Pandemic, Innovation, and People Emerge as Key Topics at the 2020 Fall Meeting
The NDTA-USTRANSCOM Fall Meeting took place October 5-8, 2020. While this event has taken place for many years, 2020 marked the first virtual edition of the meeting. The decision to move to a virtual platform was made due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Of course, we would prefer to be in St. Louis at the historic Hilton hotel, but we can do this, and we can still collaborate,” VADM William Brown, NDTA President & CEO, said of the decision.
The event brought together more than 1,500 attendees from government, military, and industry to learn and collaborate. The theme for the meeting was Innovative and Disruptive…2020 Vision for the Future. While chosen before the pandemic, the theme turned out to be especially appropriate for this year.
While 2020 and the pandemic brought immense challenges, NDTA Chairman John Dietrich remained optimistic about the meeting and industry’s relationship with its government and military partners. “As a member of industry, we look forward to this event every year because it’s an environment for healthy dialog with senior leaders—and importantly—future leaders. Likewise, industry comes to the Fall Meeting to showcase our commitment to the Department of Defense [DOD] as full partners in peacetime and in time of conflict. Industry will always support you.”
The Commander of USTRANSCOM, GEN Stephen Lyons, expressed a similar sentiment from the military perspective, “To say this has been a challenging year might be the understatement of the year. But I can say for sure this has demonstrated, I believe, our incredible resiliency to have this event despite the pandemic and to maintain such a close relationship—perhaps even an advanced and enhanced relationship—with our industry partners during these very, very challenging times.”
He also emphasized the significance of the military-industry relationship to the Department of Defense, “It’s not lost on me, it’s not lost on the Chairman, or the Secretary of Defense how large a role that industry plays in our ability to project and sustain the Joint Force on a global scale.”
The main session program kicked off with the roundtable, Innovations Achieved in Spite of the Obstacles, moderated by USTRANSCOM Senior Enlisted Leader CMSgt Jason France. Panel members included CMSgt Brian Kruzelnick, Command Chief Master Sergeant, Air Mobility Command (AMC); CSM Rocky Carr, Command Sergeant Major, Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC); CMDCM Rick Dyksterhouse, Command Master Chief, Military Sealift Command (MSC); and CMSgt Linda Thrasher, Senior Enlisted Leader Joint Transportation Reserve Unit, USTRANSCOM and Chief Enlisted Manager, 954th Reserve Support Squadron. The discussion focused on the importance of innovation, how it is influenced by organizational culture, and barriers to innovation.
“When you look at competitive advantage over our adversaries, for the Army, it’s about moving large forces, large combat forces, to distant shores and being able to synchronize and integrate those forces to achieve a combat effect,” explained Carr. “So for us to do that, not only do we have to do it now, we have to do it and synchronize with the distant end. We have to do it with the speed of relevance, and so innovation allows us to do that.”
To gain back its competitive edge, the US Military must be imaginative, creative, and have Service Members that are curious, have an innovative mindset, and a bias towards action to leverage innovations such as big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, said Kruzelnick. This would allow US forces to “operate smaller with smarter technology, to advance some new warfighting capabilities, and put that distance back between us, our partners, our allies, and our adversaries. And this way, we can project the Joint Force and ensure our strategic deterrence.”
Creativity proved critical to DOD’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Fall Meeting’s first keynote speaker, The Honorable Jordan Gillis, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment. “The department sought new ways of applying existing authorities and capabilities to meet both internal requirements and support the efforts of our interagency and international partners,” he said. “We adjusted approval authorities, we developed some new policies, created new working relationships within the department to bridge gaps, and leverage expertise to solve unique challenges.”
“We can and must use the lessons learned from this disruption caused by a pandemic as we look toward future operations and emerging threats,” said Gillis. “Whether it’s a future outbreak or a conflict with a near-peer or peer competitors, we should expect to see disruptions to all elements of our operation from the domestic transportation network to deployment modes and nodes to our information technology networks to tactical distribution—all will be contested and challenged.”
Another theme that quickly emerged during the Fall Meeting besides innovation was the importance of the enterprise’s human component. The meeting’s second keynote speaker, Bob Chapman, provided an inspiring speech on this subject. Chapman is the CEO of the Chapman & Company Leadership Institute, Chairman and CEO of Barry Wehmiller, a global supplier of manufacturing technology and services, and author of the book Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family.
The journey to truly human leadership focuses on people, purpose, and performance. “The first responsibility of a leader is the people in your span of care, around a purpose that inspires them, and you have to create value. You cannot be good to your family. You cannot be good to the people in your care unless you’re creating value,” he said, adding that value gives legitimacy to move forward.
Chapman recognized the way his employees were treated at work affected their health. It had a profound effect on who they end up becoming in life and how they go home and treat their families. “The way we lead those people in your care, the way we treat them, the way we send them home each day, has a profound impact on the way they treat their families and their own self-confidence,” said Chapman.
“Parenting and leadership are identical. Parenting is the stewardship of these precious lives that come into our families through birth, second marriage, adoption. What is leadership? The stewardship of these precious lives, these people who walk onto our bases, into our offices, into our buildings around the world, who simply want to know that who they are and what they do matters,” said Chapman. “So just be the leader you would want to follow. Be the leader you would want your son or daughter to have that would validate their worth and allow them to be who they’re intended to be.”
The second roundtable, led by USTRANSCOM Deputy Commander VADM Dee Mewbourne, returned the focus to innovations. It featured panelists Dr. Chris Caplice, Executive Director, MIT’s Center for Transportation & Logistics; Dr. George Friedman, Founder and Chairman, Geopolitical Futures; and Tom Shull, Director, and CEO, Army & Air Force Exchange Service.
The roundtable theme was Adapting Logistics for the 21st Century – Technological Advancements, Evolving Requirements, COVID-19 Disruptors. Mewbourne reflected on how logistics has evolved and how the enterprise has progressed by thinking differently and having disruptive thoughts.
Caplice called the COVID-19 pandemic a pivot point for the advancement of technology. Companies he spoke to had advanced their digitalization by three to five years what otherwise would have occurred. “[The pandemic’s] a forcing mechanism to change behavior to meet the promise of technology, and that’s kind of the theme that I’m seeing over and over again,” said Caplice. “So, the first big behavioral change is the rapid advancement of digitalization, the acceptance of digitalization, and the idea of pushing paper out of the processes as much as possible. The second thing that I’ve seen—and this might not apply directly to the military because you’re kind of already there—is a tighter mission focus from companies.”
A keynote speech by the USTRANSCOM Commander GEN Lyons took the idea of innovation to new heights as he revealed a new collaboration with Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc) to explore rapid transportation through space. “Think about moving the equivalent of a C-17 payload anywhere on the globe in less than an hour,” said Lyons. “Think about that speed associated with the movement of transportation of cargo and people. There is a lot of potential here, and I’m really excited about the team that’s working with SpaceX on an opportunity, even perhaps, as early as 21, to be conducting a proof of principle.”
Lyons’ speech also described missions performed by the USTRANSCOM and its component commands over the course of the pandemic. This included DEFENDER-Europe 20, the largest deployment of forces to Europe in the past 25 years. But while exercises had to be modified or scaled back, USTRANSCOM’s global mission continued. “At the end of the day, we never had to stop flying our planes or sailing our ships,” said Lyons.
Throughout his comments on the pandemic and other subjects, Lyons attributed much of USTRANSCOM’s mission success to its remarkable workforce, component commands, and the partnerships it has within DOD, with other government organizations, and commercial industry. “I could not be more proud of the Airmen, the Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, Coast Guardsmen, the civilians, and our industry partners that make up this power projection enterprise. I am just a proud teammate that stands amongst you.”
A keynote speech by Rami Goldratt, CEO, Goldratt Group, about breaking inertia also brought together many of the meeting’s running themes. Inertia, in this instance, is the force drive that brings you to continue and behave in the same way, even when there is a need to change. While many organizations recognize the need to change during a crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, they fail to realize that breaking inertia when a company is doing well can lead to breakthroughs in performance. Breaking inertia is one of the prime responsibilities of a leader because they set the rules others in their organization follow.
“Breaking inertia is important, and it’s obvious when the organization is under some crisis,” explained Goldratt. “But breaking inertia is important even when the organization is doing very well because maybe we’re doing very well, but we can do much better if we change something. And, maybe we’re doing very well, but around the corners, there are threats that if we’re not changing something fundamental when the time comes and we face these threats, it may be too late.”
To break inertia without waiting for a crisis, Goldratt recommended that organizations set a high objective that seems impossible to achieve given current constraints, identify the conflict you must break with innovation to achieve the objective, and then take it as your responsibility as a leader to challenge inertia. “Don’t wait for a crisis, take it as your responsibility as a leader—it’s your responsibility, every one of us is a leader for a certain sub-system or the whole system—take it as your responsibility as a leader to break inertia, to challenge inertia. Don’t wait for the crisis. I think in today’s world, this is very relevant.”
The Transportation Thru Space: A Look at Space Systems Logistics, Supply Chain Initiatives and Capabilities roundtable was moderated by Lt Gen (Ret.) Steve Kwast, President and Chief Global Officer, Genesis Systems, LLC. Panel participants included Dr. Greg Spanjers, Chief Scientist Air Force Strategic Development Planning & Experimentation (AF SDPE), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (Rocket Cargo Project Lead); Col (Ret.) Gary Henry, Senior Director, National Security Space Solutions SpaceX; Peter Garretson, AFPC Senior Fellow/Space Expert; and Charles Miller, Space Entrepreneur Co-Founder and CEO, Lynk. The panel emphasized that space innovations are not futuristic ideas; they are already here. They also explored the implications this has for communications and transportation.
“Ultimately, what is happening in our world today is that we are experiencing a rush to the high ground of space and the reason there is a rush is because strategists and business leaders understand that there are trillion-dollar markets in space,” explained Kwast. “Space as a neural network of individual platforms can provide communications, energy, transportation, manufacturing—all of the things that truly can transform the human race and uplift the prosperity of all people on planet earth—and we are at the cusp of that.”
The final Fall Meeting keynote presentation by Dan Helfrich, CEO, Deloitte Consulting US, and Heather Reilly, Principal, and Defense, Security & Justice Sector Lead, Deloitte Consulting, examined workforce resiliency and how lessons learned through COVID-19 can help organizations conduct globally integrated logistics.
Helfrich shared a summary of conversations he had with commercial executives across various industries and with government leaders during the COVID-19 crisis. “There’s a commonality across all those conversations. The first is how to quickly accelerate digital transformation and invest in the right technology. The second is what’s the future of work really look like—that encompasses, you know, both what kinds of people do I need, where are they going to work, how are they going to work, and is there something called a ‘return to normal’ once we navigate past this moment?”
Reilly had heard similar themes in her conversations with leaders. She added that for her clients, “we really try to focus on I would say three things in a disrupted environment. Foresight—so how can you do your best to predict the future? How can you get your teams disciplined to start thinking about what are the potential risks and issues that might happen? Second is agility—how do you make sure your workforce, your operations, are willing to stand up and able to meet the need of the time? And then, as you mentioned, resilience is another key part of it, and how do you withstand and recover from those disruptions over a long period of time?”
“What’s become very clear to me is the magic of leading an organization successfully in this moment is to be human and to recognize that your team is human,” said Helfrich. “Therefore, the nuances and complexity of what people are going through outside of their professional lives is incredibly important to understand and have in the front of your mind as you make decisions, and so I’ve been very focused on combining anecdote with data.”
In conjunction with the Fall Meeting, NDTA and USTRANCOM held Transportation Academy, which consisted of 78 educational classes. Courses covered ten separate topic tracks, including acquisition and finance; combatant commands and security cooperation; commercial logistics; Department of Defense transportation; innovation and analytics; information technology and cyber; leadership and professional development; legislation and policy; interactive workshops and training; as well as Surface Deployment and Distribution Command workshops.
In addition, participants had the opportunity to attend a special NDTA Young Leaders Professional Development Session, as well as several meetings of the association’s committees and subcommittees. NDTA also held a virtual expo hall featuring exhibitors from the Defense Industrial Base, military, government, and academia. The expo hall offered the chance for truly interactive information sharing between attendees.
The combination of events over the meeting’s four days provided valuable opportunities for all attendees to enhance their knowledge, professional development, and networks and share their expertise. The NDTA-USTRANSCOM Fall Meeting is a unique, trusted environment for the community it serves. The 2020 meeting proved that regardless of how or where the event occurs, its significance—and the strength of the partnership it represents—remains strong.