Lt. Gen. Darrell Williams was named director of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) in May 2017, replacing Air Force Lt. Gen. Andy Busch. For Williams, who previously served as commanding general of U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command’s Sustainment Center of Excellence at Fort Lee, Virginia, this assignment marks a homecoming of sorts: From September 2010 to July 2012, he served as the commander of DLA Land and Maritime in Columbus, Ohio.
In September, he met with the editors of Loglines to spell out where the agency’s strengths lie, and where improvements will be focused over the next few years.
Loglines: This is your second tour with DLA. Does that give you any advantages in your leadership role?
Williams: I think it does. However, I’d be very quick to say that my first tour in DLA as commander of Land and Maritime was in a much more limited capacity. When I got to this level as the director, I began to understand the entire capability of the agency, along with the fact that I was now responsible for 25,000-plus employees on a global scale, focused on the warfighter, strategic partners and whole-of-government agencies.
So while my previous experience gave me some knowledge of the business of DLA in terms of supporting the warfighter, I’ve approached my tenure as director as if it were a totally new experience.
Loglines: While you and DLA senior leaders have been focusing on refreshing our strategy, you’ve asked them to read Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why.” Why that book?
Williams: Sinek has also released some very interesting videos on TED Talks. What drew me to reading the book the first time—and now looking at it a second time—was that I believe he’s absolutely right: Many organizations know how they’re supposed to do a particular task or what the particular task is, but very few ask why they’re doing it.
I really believe the why of what we’re doing allows us to connect much better with the mission. And I think once we understand the why, there’s a better understanding of the mission overall, a better performance of it and a better mission outcome.
Loglines: What are your key areas of interest as you develop your strategic guidance for DLA?
Williams: Prior to getting here, as I looked through the strategic plan, with its various objectives and the agency’s vision within the plan, I thought it was very good—one of the better ones I’ve seen. However, one of the first things every new director or leader of a major organization does is take a fresh look at the organization’s strategic plan and direction.
Among my foremost responsibilities is to make sure we have the right vision, that I’ve stated my intent and that we know exactly what the priorities of the agency are. I also thought we had a few gaps in our plan, given that some elements of our strategic environment have changed since the last plan was published in 2015.
One of those is support to the whole of government. While we always have been and will always be a Warfighter First agency—meaning support to our services and support to our combatant commands—taking on added significance and effort the last three or four years is our support to other agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Forest Service and many others. We’re at the point where that support is now, in terms of our sales, about 20 percent of what we do. So in my estimation, that effort demands a more prominent place in our strategic plan.
The other element is the area of global posture and response. Looking back on this phenomenal agency’s response to the Ebola crisis in Liberia, we placed some of the first people on the ground. We did it again during the Hurricane Sandy response in New Jersey a few years ago and in the response to Hurricane Matthew. These situations demand a rapid-response capability that is much more than ad hoc—something that is planned, something that is a systemic part of what we do.
Even as I conduct this interview, we’re very much involved in a huge response. We have deployed over 100 people from DLA in support [in Texas and Florida] , working with FEMA and other federal agencies. And all that was facilitated by a rapid response capability that my predecessors had the foresight to begin to develop.
Now I think it’s come to fruition. We have rapid deployment teams, which provide forward command-and-control capability, along with a robust communications capability networked back to headquarters. We have a deployable depot capability where we can, on pretty short notice, deploy and operate a distribution center. And we have other capabilities in our disposition services arena. Our fuels team is operating what we call Task Force Americas to support the response
So it’s become very obvious to us that, in addition to our supply chain focus, we also have a growing rapid-response requirement that must be more prominently reflected in our strategic plan.
Loglines: You’ve called DLA a phenomenal logistics organization. How do you see taking the agency to the next level? Is there a next level?
Williams: I think there’s always a next level. We should never, ever become complacent, and I think looking at our strategic plan is part of that.
I just talked about two areas where we have to take that next step. What is it we’re doing that we can do better? I think you start with the base of what we do. The platform or base from which we launch into anything else, really, is support to the warfighter.
So how can we get better in that area? In DLA, one of our core metrics, one of the ways we determine how well we’re doing, is something we call material availability. How often can one of our services or combatant commands ask for a commodity, do we have it available and how quickly can we get it to them?
What we’re striving to do within the agency now is to improve our response. The goal should be to have it available to them 100 percent of the time. But while that’s a difficult metric to achieve, it’s nonetheless something we’ll always strive to do: get the warfighter the equipment, supplies and services they require in an even more expeditious manner.
Another way we can improve: We have DLA forward elements in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific. One of the areas we’re attempting to strengthen is our command-and-control structure. This will make us even more responsive to all of the warfighter requirements.
We’re also an agency that’s very reliant on our commercial partners and many of our strategic defense and nondefense partners. There’s no way we can do what we do without the thousands of large, midsized and small businesses that allow DLA to support its customers. So we’re doing everything we can to improve our relations with our suppliers. Improving the strength of these relationships and partnerships will also feature prominently in our strategic plan. And those are just some of the areas where we’d like to improve.
Loglines: You’ve said if you take care of your people and culture, the mission will be accomplished. Why do you think that is?
Williams: It’s a philosophy I’ve embraced for over a decade, and it’s never failed me or the organizations with whom I’ve served. I really believe, as a senior leader and certainly at the strategic level, that it’s all about setting conditions within the organization.
It begins with establishing clear priorities and goals, making sure everyone is clear on the direction of the organization. But when we’ve established all the lines of effort and communicated the strategic priorities, you get down to one simple and incontrovertible truth: that people have to execute the plan.
I think people do best in organizations where they feel valued, where they feel empowered and where they feel that what they do makes a difference. To get back to Simon Sinek’s point: They understand the why.
With that said, it’s not just a belief of mine. It’s an imperative of all great organizations. You must, first and foremost, take care of your people.
Loglines: You’ve also served as commander of the 1st Sustainment Command (Theater) in Kuwait, the 3d Sustainment Brigade in Iraq and others. What were your impressions of DLA as a customer, and what was the reputation of the agency in the field?
Williams: I can tell you it was a whole lot different as a customer. As a customer, when you’re in a deployed environment and you’re merely trying to get the mission accomplished, all you see is the organization’s face to the field. You see the people in front of the curtain, but you don’t see the vast organization behind it. So as a customer, I was concerned only with getting a particular result. From that standpoint, DLA always delivered.
The area where I thought DLA could improve was giving the customer that single face I mentioned earlier. In DLA, we’re segmented into subordinate commands. As a customer, I never cared about what specific organization within DLA you came from; I merely wanted a specific result. My predecessor’s idea to create regional commands and to give the customer a single face to this vast organization was a wonderful one. I think DLA has done a great job of streamlining its operations over the last four or five years, and this concept will continue to pay significant dividends.
I now understand the phenomenal effort involved in getting a single case of MREs, repair part or uniforms to sailors onboard a ship 6,000 miles away, or to a Marine or Soldier on point in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, or to a special operations warrior deployed to some area of the world that we can’t even name.
I understand the phenomenal effort required to ensure that they get what they need, so their aircraft can deploy from its station when it needs to or so a ship leaves the shipyard on time and on schedule. This great organization really is focused on the warfighter, getting them the right item, in the right quantities, always on time.
Loglines: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?
Williams: There is something I’d like to double down on: an idea in the coming strategic plan. Our current strategic plan addresses people and culture as a specific line of effort. However, the emerging plan discusses people and culture as the heart of everything we do. We’ve chosen that approach because people and culture touch everything—all of the other lines of effort.
We’re not making this change lightly. It’s for a very meaningful purpose and is about all those things I talked about earlier: It’s the fact that without people we can’t accomplish any of the other lines of effort or subordinate tasks. We can’t have great supplier relations, we can’t support the warfighter first, we can’t support the whole of government, we can’t do global response, we can’t be accountable without first thinking about what makes the engine of this great organization run.
The “secret sauce” of this organization is our people and our culture. That’s what I want them to know.
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