DLA accelerates move away from COBOL warehouse system

The Defense Logistics Agency has rolled out its cloud-based Warehouse Management System to 12 sites so far and will reach 70 by the end of fiscal 2023.

For the Defense Logistics Agency, the handwriting wasn’t just on the wall that it was time to move to a modern warehouse management system. It was on the floor, the ceiling and on the bathroom stalls.

The antiquated system built in the 1990s was ready for the retirement home.

DLA’s Karyn Runstrom, the acting chief information officer, said the agency is inching ever closer to turning off the legacy system.

Karyn Runstrom is the acting chief information officer of the Defense Logistics Agency.

“We were coming from DSS, the distribution standard system, and this was a 30-year old antiquated system. And we were having difficulty recruiting, retraining and retaining qualified people for the COBOL mainframe that we used. So moving to commercial-off-the-shelf system moves into this century and also allows us to integrate with newer technology,” Runstrom said during Ask the CIO. “It’s not only just bringing the Warehouse Management System (WMS), but it integrates technologies such as autonomous ground vehicles, mobile devices, ruggedized, tablets, goods to person equipment, all of these different features and technologies that we could never bring to life under DSS. Another big reason to modernize is the cost to host. The cost to host and operate a mainframe based system is really considerably more than hosting one of the common commercial off the shelf software warehouse management solutions so therefore our costs will go down, once we actually decommission when we roll that all those 123 sites.”

DLA now has deployed WMS at 12 sites and will be at 70 by the end of fiscal 2023. It expects full roll out to all 123 sites by the end of 2024.

Runstrom said the full implementation of WMS also includes decommissioning DSS by the end of 2025.

“It is cloud hosted, and that is one of the reasons why our hosting costs will come down once we decommission DSS,” she said. “One of the things I like to preach all the time is that you cannot have IT modernization without business modernization. What I mean by that is you cannot keep the same old processes and policies in place that you’ve used for 30 years and expect them to fit in nicely with the new commercial-off-the-shelf software.”

Limit customization

Runstrom added the idea is to severely limit customization of the commercial software and spend more time on the business process reengineering piece.

Jeremy Beckwith, DLA’s deputy commander for distribution in Corpus Christi, Texas, said the agency used his organization as a pilot site starting in August, because they did about 80% of all business processes for distribution centers.

“We started with Corpus Christi, kind of the standard receipt storage issue capabilities to all of the distribution centers have. But as we started to roll out throughout the distribution community, we’re starting to add some very specific and unique processing capability, whether it be for an area, a commodity or a customer, ultimately landing in Susquehanna (Pennsylvania), which is the largest distribution center by far in our network, where you really get into automation and warehouse execution systems, more complex capacity and capability that the system needs to be able to compensate for,” Beckwith said. “The plan was to start with Corpus Christi as the baseline and then just start rolling it out to these larger, more complex sites, adding additional capability as you go really leveraging that agile software development capability with the runway through full rollout.”

The Corpus Christi and other early adopters helped DLA figure out what business processes still were important, which ones were redundant and which ones could be automated through the new system.

“The processes were very discrete in our legacy system, this now has been consolidated within this new warehouse management system. We had to fight the urge of the status quo within my own center. We did that by clearly communicating our objectives and just taking a fresh look at how we see ourselves. We actually changed our entire organizational structure to match the functionality of this system,” Beckwith said. “We had to create new processing branches out of the existing workforce that we had to really focus on this specific functionality and the level of effort needed in particular areas. Just an example, in our stores department, we would pick items from the shelves, they also used to do the final pack out, doing the weights and the dimensions and sealing boxes, and then we would hand it over to our transportation folks to pick up that legwork. Know with this whole warehouse management system, the transportation is pre-planned as the order comes in, our system already knows this is going to go to a small carrier. So that packing function is now really a shipping function and no longer a warehouse function. We really had to redesign our organizational structure to best leverage the capabilities of the system.”

Better internal controls, auditability

Another benefit of moving to the commercial WMS is it will improve DLA’s auditability as well as that for all the military services.

“I like to think of it we provide cradle to grave for commodities. What’s great about the WMS system is since it is COTS, it auditable out the gate as long as we keep the customization to a low level,” Runstrom said. “But it also is able to be flexible to the needs both of distribution and disposition. So we’re able to handle that cradle to grave with one system vice multiple systems over.”

Runstrom said DLA started WMS as a minimum viable product and grew it based on lessons learned.

She said one constant lesson they have learned is no matter how much design and testing they do, there will be challenges when the system goes into production.

“Now we’re making sure that we have the right folks on the ground that can handle any of those issues when we first roll it out and determine if it’s something that needs to be relooked from a process or policy perspective, or if it’s an IT implementation that needs to take account,” she said. “The final one I’ll discuss is really the need for clean data when you move from a legacy system to a new system, because it’s garbage in, garbage out. What we’ve done is we implemented mock cut overs for each site to ascertain the cleanliness of the data. When an area was identified that has issues of converting data, we found a way to identify like data across the enterprise so that we could solve the problem for this site, but also solve the problem for future sites. This allows our data to be cleansed well in advance of any of our conversions.”

Of course, the long term benefit of WMS isn’t the modern technology or even the ability to do iterative development, it’s making DLA more effective at its mission.

Tracking of products made easier

Beckwith said using WMS will strengthen internal controls thanks to the built in processes of the commercial system.

“As we really are leveraging those automated storage and retrieval systems, good-to-person technology, that robotic arm picking, the autonomous ground vehicles and augmented reality capabilities, these are all ways to bring value, not only to our customers, but to increase our resource efficiency within the distribution center,” he said. “We really needed a system of record, and all of our previous legacy systems just lacked the capability and the coding capacity to get after some of that emerging technology within commercial best industry practice, which we’re trying to leverage within the DoD to bring best values to our taxpayers.”

Mike Rogers, a general supply specialist for the Operations Directorate at the Disposition Services, added from a disposition perspective, the new systems lets DLA better track the characteristics of the property itself. By that, he means, the way the agency ensures that it’s handling things safely and securely, that everything can go down the proper streams of disposal, whether it’s reused, whether it’s turned into scrap or whether it’s sold to the public.

“The modernization of the system also allows us to find efficiencies in how we handled property. It allows us to try to do more without adding costs to our labor force to infrastructure, more capabilities within the system that we never had before to allow us to be better prepared for the future,” Rogers said. “This system gives us the versatility to keep our warehouses operating effectively and efficiently. When we don’t always know what’s going to be coming to us, we can’t plan quite as well as distribution. We’re a little bit more of a mercy of what comes in the door from our customers.”

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