Supply chains on film

Hollywood as inspiration for managers

A growing number of scenes in films and television programmes – and even entire films and TV series – are about logistics and supply chain management, and media productions are going ever deeper into those business roles. Supply chain professionals can learn a lot from Hollywood about outsourcing, sustainability, Big Data, innovation, supply chain strategy and risk management. A round-up of the most important films and TV series: fiction with a reallife message.

The opening scene: sparks fly from a factory ceiling. The camera swoops down past a row of machinery and zooms in on the production line, where discs are being stamped out of a strip of copper. From the perspective of a copper bullet shell casing, we see it receive its filling. A hand then picks up the bullet for a visual quality inspection. The bullet ends up with a pile of others in a wooden crate, which is then nailed shut. The screen goes dark.

At the docks, a Russian soldier opens the crate, glances at the contents then closes it again. Things go dark again. In an African port, the crate is opened again and the bullet falls onto the quayside. Two fingers grab it and toss it back into the crate. Loaded onto the back of a pick-up truck, the bullet continues its journey to its final destination. Two more fingers pick up the bullet and insert it into the cartridge of a machine gun. Shots ring out. The bullet is lying ready in the automatic weapon’s barrel, through which we can see guerrilla fighters engaged in a shootout. The bullet leaves the barrel and hits an innocent African boy. In the space of two minutes and 49 seconds, the title sequence of the film Lord of War (2005) presents a step-by-step insight into the supply chain of a bullet: from copper to customer.

This opening scene presents the supply chain, in this case of a bullet, very effectively. Over the years, there have been various other scenes and even entire films and television series, both fictional ones and documentaries, which directly or indirectly are about logistics and supply chain management.

Transportation against the clock

In earlier decades, films did not feature logistics or supply chains. At best they were about truck drivers, such as in Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Convoy (1978), but there was no underlying business-related message. Instead, those films merely served as an excuse to feature freight trucks travelling at high speed and the widespread destruction of police cars and houses. Smokey and the Bandit does include a tight deadline for a consignment of Coors beer, but that’s about as far as it goes.

In Sorcerer (1977), drivers are tasked with transporting creates of explosive nitroglycerin through the South American jungle in two old trucks. Transport can be dangerous.

The comedy film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) presents a very amusing view of how much can go wrong during a trip for Thanksgiving and just how many alternative modes of transport there are – right down to a refrigerated milk truck.

However, the made-for-TV movie drama Taking Chance (2009), which is based on a true story, recounts the complex – and for the accompanying officer often frustrating – task of transporting the body of an American soldier killed in Iraq back to his home town in the USA. When the coffin has to pass through airport security, the officer explains to an irritated security employee that the dead soldier’s personal effects cannot go through the X-ray machine because they may not be removed from his body under any circumstances. He also refuses to take off his uniform jacket for screening purposes.

Another serious film scene with a logistics-related message can be found near the start of Cast Away (2000) featuring Tom Hanks. As a manager at FedEx, Hanks makes a speech for his Russian colleagues at a distribution hub in Moscow about the importance of time: “Time rules over us without mercy. Not caring if we’re healthy or ill…It’s like a fire, it could either destroy us or it could keep us warm. That’s why every FedEx office has a clock, because we live or we die by the clock. We never turn our back on it and we never ever allow ourselves the sin of losing track of time.” He holds up a FedEx package for the Russian employees to see.

And explains that he sent it before leaving Memphis. “It is a clock, which I started at absolute zero and it’s now at eighty seven hours, twenty two minutes and seventeen seconds. From Memphis, America, to Nikolia in Russia in eighty seven hours. Eighty seven hours is a shameful outrage. This is just an egg timer! What if it had been something else, like your paycheque, or poison berries, or adoption papers. Eighty seven hours is an eternity, the cosmos was created in less time.” This scene clearly demonstrates the most significant Key Performance Indicator for a provider of express courier services.

The fact that logistics is not always treated with importance is illustrated by the ironic closing sequence in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), in which Indy asks an official what will happen to the ark, which was the subject of a fierce battle. “We have top men working on it right now,” is the reply. We then see a warehouse employee wheeling the ark through an enormous government warehouse filled with seemingly endless stacks of wooden crates.

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Supply Chain Movement 14 - Q3 2014This article was first published in Supply Chain Movement 14 – Q3 2014

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