A U.S. military member uses a Zebra barcode scanner in a government warehouse
By John Wirthlin | March 25, 2024

Why Governments Might Have the Biggest Supply Chain Problem of All (and the One Most Easily Fixed)

Most federal, state, and local government agencies still rely on old-school track and trace methods, which means a lot is likely getting missed – or going missing – in warehouses and in transit.

*This post was originally published June 27, 2023, and was updated March 25, 2024.


Some might say we need to stop talking about supply chain issues, that it’s a worn-out subject. But I would argue that we’re not talking enough about the right supply chain issues – the ones impacting government supply chains.

It’s easy to correlate the term “supply chain” exclusively with retail, hospitality, or even healthcare and utility operations. In fact, nearly every story in the past three years talking about the supply chain has been focused on consumer and commercial impacts. Yet, one of the largest, most complex supply chains in the world doesn’t serve either segment. It supports operations across the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) which, in many ways, impacts our everyday life as significantly as retailers, restaurateurs, and healthcare providers. And when I say “our” lives, I don’t just mean Americans. 

The support and supplies the DoD provides to billions of people across hundreds of nations could be delayed in the most urgent time of need if the U.S. federal government were to lose sight – or control – of its inventory and assets across its very complex network. Missions, both military and humanitarian, could be compromised. I don’t even want to speculate on the potential consequences. I don’t want to be bummed out the rest of the day. 

What I would rather do is talk about crisis prevention in the context of government supply chains.

The Known – and Underacknowledged – Vulnerabilities of Modern Supply Chains

As we learned during the early days of the pandemic, if government agencies don’t have – or can’t see that they already have – the right supplies to support their constituents, a lot of things may happen:

  • A scramble to source goods could ensue, leaving people in a position where they may have to compromise – or compromise their integrity – to either get what they need or deliver what customers need. 

  • Unnecessary procurements can occur, leading to excessive waste – both from a financial and material perspective. (We all probably bought too much sanitizer at some point.)

  • All services and support could come to a sudden and devastating halt. 

Usually, when crisis strikes, the government steps in to save the day – to rescue people, stabilize systems and rebuild communities. But when government supply chains collapse, very few private entities have the resources to back fill for the government. If you’re a government official or work for a public agency, you know this all too well. You can call vendors to see how they can help, but they’re simultaneously being called upon by others, and their operational capacity and supplies have a limit.

Just a few weeks ago, I woke up to headlines talking about how U.S. agencies are once again concerned they may not get the medical supplies needed to maintain the high level of care Americans expect and deserve. As Covid surges again in China, factories are shutting down. And if production stops, so do shipments…and services…and much-needed aid. Americans’ livelihoods aren’t the only ones threatened when government supply chains falter.

If you’re based outside the U.S., you might find that government supply chains are among the largest and most impactful on your country or region as well. That’s because most defense entities must manage international operations that have both consumer and industrial elements to them, like healthcare, food and beverage services, housing, transportation, utilities, retail and manufacturing.  

As such, these supply chains must operate with extreme precision. Asset movements must be well coordinated from the first mile through the last, even if the last mile changes from day to day, and inventory must be perfectly managed. Empty shelves are not an option. But it’s hard to manage stock rotations or asset and inventory throughput in such a chaotic and inconsistent environment, especially within warehouses. (Sound familiar.) 

That’s why it’s time to act – not just talk about what could or should be done to improve inventory management and movements. We already know what works (and what doesn’t) based on every other industry dependent on a supply chain.

For example, 

  • We know RFID helps first responders maintain readiness as well as accountability for equipment, supplies and their actions.

  • We know autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) enable the Department of Defense (DoD) to meet multiple sourcing goals for its missions. For example, Austin Lighthouse – which is contracted by the DOD to produce millions of apparel items each year – employs more than 200 visually-impaired and blind Texans, all of whom have been able to consistently fulfill orders on time with AMR assistance. 

  • We know machine vision and imaging technology can automate everything from quality inspections to decision-making, both of which are prone to error when front-line workers are tired, distracted, or visually unable to see “the full story.” It can also help preserve data privacy and product integrity of critical inventory during manufacturing.

  • We know temperature monitors help reduce waste and build confidence in cold chains. Anyone responsible for producing, storing, transporting, or administering vaccines and treatments – or collecting, testing and distributing blood products – knows the consequences of a temperature excursion. That’s why we’re seeing manufacturers, distributors, blood banks and others in the healthcare community increasingly allocate funds to add temperature monitoring labels to every vial, bag and bottle they handle. They want to build trust in their inventory and be able to reduce the unnecessary disposal of limited quantity products, such as blood, medicines and vaccines.

  • And we know that even the most fundamental digital technologies like mobile computers or wearables with built-in barcode scanners, cameras and voice-assist technology can work wonders for every front-line worker, whether they’re responsible for assembling aircraft, receiving goods, loading pallets for transport, access control, or facility security – especially if they’re well-connected via a standardized technology architecture and the mobility solutions are well integrated into workflows. 

Why, then, are some governments still trying to manually manage warehouse operational data or processes? And why are systems so fragmented from one site to the next? 

U.S. President Biden issued an Executive Order on America’s Supply Chains two years ago (in February 2021) ordering agencies to review the current state of supply chains and identify anything that could threaten their integrity. He wanted to know about all “the defense, intelligence, cyber, homeland security, health, climate, environmental, natural, market, economic, geopolitical, human-rights or forced-labor risks or other contingencies that may disrupt, strain, compromise, or eliminate the supply chain — including risks posed by supply chains’ reliance on digital products that may be vulnerable to failures or exploitation, and risks resulting from the elimination of, or failure to develop domestically, the capabilities” needed to ensure we can preserve national and economic security, public health, and more.

I suspect the people charged with conducting these reviews are probably finding it to be a crushing task. There are probably many assumptions being made about U.S. supply chain readiness because it’s hard to confirm inventory locations and quantities when you lack an automated track and trace technology system. (Do you know everything you have in your house? Probably not. And that’s just one location with a fraction of square footage compared to even the smallest local fire department’s warehouse.)

It can also be hard to verify the condition of cold chain supplies – medical equipment, oxygen tanks, pharmaceuticals, even food – as well as other highly regulated items without the right environmental or temperature indicators on each item. Furthermore, maintenance records of heavy equipment and other assets are nearly impossible to find, much less mine, if they aren’t centrally stored in a single system of intelligence that is updated in real time. 

That’s why every government agency leader – whether local, state or federal across the globe – must ask themselves right now:

“Do I really know what’s happening in my warehouse(s) – or what I even have in there?”

Unless they’re personally in every warehouse every day, managing them as meticulously as a retailer would manage their stockroom, the answer is likely going to be “no.” Even then, any warehouse manager will probably tell you that being on the ground doesn’t mean they have eyes on everything happening. Humans have limitations. That’s why we rely on technology to help us see what we would otherwise miss and, subsequently, help us fix the small issues that could become problems with globally impactful consequences.

So, if you’re in charge of a government agency or responsible for providing oversight of government supply chains in any capacity, let’s talk about what you need to do right now.

How to Improve Government Supply Chain Resilience, Accountability, and Crisis Outcomes

There’s a warehouse maturity model that’s universally applicable and should be baked into every government organization’s modernization strategy along with best practices for manufacturing, shipping and logistics – many of which are derived from private industry and some from early adopters across federal, state and local agencies. Here is the top-level framework summary for warehouse modernization, along with links explaining the objectives and expected outcomes of each phase:

  1. Phase 1: Digitize Your Data and Improve Decision-Making (Build the basic foundation with barcodes.)

  2. Phase 2: Mobilize Your Workforce and Data to Increase Productivity and Workflow Conformity (This is when you’ll start to expand mobile computer/wearable/tablet utilization, which will likely require new software implementation/refinement/integration as well as the implementation of new wireless network technology or even cloud-based platforms. This is when you’ll see transactional exchanges start to improve – as people can report or retrieve status updates in real time.)  

  3. Phase 3: Actively Seek Out Sensing Technology (Sensor-based technology tools may include RFID, environmental sensors and Bluetooth Low Energy, and all are designed to reduce the number of human-initiated actions. Why rely on people to make the rounds to accurately gauge and report environmental conditions when it can be done automatically? Plus, there is no doubt that RFID technology can count inventory faster and more accurately in any situation. People simply can’t read 1600 tags a second like an RFID reader can.)

  4. Phase 4: Regular Pilot New Technology to Maintain a Competitive Edge (See how AMRs, new software and even machine vision and imaging systems may be able to help automate key operations and improve decision-making/outcomes.)

  5. Phase 5: Do What it Takes to Gain End-to-End Visibility and Control of Your Supply Chain (Incorporate outside data sources and advanced technologies such as AI and machine learning) 

However, before you decide which phase to jump into (and yes, you can start at any phase), it’s important to…  

  1. Understand what it means to operate a “modern” supply chain. Define its function(s), confirm if those functions are feasible with current systems and processes, then look to plug gaps. If you don’t properly assess your current state, it will be impossible to measure progress – or even get a project off the ground.

  2. Understand what technology can and can’t do – and how fast it will reasonably drive improvements. There is no magic pill to fix all supply chain ailments. But there are incremental, and immediate, gains to be made if you are thoughtful in your tech stack design and time certain integrations/expansions properly. A technology consultant with a “sales engineer” title will be able to guide you through the discovery, design, deployment and post-deployment phases with realistic expectations

  3. Understand your role and responsibility in making sure the technology you turn on is properly and fully utilized. This goes back to choosing the right consultant to partner with on your transformation journey. You’ll need to make sure it’s properly integrated into your processes and people are trained on how to use it. You must also ensure they are using it correctly after you go-live. The technology is only as helpful as the user allows it to be.

If you’re nervous about starting down a path that’s unfamiliar, know that you don’t have to walk it alone. Unless you’re in the technology industry, you’re not going to have the domain expertise needed to accomplish what you want. (Just like someone outside government won’t ever fully understand how things work in the government.) So, find a technology consultant – or team of consultants – you can trust and talk to them about your pain points. Teach them how things work in your world, and they’ll come back with suggestions on how to make them work even better using technology as the lever. If you have questions, ask them. If the consultant won’t – or can’t – answer them, find one who can and will. You’re working toward a permanent solve for your problems and, ideally, a tech-powered operation that can scale and adapt as the world (and your mission) changes. The ultimate goal is human-centered automation, which essentially means that people can do their jobs better and you can better serve your constituents. 

Let me know if you’d like to talk with one of our government technologists, many of whom have served in the military or civil service in their careers. We’re happy to show you what we’ve done for other government agencies and what we can do to help you (once we understand your unique situation). You can reach us here.


Did You Know?

Zebra's radio frequency identification (RFID) hardware and software is being used by CDO Technologies, Inc. (CDO), to support Air Force Global Enterprise Tracking (AFGET) teams with tracking critical assets. 

CDO technologies currently has the contract for program and project management, systems and hardware support, operations, and maintenance for all AFGET systems, infrastructure, and customers at the Air Force Sustainment Center (AFSC) and Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) locations of Robins AFB, GA, Tinker AFB, OK, Hill AFB, UT, and Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ. Learn more about how the RFID technology is being used as part of the real-time location system in this announcement


Editor’s Note:

If you think you’re taking the right steps to modernize your warehouse operations but want to verify, this online tool may help. It leverages the Warehouse Maturity Model framework to help you consider what might be the next best move in your progression toward a more efficient, automated and controlled warehouse operation.


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John Wirthlin
John Wirthlin

John Wirthlin is the Principal Owner of Tip of the Spear Consulting, which provides supply chain technology consulting services that identify relevant solutions to meet corporate objectives.

He previously served as the Industry Principal for Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics at Zebra Technologies where he was responsible for providing forward-thinking, strategic-oriented, technology recommendations to clients and partners. 

John has nearly 30 years of experience in healthcare, logistics, manufacturing, and information technology where he has led multiple strategic initiatives. He is viewed as a trusted advisor to his clients and organizations in which he has served.  

Prior to Zebra, John served as a Solutions Architect with Lowry Solutions, where he provided consultative services to multiple manufacturing clients to help identify meaningful RFID and ECM-based solutions.

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