partner of
, a business-consulting firm specializing in leadership development, risk management, and strategic planning for Fortune 500 companies and related organizations. Whiz flew the F-18 Hornet for the U.S. Navy. He's a graduate of TOPGUN, has close to 400 carrier landings, and flew 44 combat sorties over Iraq. He transitioned to the business world after he was scheduled to fly his first flight as an airline pilot on 9/11. Instead, he ended up flying combat air patrol over the U.S. He rose rapidly though corporate America, starting as Managing Director of Strategy at a Wall Street firm, to CEO of a financial media company. He is an internationally recognized speaker and combined his unprecedented experiences in the military and corporate America in the writing of From Sea Level to C Level.