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The lessons Rio could have learned from Amazon, Marine Corps

Robert Novack
Robert Novack

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

What do the Rio Olympics, the United States Marine Corps and Amazon.com have in common? All need an efficient and effective infrastructure in order to accomplish their objectives.

This infrastructure includes buildings, transportation, inventory and all related services needed to sustain and/or serve thousands of “customers” in a timely manner.

Reports coming out of Rio suggest that parts of this infrastructure were not well executed. One report cited the lack of electrical outlets in the living quarters for some of the athletes.

Recent news stories also have cited the lack of sewage treatment capacity, allowing thousands of gallons of raw sewage to pour into the waters used by the athletes. Rio did not develop the pipeline infrastructure to divert the sewage to sewage treatment facilities, despite receiving funds to build them.

These are infrastructure issues. Are these instances an oversight or poor execution? In my opinion, they are both.

There is certainly a long history involved in planning and executing successful — or not so successful — Olympic Games. There are also examples in other organizations — both public and private — on how to prepare to service thousands of people for some duration of time.

One of those organizations in the United States Marine Corps.

Directing deployment

Deploying thousands of Marines to an underdeveloped country is a logistics challenge. Deployment means moving thousands of service members along with all the required inventory (i.e. spare parts, ammunition, food, medical supplies, etc.) thousands of miles to engage an enemy or to provide humanitarian assistance.

Before this deployment can take place, Marines with specialties in engineering and logistics are sent to the country to determine infrastructure and inventory needs. Engineers are tasked with assuring that landing strips, bridges and highways are adequate to support the soon-to-be arriving troops. Logisticians determine types and locations of needed inventories, set up sources of supply in the host country (i.e. water, fuel) and establish the delivery systems for supplies using local citizens.

With the infrastructure and inventory needs accomplished, the arriving Marines are able to quickly execute their assigned mission. Assuring the needed support for the service member is not negotiable; their planning and execution is meticulous — something the Rio games could have studied.

Both the Olympic Games and deploying Marines are single events with definite start dates. The one major difference is that with the Olympics, the end date is known, while with a Marine deployment, it is not. Both events must develop and maintain resupply infrastructure, but the Olympic Games know when this resupply can cease.

Ensuring the ‘last mile’

A good example in the private sector of infrastructure management is Amazon.com. While Amazon is not a single event (with start and end dates), it relies heavily on an efficient and effective infrastructure and sound inventory policy to accomplish its goals.

While infrastructure for Amazon would not include sewage or electricity, it does include more than 100 facilities in the form of fulfillment centers, sortation centers and cross-docks and multiple transportation providers to deliver more than 1 billion packages globally per year.

Amazon provides access to millions of products on its website for delivery today, tomorrow or within two days of ordering. Failure at providing these service promises is not an option for Amazon.

The company owns or leases its facilities and is adding transportation assets to its balance sheet. It has developed its own fleet of tractor-trailers to deliver full truckload shipments to its sortation centers and has just branded its first aircraft to facilitate global deliveries.

All of this infrastructure investment is to guarantee the promised delivery date of a product on the “last mile” of transportation — the consumer’s residence.

The lack of electrical outlets in athletes’ rooms at Rio can be compared the Amazon’s last mile. Even if all of the infrastructure/inventory exists, not getting the product or service to the point where it is needed is still a failure, whether it is a pair of shoes or electricity.

There is no excuse for the infrastructure deficiencies in the Rio Olympics. There is precedent in many organizations on how to carefully plan and execute the necessary infrastructure and support services to satisfy the needs of thousands of customers.

While the economic downturn in Brazil can account for some of the blame for these issues facing the Rio games, it is the oversight, poor planning and execution of the Rio officials who are at fault in neglecting basic infrastructure and support service needs.

Robert Novack is an associate professor of supply chain and information systems at Penn State.

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