David Kless, DLA executive director for operations, discusses the agency’s increasing global mission supporting the military services and other federal agencies

By DLA Public Affairs

PRINT  |  E-MAIL
David Kless, DLA executive director for operations.
David Kless, DLA executive director for operations.
David Kless, DLA executive director for operations.
180901-D-YE683-018
David Kless, DLA executive director for operations.
Photo By: Phillip Prater
VIRIN: 180901-D-YE683-018
Since taking over as executive director for operations, what has surprised you about the way the agency operates and the types of support it provides?
The biggest surprises are the discussions we’re having about reform in the Department of Defense and how that has driven us to look at DLA Operations through a different lens. These reform efforts are focused on leveraging capabilities across the Department to provide more effective and efficient solutions. We’re looking at DLA holistically in terms of its capabilities. The Strategic Plan focuses on Warfighter First, but there’s a growing recognition across the whole of government in terms of our logistics capabilities and the things we can do. That is the fourth line of effort in the Strategic Plan: Whole of Government.

Within Warfighter First and Whole of Government lines of effort, there are things that DLA could or should be doing with Defense Support of Civil Authorities and our partnerships with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Forest Service. We’re looking at ways to leverage our competencies and capabilities across the federal government, applying our logistics solutions across the much broader customer base.

How have DLA’s contributions to the military services’ readiness improved over the past year, and what are the ongoing challenges?
It’s a constant, continuous process, just by the nature of our business. As a logistics provider, we’re always trying to figure out the requirement. That’s easy when someone gives you a very specific, very detailed requirement, but we all know that’s usually the exception, not the rule. We often have disparate pieces of intel to act on. If we waited until we had a well-defined requirement before taking any action, it would be too late and we would not be able to support the customer within the required timeframe to support their mission.

The biggest thing we’ve done since I’ve been here is our efforts to operationalize DLA. We’re collaborating more with our customers and getting more involved with the military services early on, which gives us more information. We take that information, do the analysis and work toward a requirement. That may not be a well-defined requirement, but at least it’s something we can plan toward.

A classic example is what we’re doing now with the DLA Readiness Dashboard. In the past, we had a static process in which we’d get reports from the services on a less-frequent basis and then do the analysis. Now, the Dashboard updates information continuously. It’s important to stress that the Dashboard is not the solution, but it’s a tool we can use to help identify problems early on. It allows us to drill down on readiness drivers, which are the items that, if we were to focus on them, we’d see the biggest increase in service readiness. With the Dashboard, we’re marrying information from the services’ systems to our systems, allowing us to see things in real time. With this real-time information, we can identify the underlying problems, allowing us to more frequently identify where to invest for the biggest impact on readiness.

Now that hurricane season is upon us, how is DLA prepared to support other government agencies compared with last year?
We have a long-standing relationship with FEMA that goes back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We had lessons learned that came out of Katrina, and then again after Superstorm Sandy. This past year with multiple hurricanes was the first time we had back-to-back-to-back hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. They’re usually spread out, so you can return to normal operations, then ramp up for the next storm. The three-storm sequence of Harvey, Irma and Maria marked the first time we had to simultaneously support multiple disaster-relief efforts. 

Unfortunately, it took something like that to identify areas where we could do more. Going into that, we had 13 pre-scripted mission assignments, which are packages of support that are on standby to provide at a moment’s notice. We’ve added an additional eight. As our partnership with FEMA has grown, both sides have recognized new areas of opportunity. Now we’re at a point where we can anticipate requirements and we’re sharing information early to get ahead of a crisis. FEMA is measured on the time it takes to meet the needs of states affected by a disaster. Anything DLA can do to anticipate requirements is best for the government. 

While we continue a strong relationship with FEMA, what grew out of last year is a stronger partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dealing with their support to Puerto Rico similar to what we saw with FEMA after Katrina. USACE definitely recognizes what DLA can do, particularly as we’ve provided them all the materials they need in their ongoing effort to increase power generation in Puerto Rico. 

The traditional model was wait for the customer to come to us with a requirement, and then respond. Our approach has changed. Today, we look across all the emergency-support functions and the respective missions of the federal agencies to see what current actions are not part of their primary mission. Is that something DLA can do for them? The greater and more complex the disaster, the more opportunities for partnership we’ll find. 

What lessons would you say DLA learned from its experience during the 2017 hurricane season?
Going forward, one thing we want to capture is how much support DLA provides to hurricane relief. Similar to military operations, the Joint Staff will assign a specific project code that would allow us to identify, track and manage all efforts related to a humanitarian relief or disaster-response effort. That will allow us to look at the data afterwards and determine what was provided for what efforts as well as track requirements and status during the actual event. 

We’re also looking at sustainability. Like I said, historically, we’ve dealt with single events. The Sandy relief effort was about 30-plus days. During the 2017 season, we had support to Texas, then Florida, then almost immediately after that, the third storm hit Puerto Rico. As soon as there’s a disaster, FEMA goes to 24/7 operations, and DLA deploys people to their National Response Coordination Center. We’re fully engaged in all meetings, hearing dialogue from all the different agencies. The ability to sustain that was stressed this time. We can stand up 24-hour operations and do 12-hour shifts for weeks, but when you start getting to 12 weeks, you need a way to do your day-to-day business — supporting the warfighter — while also supporting these efforts.

With a hurricane, you can prepare 48-72 hours ahead of time, so we can notify that team, and they’re operational at the beginning of a response. We’re currently looking into having a cadre of people — similar to the rapid deployment teams — who understand the federal agencies and their operations, so we can minimize the ramp-up time when disasters occur. We also want to have enough people to allow substitutions when necessary without any gaps in support. 

Another thing we’re doing is transforming our Joint Logistics Operations Center, DLA’s command and control node. When the NRCC goes to 24/7 operations, our FEMA and USACE liaison officers head over there, but we also initiate regular meetings in the JLOC. At that point, we know there will be funding, personnel and commodity questions, so we start pulling in experts in those areas. We’re expanding the JLOC with a core cadre of people, some of them remotely located, whose primary mission is to be familiar with DLA operations. We’re identifying the skills we’ll need, and then we’ll identify people. In the past, it’s seemed like hurricanes always hit on a Friday before a three-day weekend. When we projected a hurricane would hit on Saturday, we’d look for volunteers on Wednesday. We’re trying to get away from volunteers by building this cadre.

I mentioned we previously had 13 pre-scripted mission assignments with FEMA. One example is bottled water. All FEMA has to do is tell us how much they need and where they need it, and we execute. We learned last year that there are other commodities DLA manages — mosquito netting, transformers, water trucks, bulk propane and more — that FEMA and others were contracting for themselves. We’ve now identified another eight items. They may not ever be used, but now they’re on the menu, so FEMA, USACE or any other agency can tell us what they need, how much they need, where they need it and when. 

One particular mission assignment we added was augmentation personnel. In these situations, FEMA requests support, and DLA is funded by FEMA through the Stafford Act. Now FEMA can ask for a fuel expert or a food expert and DLA can be reimbursed. Our relationship with FEMA gives them a better understanding of our operations and our business, so they know the expertise they need to reach out for. 

Finally, we’re also looking at forward-positioning some supplies in support of FEMA efforts in the Pacific. By forward-positioning items identified by FEMA in areas such as Guam and Hawaii, we reduce the amount of time to deliver support. Support in the continental United States has not been an issue but both FEMA and DLA realize providing logistics support to the Pacific region is much more complex. 

What is DLA doing to improve support to the combatant commands?
We have our three regional commanders with the combatant commands. In Tampa, we have DLA CENTCOM & SOCOM, led by Army Col. Archie Herndon. In Europe, we have DLA Europe & Africa, led by Army Col. Ted Shinkle. And we have a regional commander out at DLA Pacific, Navy Capt. Kristin Acquavella. Their teams are embedded with the combatant commanders, allowing us to hear things firsthand and be involved with what the combatant commanders are considering. That’s similar to what I mentioned earlier with the Dashboard and collaborating with the military services. By being embedded with the combatant command, we are able to get real-time information and quickly begin translating it into an actionable DLA logistics solution. 

Similar to our efforts with the services, our regional commands are working with the combatant commands to identify the items that impact readiness. Some of the weapons systems have different issues at the tactical level. They’re trying to identify those readiness drivers and share them with the DLA enterprise so we can address them. We’re not at the same automated place as we are with the services, but during our weekly readiness reviews, the DLA director gets updates on how we can mitigate or remove combatant commanders’ logistics concerns. 

The other big thing we’re doing is working on our DLA support plans for the combatant commanders’ operations plans. For example, in Korea, we took significant steps to pre-position subsistence items and construction material forward in anticipation of additional requirements. The intent is to have those supplies available when commanders need them.

We’re starting to look at our current posture across the globe. Is DLA where it should be? As the landscape in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility changes, is our logistics support where it should be? Instead of using yesterday’s solution for tomorrow’s problem, we’re trying to look at the new problem and find the most robust solution that supports the current mission environment. 

CENTCOM doesn’t know what the future’s going to look like. It’s going from a supported to a supporting combatant command. What are we doing as logistics requirements shift to other combatant commands? What does that mean to us and our support? In an effort to help answer these questions, Col. Herndon brought together the DLA team that supports CENTCOM to shift people’s way of looking at different scenarios in today’s dynamic environment. Similar efforts are being done in [U.S. European Command, U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command].

How is DLA empowering its customer-facing teams to communicate the agency’s story?
Back in April, we had our Customer-Facing Summit, the second time we brought together all of our worldwide customer support representatives to ensure DLA Headquarters understands the problems they’re working on with our customers, as well as make sure those teams are aware of the most current DLA initiatives. 

This is critical as our footprint shifts. Before, it wasn’t uncommon to have two or three DLA employees — each an expert in one area or another — at a military command. In today’s fiscal environment, we don’t have that luxury, so our focus has shifted. Maybe our reps don’t have as much depth in one particular area, but they have a lot more range, and they have reach-back capability to the entire DLA enterprise. My job is to make sure those single customer-facing representatives are familiar with the Strategic Plan and aware of our ongoing initiatives so they’re set up for success with our customers. We want them to be able to point our customers in the right direction. From the customer’s standpoint, they know they have a DLA rep they can go to for anything DLA.

We’re also looking into quarterly video teleconferences and quick reference tools to help facilitate this. At headquarters, it’s easy to forget that not everyone out there knows what’s going on. I always laugh; when you live in the Washington area, everything going on in the government seems like day-to-day business, but when I talk to my mom, I realize that if you’re not inside the Beltway, you don’t know all of it. Finding ways to stay connected with our customer-facing reps is critical. 

As the result of a realignment, [the Operations Directorate] assumed several customer-facing functions. One of which is the DLA Customer Interaction Center. The CIC is the customer point of contact for all DLA logistics issues from acquisition to disposition. The goal is for the CIC to provide the response to the customer upon first contact.  We have agents available 24/7/365 days a year. We analyze the information from these customer interactions to drive improvements in our processes, systems and/or personnel by providing training. Training is a key factor to ensure our personnel have the right knowledge and skills to assist the customer. We also provide customer training to ensure our customers have the right knowledge and skills to use the DLA self-help tools so they can find the answer to their question by the quickest means possible. Our goal is to ensure the customer experience is positive and they are satisfied with the support DLA provides.

What are the big new things going on in Logistics Operations that the rest of the workforce should know about? 
The JLOC transformation is one big thing. While it falls under [Logistics Operations], it’s going to impact the entire agency, because we’re expanding the number of personnel who will be part of its daily operations. It’s more than just DLA’s support to CENTCOM or other combatant commands. It will be a much more holistic look. 

I talked about the Readiness Dashboard, but the Dashboard itself has much more. We’re starting to incorporate our personnel readiness, our funding, information technology and other topics to give us a better view of the agency’s operations and their impacts. In addition to focusing on operational support, we’re looking for ways to populate the Dashboard with industrial data to capture information and trends related to DLA support to the military service’s industrial sites. 

I mentioned funding because the current environment gives us less flexibility. In the past, FEMA would request 1 million meals, and we’d go buy 1 million meals. Then they’d pay us as they needed them. That’s become a lot more difficult, so we’re moving to advance billing. Now FEMA spends its money up front, allowing us to buy what they need. Then if they don’t use something, we can reimburse them. That’s another thing we’re monitoring on the Dashboard. 

With the reform efforts, there are a lot of potential opportunities, whether it’s with the whole of government or the services. Are there more things DLA could take on that would allow the services to focus their people and funding on accomplishing their missions? How can DLA help the services be more ready and lethal?

What’s one thing you wish more DLA employees knew about Logistics Operations?
No two days are the same. You never know what the day will bring, which is exciting. It’s very difficult to find a cookie-cutter solution for even two situations. You always have to be ready to adapt without a lot of time.

Every morning, I get an operations update from the JLOC, including intelligence, support to the combatant commands and support to all military and federal agency customers. That sounds pretty repetitive, but the problems change daily. 

We talked a lot about hurricane season, but we also provide support during fire season. Some people within DLA may not realize we support the wildland firefighters. When you see a fire in California, you should know DLA supplies everything they need. 

The biggest thing I wish DLA employees knew about is the team here in the Operations Directorate. They’re a phenomenal group. We talked about last year’s hurricanes. There were people who contributed up to 18 hours a day for an extended period supporting the victims in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. We’re always looking for ways to do things better, and we’re never deterred from a challenge. This group makes my job fun. No matter how big or complex a challenge is, this team is ready to take it on.