Redefine Exceptions and Fine Tune Planning to Address Uncertainty

The Smart Forecaster

 Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

forecasting and inventory optimization

Inventory Planning from the Perspective of a Physicist

In a perfect world, Just in Time (JIT) would be the appropriate solution for inventory management. If you can exactly predict what you need and where you need it and your suppliers can get what you need without delay, then you do not need to maintain much inventory locally.  But as the saying goes from famous pugilist Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” And the latest punch in the mouth for the global supply chain was last week’s Suez Canal Blockage that held up $9.6B in trade costing an estimated $6.7M per minute[1].  Disruptions from these and similar events should be modeled and accounted for in your planning.

The assumption that you can exactly predict the future was apparent in Isaac Newton’s laws. Since the 1920’s with the introduction of quantum physics, uncertainty became fundamental to our understanding of nature. Uncertainty is built into fundamental reality.  So too should it be built into Supply and Demand Planning processes.  Yet too often, black swan events such as the Suez Canal blockage are often thought of as anomalies and as a result, discounted when planning. It is not enough to look back in hindsight and proclaim that it should have been expected. Something needs to be done about addressing the occurrence of other such events in the future and planning stocking levels accordingly.

We must move beyond the “thin tailed distribution” thinking where extreme outcomes are discounted and plan for “fat tails.”  So how do we execute a real-world JIT plan when it comes to planning inventory? To do this, the first step is to estimate the realistic lead time to obtain an item. However, estimation is difficult due to lead time uncertainty.  Using actual supplier lead times in your company database and external data, you can develop a distribution of possible future lead times and demands within those lead times. Probabilistic forecasting will allow you to account for disruptions and unusual events by not limiting your estimates to what has been observed solely on your own short-term demand and lead time data.  You’ll be able to generate possible outcomes with associated probabilities for each occurrence.

Once you have an estimate of the lead time and demand distribution, you can then specify the service level you need to have for that part. Using solutions such as Smart Inventory Optimization (SIO), you will be able confidently stock based on the targeted stock-out risk with minimal inventory carrying cost. You may also consider letting the solution prescribe optimal service level targets by assessing the costs of additional inventory vs. cost of stockout.

Finally, as I have already noted, we need to accept that we can never eliminate all uncertainty. As a physicist, I have always been intrigued by the fact that, even at the most basic levels of reality as we understand it today, there is still uncertainty. Albert Einstein believed in certainty (determinism) in physical law.  If he were an inventory manager, he might have argued for JIT because he believed physical laws should allow perfect predictability. He famously said, “God does not play with dice.”  Or could it be possible that the universe we exist in was a “black swan” event in a prior “multi-verse” that produced a particular kind of universe that allowed us to exist.

In inventory planning, as in science, we cannot escape the reality of uncertainty and the impact of unusual events.  We must plan accordingly.

 

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/business-56559073#:~:text=Looking%20at%20the%20bigger%20picture,0.2%20to%200.4%20percentage%20points.

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    Demand Forecasting in a “Build to Order” Company

    The Smart Forecaster

    Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

    forecasting and inventory optimization

    We often come into contact with potential customers who claim that they cannot use a forecasting system since they are a “build-to-order” manufacturing operation. I find this a puzzling perspective, because whatever these organizations build requires lower level raw materials or intermediate goods. If those lower level inputs are not available when an order for the finished good is received, the order cannot be built. Consequently, the order could be canceled and the associated revenue lost.

    I agree that in such an environment, forecasting the finished good is not always possible or particularly helpful. Sometimes it’s helpful, but not sufficient. In any case, it is critical to make sure that the underlying raw materials and intermediate goods that go into the finished good are available. Demand for these can certainly be forecasted.

    The organization’s goal would be to maintain service level inventories for these intermediate goods that are high but not unaffordable. Planners will need to set optimal stocking levels for these materials, balancing service level requirements against available budget. Since a given intermediate good could serve as an input to more than one finished good, the volatility of the demand for the intermediate good would be less than the volatility of the demand for a specific finished good. Hence, the safety stocks necessary to keep high service level inventories of the intermediate goods would be relatively lean.

    Three companies, all users of SmartForecasts, serve as interesting examples. The first is a chemical company, Bedoukian Research, which manufactures custom chemicals for various clients. Each of these “finished goods” is a unique combination of intermediate chemical compounds. Bedoukian begins its demand planning with a finished goods forecast, which drives the production schedule and allocation of essential production resources. This requires exercising considerable judgment, as finished goods demand changes dynamically.

    Once these finished good forecasts are created, raw material requirements can be estimated via a bill of material disaggregation. Bedoukian combines these results with safety stock estimates, based on actual utilization rates and service level objectives to be achieved, to generate the complete, service level-driven forecast for raw materials. This has allowed Bedoukian meet its production requirements with significantly less inventory.

    The second company manufactures the internal components for mobile phones, where finished goods are specialized combinations of these components. For example, an order may call for a certain number of phones with unique labels on the case. This is the finished good for this order. Everything that goes into that order, except for the label, is built out of standard components. Again, SmartForecasts will be used to keep lean, high service level inventories of the components. This company thought that the only way to manage component inventories was via bill of material aggregations. They are now looking at the actual utilization rate for the components and setting much leaner inventories while maintaining high component availability.

    A third company, NKK Switches, which explored this topic in their recent webinar (see CFO Bud Schultz’ guest blog post), considered their products to be “unforecastable”. You can read more about it below, but overall NKK Switches was able to forecast components and meaningful aggregations of product families. By tracking forecast vs. actuals over several months, NKK was able to demonstrate the accuracy of its forecasts to its Asian factory suppliers, and convince them to shift from a “build-to-order” model to “build-to-forecast.” This change has resulted in dramatic reductions in lead times, in many cases cutting them in half, increasing customer satisfaction and the overall sales close rate.

    The bottom line here is that there is a perfectly viable—I would say essential—method of demand forecasting for build-to-order businesses, setting high service levels for pivotal input resources. If you would like to know more, please drop me a note, at nelsonh at smartcorp dot com.

    Nelson Hartunian, PhD, co-founded Smart Software, formerly served as President, and currently oversees it as Chairman of the Board. He has, at various times, headed software development, sales and customer service.

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      Estimating Safety Stock

      The Smart Forecaster

      Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

      forecasting and inventory optimization

      In my previous post in this series on essential concepts, “What is ‘A Good Forecast’”, I discussed the basic effort to discover the most likely future in a demand planning scenario. I defined a good forecast as one that is unbiased and as accurate as possible. But I also cautioned that, depending on the stability or volatility of the data we have to work with, there may still be some inaccuracy in even a good forecast. The key is to have an understanding of how much.

      This topic, managing uncertainty, is the subject of post by my colleague Tom Willemain, “The Average is not the Answer”. His post lays out the theory for responsibly confronting the limits of our predictive ability. It’s important to understand how this actually works.

      As I briefly touched on at the end of my previous post, our approach begins with something called a “sliding simulation”. We estimate how accurately we are predicting the future by using our forecasting techniques on an older portion of history, excluding the most recent data. We can then compare what we would have predicted for the recent past with our actual real world information about what happened. This is a reliable method to estimate how closely we are predicting future demand.

      Safety stock, a carefully measured buffer in inventory level we stock above our prediction of most likely demand, is derived from the estimate of forecast error coming out of the “sliding simulation”. This approach to dealing with the accuracy of our forecasts efficiently balances between ignoring the threat of the unpredictable and costly overcompensation.

      In more technical detail: the forecasts errors that are estimated by this sliding simulation process indicate the level of uncertainty. We use these errors to estimate the standard deviation of the forecasts. Now, with regular demand, we can assume the forecasts (which are estimates of future behavior) are best represented by a bell-shaped probability distribution—what statisticians call the “normal distribution”. The center of that distribution is our point forecast. The width of that distribution is the standard deviation of the “sliding simulation” forecast from the known actual values—we obtain this directly from our forecast error estimates.

      Once we know the specific bell shaped curve associated with the forecast, we can easily estimate the safety stock buffer that is needed. The only input from us is the “service level” that is desired, and the safety stock at that service level can be ascertained. (The service level is essentially a measure of how confident we need to be in our inventory stocking levels, with increasing confidence requiring corresponding expenditures on extra inventory.) Notice, we are assuming that the correct distribution to use is the normal distribution. This is correct for most demand series where you have regular demand per period. It fails when demand is sporadic or intermittent.

      In the next piece in this series, I’ll discuss how Smart Forecasts deals with estimating safety stock in those cases of intermittent demand, when the assumption of normality is incorrect.

      Nelson Hartunian, PhD, co-founded Smart Software, formerly served as President, and currently oversees it as Chairman of the Board. He has, at various times, headed software development, sales and customer service.

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        Heroes of Disruptive Innovation

        The Smart Forecaster

        Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

        forecasting and inventory optimization

        Are you a hero?

        The executive suites at most companies are populated by leaders who became corporate “heroes.” These exceptional performers led—and continue to lead—transformative initiatives that drive revenue growth, reduce costs and increase shareholder value.

        Heroic accomplishments require a bold new approach, often fueled by a ground-breaking product or service. Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen speaks of “disruptive innovation,” the extreme case of a product or practice that creates a fundamentally new market or business approach. (The Harvard Business Review YouTube channel features an interview with Prof. Christensen on the subject here.) The trick is to recognize the possibility, and have the courage to do something about it.

        This presents challenges on both sides of the fence. The “best in class” technology provider will have a hard time being heard—getting past entrenched vendors and established practices. The heroic practitioner has to want to hear what’s possible, be open to change and have the drive to execute. Building a community of believers and getting that shot to make a difference can be difficult, but that’s why this work is heroic.

        You may be a budding hero, or an executive who can spot opportunities and “hero-making” opportunities in your team. I have encountered many of you over the years, and your successes have been our successes. My advice is simple: go for it. Life is short, possibilities are limitless and your courage will be rewarded.

        Nelson Hartunian, PhD, co-founded Smart Software, formerly served as President, and currently oversees it as Chairman of the Board. He has, at various times, headed software development, sales and customer service.

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          What is “A Good Forecast”

          The Smart Forecaster

          Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

          forecasting and inventory optimization

          Tremendous cost-saving efficiencies can result from optimizing inventory stocking levels using the best predictions of future demand. Familiarity with forecasting basics is an important part of being effective with the software tools designed to exploit this efficiency. This concise introduction (the first in a short series of blog posts) offers the busy professional a primer in the basic ideas you need to bring to bear on forecasting. How do you evaluate your forecasting efforts, and how reliable are the results?

          A good forecast is “unbiased.” It correctly captures predictable structure in the demand history, including: trend (a regular increase or decrease in demand); seasonality (cyclical variation); special events (e.g. sales promotions) that could impact demand or have a cannibalization effect on other items; and other, macroeconomic events.

          By “unbiased,” we mean that the estimated forecast is not projecting too high or too low; the actual demand is equally likely to be above or below predicted demand. Think of the forecast as your best guess of what could happen in the future. If that forecast is “unbiased,” the overall picture will show that measures of actual future demand will “bracket” the forecasts—distributed in balance above and below predictions by the equal odds.

          You can think of this as if you are an artillery officer and your job is to destroy a target with your cannon. You aim your cannon (“the forecast”) and then shoot and watch the shells fall. If you aimed the cannon correctly (producing an “unbiased” forecast), those shells will “bracket” the target; some shells will fall in front and some shells fall behind, but some shells will hit the target. The falling shells can be thought of as the “actual demand” that will occur in the future. If you forecasted well (aimed your cannon well), then those actuals will bracket the forecasts, falling equally above and below the forecast.

          Once you have obtained an “unbiased” forecast (in other words, you aimed your cannon correctly), the question is: how accurate was your forecast? Using the artillery example, how wide is the range around the target in which your shells are falling? You want to have as narrow a range as possible. A good forecast will be one with the minimal possible “spread” around the target.

          However, just because the actuals are falling widely around the forecast does not mean you have a bad forecast. It may merely indicate that you have very “volatile” demand history. Again, using the artillery example, if you are starting to shoot in a hurricane, you should expect the shells to fall around the target with a wide error.

          Your goal is to obtain as accurate a forecast as is possible with the data you have. If that data is very volatile (you’re shooting in a hurricane), then you should expect a large error. If your data is stable, then you should expect a small error and your actuals will fall close to the forecast—you’re shooting on a clear day!

          So that you can understand both the usefulness of your forecasts and the degree of caution appropriate when applying them, you need to be able to review and measure how well your forecast is doing. How well is it estimating what actually occurs? SmartForecasts does this automatically by running its “sliding simulation” through the history. It simulates “forecasts” that could have occurred in the past. An older part of the history, without the most recent numbers, is isolated and used to build forecasts. Because these forecasts then “predict” what might happen in the more recent past—a period for which you already have actual demand data—the forecasts can be compared to the real recent history.

          In this manner, SmartForecasts can empirically compute the actual forecast error—and those errors are needed to properly estimate safety stock. Safety stock is the amount of extra stock you need to carry in order to account for the anticipated error in your forecasts. In a subsequent essay, I’ll discuss how we use our estimated forecasts error (via the SmartForecasts sliding simulation) to correctly estimate safety stocks.

          Nelson Hartunian, PhD, co-founded Smart Software, formerly served as President, and currently oversees it as Chairman of the Board. He has, at various times, headed software development, sales and customer service.

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          Four Useful Ways to Measure Forecast Error

          Four Useful Ways to Measure Forecast Error

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          Improve Forecast Accuracy by Managing Error

          Improve Forecast Accuracy by Managing Error

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