TCS Daily

Marines' Machines

By John Baden - November 24, 2003 12:00 AM

All modern societies are critically dependant upon bureaucracies. These organizations, be they for-profit, nonprofit, or governmental, are central to our well-being. Hospitals, schools, courts, and supermarket chains are all bureaucracies. They constitute our institutional environment.

The natural tendency of a bureaucracy is to defend and perpetuate itself and to resist change. Private bureaucracies, however, differ from the governmental variety. Although both may have ponderous hierarchies and cumbersome procedures, ultimately private companies are subject to the discipline of market forces. And the market process is relentless, constantly separating the systematically unlucky and the incompetent from control over resources.

This market discipline is usually weak or absent among governmental agencies. Businesses which ignore innovation and changing consumer preferences eventually go bankrupt. For example, Wang Computer, Montgomery Ward, and International Harvester all went by-by.

The Marine Corps and John Deere & Co. are two organizations I've learned to respect. Both have long histories and rich traditions. The Marines don't leave wounded warriors in the field. They bring them out or die trying. Deere (whose green tractors are an American icon) works hard and successfully to build great iron. Though both are bureaucracies, Deere a private one and the Marines a governmental, they share an interest in economizing on scarce resources.

The Marines are but half the size of the Air Force. While the Air Force is a technocracy, the Marines are a warrior culture. As retired Col. Dave Clifton, director of the
USMC Center for Business Excellence, explains, "Business concepts have never really been core concepts for the Marine Corps."

Yet when the Navy, of which the Marines are a branch, doles out dollars, Marines feel cut short. Old equipment is allocated to them. Starved for funds, they make do. Because they face serious budget constraints, they at times act as a private firm striving to control costs. Here's an example.

From 1989 to 1991 the Marines bought 636 heavy-duty John Deere 644ER front-end loaders. They are used around the globe for loading and unloading ammo, food, etc. -- stuff essential in combat. In a pinch they can be used to push wrecked planes overboard to clear the landing deck of an aircraft carrier.

These Deere loaders are modified versions of standard construction machines. They have, for example, special seals to keep salt water from penetrating moving parts. Their test includes running 24 hours in 5 feet of salt water. These machines must have 100 percent uptime, and while highly dependable, they don't last forever. After over a decade of service, the 600-plus loaders were due for replacement. But the Marines were budget sensitive.

We've heard of $500 hammers flowing from the military procurement process. Many recall cartoonist Herb Block of the Washington Post depicting Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger walking around with a thousand-dollar toilet seat around his neck.

We've come to expect such travesties from government agencies. So what, then, did the Marines do when replacing their Deere loaders? Did they buy new machines with their special saltwater requirements or did they economize, as folks in the private sector sensibly do?

Remember, they flat need fully dependable machines. In their business environment, the costs of failures are measured in lost lives, not jobs. It is unacceptable for a carrier deck to be blocked while planes circle in the air, or for a company of Marines to be without combat supplies. Here's their solution.

The machines were shipped to the Deere factory in
Moline, Illinois. There they were totally disassembled and rebuilt from the frame up. The result is a "new" loader with updated electronics and hydraulics. The cost is 60 percent or less that of a new machine. I have considerable experience with Deere's ag and logging equipment and I'd be amazed if these fail.

This case speaks well of two bureaucracies, the Corps and Deere. The Corps' limited budget imposed fiscal discipline and fostered creative solutions. Deere obtained a large slug of old iron to make new, and found work to buffer seasonal fluctuations in demand.

Leadership in the Marines and Deere cooperated to save taxpayers substantial sums while providing essential materiel to our military. I salute them as an example to be widely emulated.


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