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A Logistical Nightmare

Original Text of an article published in Trucking International, February 1998

The first thing I'm going to do when I'm Transport Minister is- no, actually the first thing I'll do will be to ban speed limiters, obviously, so the second, the SECOND thing I'll do is- well, perhaps not the very second thing, but- anyway, one of the things I'm going to do when I'm Transport Minister is put an extra thousand pounds a year road tax on any vehicle with the word "Logistics" on it. It's the most overused, inaccurate and silly word used in transport today.

The dictionary definition of logistics is "the science of the organisation, transport and supply of military forces". Any of you involved in military supply? No? Thought not. Unless you're on contract to the MoD you won't be engaged in "logistics" at all. So why is "logistics" the buzzword for transport?

This misuse of the word started a few years ago when the Royal Corps of Transport merged with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps to form the Royal Logistical Corps. "Aha!", said the transport industry, "Logistics equals transport", and they decided to use the word themselves, mindless of the fact that without the military connection it's just transport.

They adopted "Logistics" because "Transport" or "Road Haulage" isn't good enough for the Beautiful People in today's management, and they prefer something "sexier", in the same way as the Town Clerk became the local council's Chief Executive at about the same time as the rates shot up and they stopped cutting the grass.

"Logistics" isn't the only example of the English language being tortured to death by the transport industry. There's some prize rubbish plastered down the sides of our lorries these days. I won't name the companies concerned, (they know who they are!), but the phrases used include "Networking with British Industry", "Leaders in Primary Logistics, (anyone out there doing secondary logistics?), "Grocery Logistics", (delivering tins of beans to battlefields, presumably), "Abnormal Load Logistics", (delivering 200-ton transformers to battlefields?), "Leaders in Supply Chain Management", (the only supply chain I know is the one you pull to release the water), "Shared User Distribution", (isn't that general haulage?) and, combining two buzzwords into one piece of nonsense, "Network Logistics". (There's also "Thinking and Acting European". How do you act European? Wear a beret and string of onions? Invade Poland? What?)

These are "mix 'n' match" expressions. You put your hand into the bran tub, pull out a random selection of buzzwords, and you've got a new piece of meaningless drivel. The possibilities are almost endless; "Supply Chain Networking", "Primary Load Logistics", and so on.

Even the Government isn't immune from making language meaningless. They changed from Heavy Goods Vehicle to Large Goods Vehicle, although the criterion which decides whether a vehicle is large or not is still its weight. A ten-ton flatback is Large, but can be quite small, and a 7.5 ton furniture van is large but not Large. Why change something when they actually make it more confusing? They even took away our Class One title, which was something to aspire to, and once attained to be proud of and live up to. We're now C+E, which I think stands for Cheap and Expendable.

Not long ago I saw a job advert for a "Logistics Technician" with one of the big petrol companies. From the job description, which included a requirement for an HGV1 and an ADR certificate, they obviously wanted a lorry driver. So why not say so? I've even seen a reference to "Today's logistics driven transport industry". As "logistics" is the new name for road transport that means that we've got a road transport driven road transport industry. Great. Somebody gets paid, and a damned sight more than you do, to dream up this pretentious rubbish.

The murder of the English language is only the first symptom of a deeper problem, that of Management, with a capital M. All firms need management, of course, otherwise things descend into chaos, but Management is more concerned with managing things than with actually doing the job. The modern "Management Class" (and road haulage isn't the only industry afflicted with them) know how to liaise with each other, report to each other, form committees, (and, God help us, sub-committees), and whenever two of them happen to be talking they're "in a meeting". They're great at Management but many of them, unfortunately, know practically nothing about road haulage. They spend half their time chanting the mantras of "Customer driven, Service, Quality, Flexibility", and the other half on the phone apologising to customers because their stuff hasn't arrived.

The second symptom of Management is the Mission Statement, and the new Logistics companies have gone for this in a big way. You'd think that with all those lorries standing outside it would be fairly obvious to even the most casual observer what their function in life was, but no, they have to have a Mission Statement. Then again, when they were Joe Bloggs Transport it was self-explanatory what they did, but now they're shrouded in the fog of Primary Network Management they need a notice on the wall reminding them of what it is they actually do. Your mission, should you choose to accept it...

Proper transport managers leave their drivers to get on with it, but Management don't think anyone can do their job without being Managed, and they daren't let their workers out of their sight. This, of course, poses a problem for lorry operators, but technology comes to the rescue in the form of satellites which can track you to within 20 ft. The Manager studying the screen may not be able to place Carlisle on a map to within a hundred miles, but he can track you to within 20ft. (This enables him to tell an irate customer, whose stuff he knows isn't even on the lorry, that he doesn't know where you've got to.)

Journey times and routes, which used to be left to the experience of the driver, are now dictated by Management. Most of them have no experience of being out on the road, but it's all right, it's all worked out by computer. Every inch of your route is dictated by the computer and times are calculated to the minute. You're scheduled to leave at 05.27. Not half past, or twenty five past, but 05.27. Who do they think they are, NASA? I suppose it fits in with their concept of a "Mission". 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1, we have liftoff! You'll pass Birmingham and its twin moons Walsall and Wolverhampton, slingshot round Rugby, do a partial orbit of London and touchdown at 07.59. The Eagle has landed...

They've had another brilliant idea. As they can't keep an eye on you themselves, they employ the general public to keep an eye on you instead! They put a sticker on the back of the vehicle inviting amateur drivers, at no risk to themselves, to make accusations against professionals. (It has been rumoured that some firms are considering putting "kick me" on the backs of their drivers' jackets, but of course they wouldn't do that. Would they?) Statistics show that lorry drivers are the best drivers in the country and car drivers the worst. What sort of mind comes up with a scheme where the worst drivers in the country can make allegations against the best?

I've been in transport- sorry, logistics- offices where the bullshit was so deep it came over the tops of my boots and ran down into my socks. I've known firms who get through a tropical rain forest's worth of paper a week appoint "Quality Teams" who waste even more paper putting up notices telling people not to waste paper. Finally, horror of horrors, they go for BS5750, or its illegitimate offspring ISO9002. These "Quality Assurance" schemes seem to do little to improve standards, indeed the time spent filling in their forms means there's less time available to do the job, but at least when things get worse they can tell you exactly how bad things have become. As soon as any organisation starts talking about "Delivering a Quality Service" you just know that the quality of their service is going to go down the toilet.

Well, the British Public missed a golden opportunity to make me Transport Minister last May, and the transport industry is unlikely to get any better, so I'm getting out. I fancy something to do with computers, although whether I'll be any better off in an industry which has allowed itself to be taken by surprise by something which has been predictable, nay inevitable, since the birth of Christ remains to be seen. It's not what I wanted to do with my life, all I ever wanted to be was a lorry driver, but the haulage industry has changed out of all recognition since I joined so, like a lot of other drivers I know, I'm after something else. See you down the Jobcentre!

Words © 1998 Chris Lamb

Cartoon © 1998 Steve Shaw, who does all the brilliant cartoons in Trucking International. (Hope he doesn't mind me reproducing it!)

If you're fed up of Management, unimpressed by Mission Statements, and tired of customer-driven pro-active Managers who lurch from crisis to crisis expecting you to rush around sorting out their mistakes, you'll love The Dilbert Zone. Based on the book "The Dilbert Principle" by Scott Adams, it takes a poke at modern management. You'll find cartoons, a brilliant spoof Mission Statement generator, and loads more. Very accurate, very funny and in places hilarious.

Sample from the Mission Statement generator:

"Our goal is to conveniently maintain multimedia based information to allow us to authoritatively initiate diverse services while maintaining the highest standards."