Chain of Thought

DHS Needs to Follow Through on Supply Chain Projects

A headline in the Wall Street Journal caught my attention (which is what all good headlines should do): “How to Secure the Global Supply Chain.” Actually, it wasn't so much the headline (which is quite close, actually, to a headline I wrote more than four years ago on the same topic) as it was the byline: Janet Napolitano, current head of the Department of Homeland Security. Okay, to be more precise, it wasn't just the headline and the byline, as it was the timing of the article, coming as it did on the same day the WSJ's front page story was about the changing of the guard in the U.S. House of Representatives. It wouldn't be the first time somebody tried to draw attention to their accomplishments at a time when everybody was looking the opposite direction.

I don't envy the Secretary her job, especially right now, when seemingly every story about the DHS typically has the words “pat-down” or “grope” somewhere in the text. So it's understandable that she'd want to change the subject entirely and start talking about why the department was created in the first place: to secure and protect the global supply chain. So I'll give her points for that.

Trouble is, her commentary leaves something to be desired; namely, a point. It would have been effective in the aftermath of 9/11, but in the year 2011, it's kind of pointless to argue about the need for protecting the global supply chain. Isn't that exactly why the DHS was formed, back in 2002? Also, Secretary Napolitano walks a rather thin line by reminding us about the Christmas 2009 attempted shoe-bombing, which pointed out some rather gaping holes in DHS's procedures and left many people less-than-reassured about how safe it really was to travel.

The commentary then points to three things we need to do to strengthen the global supply chain (“we” seems to shift back and forth from the DHS to any company engaged in global commerce to any individual who travels internationally):

1. Prevent terrorists from exploiting the supply chain to plan and execute attacks.

2. Protect the most critical elements of the supply chain, especially infrastructure, from attack or disruption.

3. Make the global supply chain more resilient.

On point 1, I think we can all agree that the DHS has made some significant strides in that direction. Secretary Napolitano seems particularly proud of Project Global Shield (no doubt because it was launched on her watch), but she really should have mentioned C-TPAT and the Container Security Initiative and the SAFE Act and other accomplishments that were already in place when she arrived at DHS. Last time I checked, the global supply chain was non-partisan, and even if somebody else came up with the idea, why not trumpet the best-known successes of the department?

Point 2 addresses one of the chief stumbling blocks to protecting the global supply chain – establishing worldwide standards for screening technology – but doesn't offer any timeline for how long this might take (years? decades? forever?) The recent attempt to blow up cargo aircraft from Yemen illustrates that the global supply chain is only as safe as its most corrupt link.

Secretary Napolitano's final point sounds more like a wish than a strategy. How, exactly, will the DHS ensure that the global supply chain will be able to shrug off disruptions and bounce back quickly from attempted or successful attacks? If the answer is based on technology, the resiliency she's wishing for could be long in coming. As I noted in my recent book (Supply Chain Managment Best Practices, 2nd edition), an effort to thwart security breaches at U.S. ports has been repeatedly delayed since 2002 and is not yet in place, primarily because the $250 million program relies on fingerprint identification technology that has yet to be developed. Seems to me that the DHS might want to add another goal to its “to-do” list: Follow through on projects. Otherwise we'll keep hearing about how nice it'll be to make the global supply chain more resilient, but won't see much evidence of progress toward that goal.

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