Improving supply chain management for disaster relief

Chris Zobel
BIT associate professor Chris Zobel is improving supply chain management for disaster recovery, to make a difference in people’s lives.

Even under normal conditions, managing a supply chain for a business can be a daunting task.

Imagine the challenges of managing a supply chain to handle the recovery from a natural disaster, says Chris Zobel, an associate professor of business information technology who studies resilience in supply chains for disaster relief and readiness.

Key parts of a supply chain

A supply chain for a business, Zobel explains, is the series of processes involved in getting goods to customers, from order placement to delivery. Businesses have to consider six key parts of a supply chain: production (in a nutshell, what should be produced in what quantity and quality); supply (how and where the goods are to be made or sourced); inventory (how much to maintain); location (where to site plants and warehouses); transportation (ground, air, or sea?); and, lastly, information (how to obtain, organize, and manage all the information related to the business).

Supply chain management is frequently used in disaster relief efforts, he says, noting that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies won the European Supply Chain Excellence Award in 2006 for its disaster response activities.

It is particularly important for the supply chains of humanitarian aid agencies to be resilient — to be strongly resistant to the initial impact of a disaster and to be able to recover quickly and respond and adapt well to changing conditions. “I want to help organizations improve their ability to prepare for and respond to disasters — particularly service-oriented organizations that have that as their core mission.”

Modeling humanitarian relief

Zobel notes that while a significant body of research on disaster management has accumulated in the social sciences, economics, and humanities fields, there is still need and opportunity for problem-solving in this area within the decision sciences and operations management communities. “In scholarly publications, the topic of modeling humanitarian relief supply chains, and the specific issues they face, has emerged relatively recently and is just starting to become more widely recognized.”

It is a key research area, he says. “It deals directly with people’s safety and well-being. Disasters are increasing in frequency and in their impact on humanity. Part of this is due to the fact that as worldwide populations continue to grow, more and more people move into regions in which the risk of a natural hazard is higher, such as desert areas susceptible to drought or coastal zones subject to hurricane winds and flooding.”

Not-for-profit and government organizations, Zobel says, often struggle with having enough and the right type of resources to serve those affected by disasters. “Any improvements that can be made in their ability to procure, manage, and move goods and other resources can only be a good thing,” he says. “I am interested in looking at how they can do even better than they are currently doing, considering the uncertainty of the situations they deal with, the scarcity of necessary resources, and the often heavy reliance on volunteer labor.”

Divide and conquer

Researchers in this field, Zobel says, tend to concentrate on particular aspects of the supply chain's operations — inventory management, transportation, or facility location, for example — rather than the entire chain all at once, because “we can make the whole supply chain more effective if we can work on manageable portions of it first.”

As examples, Zobel cites the work of recent Pamplin doctoral graduates Gary Fetter and Mauro Falasca. Fetter (Ph.D./BIT ’10), now an assistant professor at Western Carolina University, investigated cost-effective ways of cleaning up debris in Chesapeake, Va., in the wake of Hurricane Isabel in 2003. “Gary’s project looked at the problem of transporting large amounts of debris to temporary debris staging and reduction facilities. He created a mathematical model that could identify the most appropriate number of such facilities to open and the locations at which to open them, so that trucks could be routed correctly, and normal operations within the city could be restored more quickly, more equitably, and more cost-effectively.”

Scheduling volunteers

Falasca (Ph.D./BIT ’09), whose dissertation Zobel advised and who is now an assistant professor at East Carolina University, looked at the problem of scheduling volunteers in humanitarian organizations.

“In many humanitarian supply chains, volunteers are the primary labor source. Because their needs and motivations are generally different from those of paid employees, it is essential for volunteers’ preferences to be carefully taken into account in order to better retain their labor for future use. Mauro created a model that allows someone to easily examine the tradeoffs necessary to ensure that a volunteer-driven organization can meet its goals.”

Doing a good job in scheduling and retaining volunteers, Zobel says, can help one do a better job of managing the overall supply chain.

Supply chain researchers and managers, Zobel says, need to constantly bear in mind that disaster response and recovery operations involve organizational, social, and environmental dimensions that can impact the decision-making process. “Analytic techniques can’t be applied in a vacuum — there are more than technical issues at play when you are trying to improve the ability of an organization to help mitigate against or recover from a disaster.”

Technology can’t solve everything

The best technological solution, he says, may be constrained by other factors that may include bureaucratic roadblocks to delivering supplies and cultural differences in communication approaches. “Finding the optimal route for delivering supplies, i.e. one that avoids all the flooding and debris in the roads, doesn’t do any good if the official in charge of a roadblock hasn’t been told that you have permission to be there, or if no trucks are available because they have been requisitioned for other purposes.”

Humanitarian supply chain management, he says, is fraught with uncertainty and time and resource constraints. “We often don’t know when a disaster will occur, the extent of the damage, what resources — roads, hospitals, equipment, and personnel — are immediately available following the event, or how long it will take for resources to arrive.”

People need to be evacuated or rescued, Zobel says, and decisions have to be made swiftly about the best use of limited resources in the face of urgent needs and considerable uncertainty. Furthermore, long-term recovery requires sustained funding, but the initial outpouring of donations typically slows down over time.

Zobel is drawn to the challenges. “They provide an opportunity to use supply chain management to make a difference in people’s lives.”

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