Most people outside the tennis industry have never seen 26,400 tennis balls in one place at one time.
And unless you're in the table tennis business, chances are you've never come across 4,283 Ping-Pong balls resting in a warehouse.
Cindy Miller knows these numbers by heart.
Miller, 49, runs UPS Inc.'s operations in the U.K., Ireland, and the four Nordic countries. Since October 2010, when she assumed her current role, she has also headed what is believed to be the largest civilian logistics initiative the world has ever seen: UPS's three-year effort to equip the London Olympic Games from July 27 through Aug. 12, and the Paralympics Games to follow in September, with everything they need in order to function.
By the time the games begin, Atlanta-based UPS will have handled 30 million items of endless variety from myriad origin points to 172 venues in and around of London. By contrast, UPS handled between 18 million and 19 million items in Beijing. The smaller volume in 2008 was partly due to the fact that other companies, as well as the Chinese military, were tasked with moving goods.
UPS won the London bid in September 2009 with an ambitious proposal to be both games' sole logistics service provider. Unlike the 2008 Beijing games, where the Chinese government essentially ran the logistics operations, London Olympic organizers made UPS a partner and effectively gave it free rein.
At this writing, most of the goods are being staged in two London warehouses that together occupy 850,000 square feet. The next step, Miller said, is to begin positioning the items for delivery to their respective locations.
Miller, a Pennsylvania native and 24-year UPS veteran, spoke in mid-May with Senior Editor Mark B. Solomon about the pressures of her dual role (yes, Virginia, Big Brown's regular business still goes on) and the even tougher logistical challenge that still lies ahead.
Q: Other than the volume of the items handled, how is this a larger undertaking than the Beijing games?
A: In 2008, from a Chinese perspective, it was the government's engagement. We've been more embedded in the LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) organization. It is much more of a joint partnership.
We had approached LOCOG with the idea that we would be the only company to handle everything from point A to point B. They liked the idea of one company working as a partner doing that.
Q: Can it be assumed the bulk of your work is done once the games begin?
A: We secured the bid in September 2009 and from that point, there have been months and months of buildup. Our next biggest peak, the next round of sleepless nights, will come once the Paralympics are over (on Sept. 9), and most of the 30 million items that we brought into London will have about a three-month window to reverse themselves. We have about that amount of time to return the items to their origin point or to the next location. So what we had about 18 months to build up for, we have about three months to reverse. That is every bit as challenging as the buildup, if not more so.
Q: Have the Olympic preparations consumed virtually all of your time?
A: I essentially have two work streams. We have this massive Olympics endeavor, but side by side, we have this strong and healthy business that has nothing to do with the Olympics.
Until October and November of last year, I felt reasonably certain I had the time [for both]. But in January of this year, it felt like someone flipped a switch. It certainly feels that I've got a lot of irons in the fire at the moment. The time management piece has been a personal learning curve for me.
Q: Going in, what did you expect to be the biggest challenge, and has it turned out that way?
A: What keeps me up at night has evolved as we've gone along. Initially, after we secured the bid and got up and running, it was making sure that we had the appropriate plans and that we weren't missing anything. Now, as we have gotten closer, the challenge is to realize the uniqueness of this supply chain. That we have set it up for a one-time event and then it gets disassembled, to never be run again unless London wins the Olympics again.
One of the key things to understand is that we don't have a chance to not get it right. When you enter an emerging market or introduce a product, you have the opportunity to test some things, to tweak different aspects, and generally have the chance to improve it.
Here, [we have] one opportunity, and everything has to be perfect. If a judge shows up at a swimming event and the chairs are not where they should be, or the whistles aren't where they should be, or the clocks aren't where they should be, you can't do it over again. There is no tomorrow.
Q: A larger issue facing everybody, not just UPS, will be simply getting around a metropolis whose populace will swell by 10 percent during the Olympic period. How will you manage that?
A: We think about that all the time on many levels. It comes down to issues of business continuity. People who don't have anything to do with the Olympics will want pickups at their businesses or pickups at their homes. The city of London has put its best foot forward to work with companies like UPS and to listen to our suggestions of joint solutions to mitigate and minimize the congestion.
Q: Does your model project a significant dropoff in regular commercial business during this period?
A: Initially, we thought that the mindset might be, "OK, the congestion is coming, this is going to be my time to take holiday." And August is a great holiday month for Europe anyway. But we've found the converse is happening. Small, mid-sized, and larger companies are deciding this is their moment to be open, to hang their shingle, to reach a greater audience that's walking past their storefront. At this point, we haven't seen many people turning over the closed sign and going on holiday.
As long as London is open for business, our responsibility is to serve those customers—and our consignees based here—with the logistics services that we have always delivered.
Q: What skills did you take from the commercial side of the business that you've been able to apply to the games, and vice versa?
A: If you think about it, we really aren't doing anything beyond what we do for our customers every day; it's just that typically we don't do it on this scale. Remember the old riddle that asks, "How do you eat an elephant?" The answer is, "One bite at a time." That's how we're approaching the Olympics. It's not simply one huge task. It's the sum of thousands of little tasks done perfectly.
Q: What can logisticians learn about managing this kind of effort that they can apply to their own business?
A: If you ask the average person on the street what logistics is, they'll probably say it's the process of getting something to the right place at the right time. That's accurate to a point. Logistics is an art form that requires as much finesse and coordination as engineering and science. Whether you're tackling something as large and complex as the Olympics or simply trying to develop a more efficient delivery route, a logistician needs to understand how to combine all of these elements to create the kinds of solutions that bring about the desired outcome.
At UPS, we believe logistics is the most powerful tool available today to help businesses become more sustainable, more resilient, and more competitive. However, many companies don't understand this, or if they do, they don't know how to put the pieces together. That's what logisticians do everyday; we just need to help our clients better understand the value of what we practice so they can reap the incredible benefits of logistics done well.