John Rickard: Logistics With a Human Touch

Try this logistics experiment: Drop packages of food from a helicopter onto a field filled with football and rugby players and see if anyone gets hurt.

That’s the exercise John Rickard and his associates at the relief agency International Rescue Committee (IRC) conducted in 1999 while laying plans for a humanitarian mission in the mountains of Kosovo.

With no contacts on the ground to clear a space for dropping pallet-loads of rations, they risked injuring or killing the very refugees they wanted to help.

From that experiment they learned they could drop food safely if they took it off the pallets and got creative.

“We ripped the cartons apart and re-packaged them with just enough plastic wrap to hold the boxes together until they hit the slipstream,” Rickard says.

The wind from the helicopter burst the plastic. “This way, the biggest thing falling to the ground was the rations pack,” he explains.

With the food-drop logistics under control, the IRC just had to keep the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the local government from shooting the helicopters out of the sky.

All in a day’s work for John Rickard, IRC’s director of logistics. Working from headquarters in New York, Rickard advises IRC logistics coordinators in the organization’s 23 country-based operations around the world.

In the Bush

Rickard got his first taste of logistics in the British Army and learned about “bush logistics” during six years as co-owner of a chain of hotel/restaurants in Benin, West Africa. Bush logistics involves the challenges of “operating in an environment where infrastructure is often non-existent, and time is not usually of the essence,” explains Rickard.

One challenge Rickard and other humanitarian logisticians face is integrating supply chain planning into the enterprise. “Humanitarian groups still treat logistics as a necessary evil, as opposed to a business enabler,” Rickard notes.

Challenges develop when relief agencies evolve from tiny organizations managed by volunteers to large organizations run by professionals.

“Getting logistics right is the key to efficiency in most cases. If logistics operations are well-managed, it is easier to complete projects on schedule and eliminate duplicated efforts,” he notes.

Helping the IRC’s different country-based organizations better coordinate logistics activities is a key goal for Rickard. “We still operate in silos. We don’t have a strong understanding of everybody’s role in the supply chain,” he says.

Another challenge IRC and other humanitarian groups face is convincing major donors to harmonize the requirements attached to their grants, and getting relief agencies to collaborate to avoid redundant efforts-no easy task for a group of independent organizations.

“It is difficult to get people with different agency mandates and cultures to sit down and agree on something,” Rickard says.

And in a crisis, while these agencies are all trying to help, they may also be competing for the most visible roles to help them attract funding in the future.

Rickard also plays an active role in a movement, spearheaded by humanitarian logistics agency The Fritz Institute, to bring together logisticians from the humanitarian world and the commercial sector. The goal is to help groups such as the IRC learn state-of-the-art logistics techniques from global experts such as DHL, FedEx, and TNT.

“While we cannot realistically implement these best practices to the same degree as the commercial sector, we can learn many lessons from them,” Rickard says.

The Big Questions

What do you do when you’re not at work?

I work on do-it-yourself projects around my house, an 1820’s centerhall. Something always needs fixing.

Ideal dinner companion?

Colin Powell. He has been involved in many of the biggest humanitarian supply chains over the last 20 years. I’d like to ask his opinion about the interaction between the military and humanitarian communities. Also, my impression, from what I’ve seen in the media, is that he is a man of integrity.

What’s in your briefcase?

A laptop with international plug adapter, my passport, a copy of IRC’s logistics manual, The Economist, a few pens and discs, and a toothbrush, disposable razor, and chamois camping towel.

Technology you couldn’t do your job without?

E-mail and satellite phone.

One thing you’d do differently if you had the chance?

I would make the decision to go back to school earlier in life. Once I realized I had an ongoing interest in logistics operations, it would have been helpful to pick up the basic body of logistics knowledge and have the opportunity to discuss it with experts.

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