Don’t Become a Victim of Your Forecast Models

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

Quants and Financial Meltdowns

I spend much of my time developing new quantitative methods for statistical forecasting, demand forecasting and inventory optimization. For me, this is an engaging way to contribute to society. But I know that the most prudent way to do algorithm development is to stand a little to the side and cast a skeptical eye on my own work.

The need for this skepticism was highlighted for me recently as I read Scott Patterson’s book The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It (Crown Publishing, 2010). This book reviewed the “quants” whose complex financial models were largely responsible for the financial meltdown in 2007. As I read along and thought “What was wrong with these guys?” I began to wonder if we supply chain quants were guilty of some of the same sins.

Models versus Instincts

Generally, the supply chain field has lagged behind finance in terms of the use of statistical models. My university colleagues and I are chipping away at that, but we have a long way to go. Some supply chains are quite technically sophisticated, but many, perhaps more, are essentially managed as much by gut instinct as by the numbers. Is this avoidance of analytics safer than relying on models?

What makes gut instinct dangerous is that it is so amorphous. Everyone who works long in a job develops instincts, but longevity is not the same as wisdom. It is possible to learn all the wrong lessons over a long career. It is also possible to miss the chance to learn the right lessons because certain informative scenarios may never arise in one person’s career. It is also possible to have good days and bad days; even gurus can mess up. Gut instinct is also anti-productive, since all decisions have to pass through that one gut, which becomes an enterprise chokepoint. And Golden Guts eventually reach their Golden Years and take their Golden Watch and go off into a Golden Sunset; at that point, whatever expertise had been present has walked out the door.

In contrast, models have certain advantages. Relative to gut instinct, models are:

  • Explicit: The theory of the supply chain operation is exposed for all to see.
  • Adaptive: Because the theory is visible, it can be reviewed, critiqued, tested against data, and evolved.
  • Consistent: Models may be more or less true, but they are not subject to day-to-day variability.
  • Comprehensive: At least potentially, models can accumulate a wide range of empirical experience, including scenarios never encountered during any one person’s career.
  • Instructive: Models are collections of relationships among variables. If the model’s “guts” are made visible, users can learn about those relationships.

Model Error

Nevertheless, despite all their virtues, models can also be wrong. In fact, that is a given. A constructive way to live with this is encoded in the famous aphorism by Dr. George Box, one of the best modelers of the last half century: “All models are wrong. Some are useful.”

The finance quants’ models were wrong by being oversimplified. They started with a quasi-religious belief in the efficiency of markets and developed statistical models that made certain assumptions that were more likely to be true of the physical world than the financial world. Among these were Normal distributions of changes in asset prices and independence of events across various corners of the market. They also assumed human rationality.

It should be a bit alarming that the Normal distribution and independence assumptions also underlie many of the models in supply chain software. In fact, there are alternative models of supply chain dynamics that do not require these simplifying assumptions, so this is an unnecessary risk being run by many, perhaps most, of the users of supply chain software.

But even with more robust and realistic model assumptions, there is no denying that model error is a constant risk. So, can you be victimized by your models? Of course you can.

Self-Protection: Look at the Data

Every supply chain professional who uses models, then, is subject to model risk. But unlike with decisions based on gut feel, decisions based on model calculations can be exposed and compared to real-world outcomes. Repeated checking is the best way to protect against model error, because it not only tests whether the model is realistic but also signals when it is time to update the model.

As noted above, a model is a set of functional relationships between key variables. Those relationships have parameters that tune the model to the current operating context. For instance, supply chain models often rely, in part, on estimates of demand volatility. Historical demand data are used to calculate numerical values for these parameters. If demand volatility changes, the model becomes obsolete and likely to produce inapt recommendations. Therefore, good practice demands frequent updates to model parameters.

Even when parameter values are current, there may still be trouble due to incorrect functional relationships. For example, consider the relationship between the mean and standard deviation of demand for spare parts. Generally speaking, the greater the average demand, the greater the demand volatility as measured by the standard deviation.

Now consider simplified “old school” models that describe spare part demand as a Poisson process. The Poisson process is widely useful and relatively simple, so it often shows up in Statistics 101 classes. Because of their relative simplicity, Poisson models are the white rats of supply chain analytics for spare parts, i.e., people do computer experiments and theory development based on the behavior of Poisson models of demand. For Poisson models, the standard deviation of demand equals the square root of the mean. However, when we look at our customers’ actual demand data, we discover that the actual relationship between the mean and standard deviation of demand is better described by a more general power-law relationship. Thus, the simple model may use accurate estimates of mean and standard deviation but still not accurately reflect their relationship. This in turn leads to incorrect recommendations about reorder points for spare parts. Checking real data is the best antidote to cavalier assumption-making.

What to Do Next

I do not sense that today’s supply chain models are on the brink of creating the kind of meltdown we saw in the start of the Great Recession. But those of us who are supply chain quants need to show more professional maturity than our financial colleagues. We need to not fall in love with our models, and we need to alert our customers to correct model hygiene.

So, model users, wash your hands frequently as we begin flu season, and wash your models thoroughly through hard data to be sure that the models you rely on are both up-to-date and grounded in reality. Both those steps will protect you from being victimized by your models and let you exploit their advantages over management by gut feel.

Appendix: Technical Tips

Supply chain analytics provide various types of outputs. In the realm of forecasting and demand planning, the obvious empirical check is to compare forecasts against the actual demand values that eventually reveal themselves. This same “forecast then check” approach can also be used in the generation of forecasts.  In the realm of inventory management, the models can build on forecasts to recommend policy choices, such as reorder points and order quantities or Min and Max values. There is a smart way to confirm the accuracy of recommendations of reorder points and Min’s.  See our blog The Right Forecast Accuracy Metric for Inventory Planning

 

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Don’t Become a Victim of Your Forecast Models

Don’t Become a Victim of Your Forecast Models

Generally, the supply chain field has lagged behind finance in terms of the use of statistical models. My university colleagues and I are chipping away at that, but we have a long way to go. Some supply chains are quite technically sophisticated, but many, perhaps more, are essentially managed as much by gut instinct as by the numbers. Is this avoidance of analytics safer than relying on models?

Reveal Your Real Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy by Answering These 9 Questions

Reveal Your Real Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy by Answering These 9 Questions

In this blog, we review 9 specific questions you can ask to uncover what’s really happening with the inventory planning and demand forecasting policy at your company. We detail the typical answers provided when a forecasting/inventory planning policy doesn’t really exist, explain how to interpret these answers, and offer some clear advice on what to do about it.

How to Tell You Don’t Really Have an Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy

How to Tell You Don’t Really Have an Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy

You can’t properly manage your inventory levels, let alone optimize them, if you don’t have a handle on exactly how demand forecasts and stocking parameters (such as Min/Max, safety stocks, and reorder points, and order quantities) are determined. Many organizations cannot specify how policy inputs are calculated or identify situations calling for management overrides to the policy. If you have these problems, you may be wasting hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars each year in unnecessary shortage costs, holding costs, and ordering costs.

Undershoot is Sabotaging your Service Level!

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

Service level is a key performance indicator for companies that put a premium on satisfying customer demand. Service level is defined as the probability of surviving a replenishment lead time without stocking out.

Inventory management best practice begins with setting service level targets, then calculates reorder points (also called Mins) to achieve those targets. These calculations should account for variability in both demand and replenishment lead time. There are many software systems available for doing these calculations. If everything works out, the achieved service level ends up very close to the target service level. Unfortunately, there is often a painful gap between the two.

One reason for the gap is unrealistic models of demand. In many cases, software for calculating reorder points uses textbook formulas based on mathematical assumptions that make analysis simple at the expense of realism.  Many “Inventory 101” textbooks use formulas that assume demand has a Normal distribution (a.k.a. the “bell-shaped curve”) for finished goods and the Poisson distribution for spare parts. Fortunately, there are now inventory optimization and forecasting systems that process the actual demand histories of the inventory items using probabilistic forecasting.  These solutions calculate an accurate estimate of the distribution – not some idealized version.  To learn more check out this past blog on probabilistic forecasting:

But there is a second source of error in textbooks that operates invisibly in many inventory software package:  “undershoot”.

Calculations of reorder points almost always assume that stockouts arise when the total demand during a replenishment interval exceeds the reorder point. For example, assume that demand averages 1 unit per day. If lead time is 5 days, then on average lead time demand is 5 units. Setting the reorder point at 5 units would yield a laughable service level somewhere in the vicinity of 50%. Adding safety stock to the calculation might result in a reorder point of, say, 11 units, which might correspond to a service level of 95%. Another way to say this is, starting at a reorder point of 11 units, there should be a 95% chance of surviving the 5 day lead time without experiencing cumulative demand of more than 11 units. Theoretically!

What’s missing from this analysis is the undershoot phenomenon. Undershoot means that the lead time begins not at the reorder point but below it. Undershoot happens every time the demand that breached the reorder point took the stock down below (not down to) the reorder point. The figure below shows replenishment cycles with and without undershoot.  Undershoot picks your pocket before you even begin to roll the dice. It deludes the inventory professional into thinking his or her reorder points are sufficient to achieve their targets, whereas actual performance will not make the grade.

There is only one situation in which undershoot is not a worry: when demand is always either zero or one unit. In that case, undershoot is impossible. But in all other cases, undershoot is sure to happen to some extent, and it can seriously undercut the service level actually achieved by a given choice of reorder point. Our analyses show that the conditions most vulnerable to undershoot involve highly intermittent and skewed demand with very short lead times – the very conditions being made most common by market trends.

What can be done to protect yourself from the effect of undershoot on reorder point calculations?  Use inventory optimization and forecasting software that isn’t tied to the old textbook assumptions and instead automatically accounts for undershoot when calculating the service level produced by any choice of reorder point.

To see Smart Software’s Inventory Optimization solution in action, register to see a recorded demo below:

 

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Don’t Become a Victim of Your Forecast Models

Don’t Become a Victim of Your Forecast Models

Generally, the supply chain field has lagged behind finance in terms of the use of statistical models. My university colleagues and I are chipping away at that, but we have a long way to go. Some supply chains are quite technically sophisticated, but many, perhaps more, are essentially managed as much by gut instinct as by the numbers. Is this avoidance of analytics safer than relying on models?

Reveal Your Real Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy by Answering These 9 Questions

Reveal Your Real Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy by Answering These 9 Questions

In this blog, we review 9 specific questions you can ask to uncover what’s really happening with the inventory planning and demand forecasting policy at your company. We detail the typical answers provided when a forecasting/inventory planning policy doesn’t really exist, explain how to interpret these answers, and offer some clear advice on what to do about it.

How to Tell You Don’t Really Have an Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy

How to Tell You Don’t Really Have an Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy

You can’t properly manage your inventory levels, let alone optimize them, if you don’t have a handle on exactly how demand forecasts and stocking parameters (such as Min/Max, safety stocks, and reorder points, and order quantities) are determined. Many organizations cannot specify how policy inputs are calculated or identify situations calling for management overrides to the policy. If you have these problems, you may be wasting hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars each year in unnecessary shortage costs, holding costs, and ordering costs.

The Force Need Not Be With You

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

With the world once again in the grip of Jedi-mania, we can take a moment to think about what special powers are needed to turn an ordinary inventory professional into an Inventory Optimizer.

There’s a lot to know

Proficiency in the inventory arts requires mastery of a great deal of knowledge: Product knowledge, knowledge of suppliers and customers, teamwork skills, and a visceral understanding of the stochastic dynamics of inventory demand. One of the most fundamental types of knowledge is corporate self-knowledge, especially knowing where you want your organization to go.

How to know it

So much of that knowledge rests on an understanding of operational information: How to gather it, interpret it, and discern its implications. Most of that information is in the form of hard numbers, usually too many to absorb without computer help. Some of it comes from conversations with customers and suppliers, which let you know where they want their organizations to go and how you figure into their plans. Blending large quantities of numbers with knowledge of everybody’s goals and intentions provides situational awareness.

How to use the knowledge

Situational awareness must be translated into detailed operational decisions for every inventory item. For each item, you must decide on an inventory policy: As inventory decreases, at what point should we order more? How much more? How do we respond to stockouts?

In the good old days, these decisions were usually made based on gut instinct. You might say, or hope, that these decisions were guided by The Force. Unfortunately, what the good old days often bequeathed the present day was nothing more than a mish-mash of incoherent and dysfunctional policies. If there is “no try, only do or not do”, then the history of inventory management has seen a lot of not do.

Rather than hoping for mystical inspiration, the way forward is to systematically organize all that information into accurate, comprehensive probability models of inventory dynamics. Such models can relate all the key levers of performance to key performance indicators (KPI’s).

How software analytics can help

Software analytics can relate key drivers of performance to performance metrics. Key drivers include reorder points or min’s, order quantities or max’s, replenishment lead times, and the level and variability of demand. Also important are the costs of holding, ordering and running out of inventory. Using numerical values for these key inputs, inventory software can estimate the corresponding values of service level, fill rate, inventory operating costs and total inventory capital investment. In other words, the software can convert design decisions into consequences.

Now, some decisions might be a bit misguided, with consequences that are not appealing. Then the software becomes not just an analysis tool but a design tool. That is, it lets you play around a bit, exploring different decisions and hunting for system designs that yield better results.

This is where reliance on The Force reappears in practice, because you are left using the software to help you intuit your way to good system designs. We call this “hunt and peck optimization”. It amounts to a guessing game in which you try changing one or more of the drivers to see whether the KPI’s get better or worse.

The most advanced inventory software can take you to the next level. It is inventory optimization software. It eliminates the guesswork by automating the search through the very large “design space” to find desirable system designs for all your items.

For instance, you might ask the software to find that combination of reorder point and order quantity that minimizes the total cost of managing an item (i.e., the sum of holding, ordering and shortage costs) while insuring that the chance of a stockout is tolerably low. Even if your Jedi powers would eventually lead you to the same design, do you really want to whack your way through all 20,000 items you are managing? Let R2D2 figure it all out: That’s what droids are for.

Why we still need our light sabers

Despite all the productivity gains by inventory optimization software, you may still feel the need to take light saber in hand and finish off the design of inventory policy for selected items. You may want to do this for several reasons.

One is to see how sensitive the optimal design is to slight changes. For example, the most efficient designs might require more orders than your purchasing department can comfortably handle in one year. So you might want to see how much performance deteriorates if you make a practical concession and specify a larger order quantity.

There are key differences between this kind of “post-optimality” analysis and the old-fashioned hand-crafting of individual inventory policies. For one, the starting point is a very smart design, not a guess. For another, you can pick and choose the items that get your personal attention, assured that all the rest are well provided for.

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Related Posts

Don’t Become a Victim of Your Forecast Models

Don’t Become a Victim of Your Forecast Models

Generally, the supply chain field has lagged behind finance in terms of the use of statistical models. My university colleagues and I are chipping away at that, but we have a long way to go. Some supply chains are quite technically sophisticated, but many, perhaps more, are essentially managed as much by gut instinct as by the numbers. Is this avoidance of analytics safer than relying on models?

Reveal Your Real Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy by Answering These 9 Questions

Reveal Your Real Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy by Answering These 9 Questions

In this blog, we review 9 specific questions you can ask to uncover what’s really happening with the inventory planning and demand forecasting policy at your company. We detail the typical answers provided when a forecasting/inventory planning policy doesn’t really exist, explain how to interpret these answers, and offer some clear advice on what to do about it.

How to Tell You Don’t Really Have an Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy

How to Tell You Don’t Really Have an Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy

You can’t properly manage your inventory levels, let alone optimize them, if you don’t have a handle on exactly how demand forecasts and stocking parameters (such as Min/Max, safety stocks, and reorder points, and order quantities) are determined. Many organizations cannot specify how policy inputs are calculated or identify situations calling for management overrides to the policy. If you have these problems, you may be wasting hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars each year in unnecessary shortage costs, holding costs, and ordering costs.

The Right Forecast Accuracy Metric for Inventory Planning

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

In a recent Supply Chain Shaman.com blog Trust, But Verify, Lora Cecere advocated for testing software solutions via a series of empirical competitions.

For forecasting/demand planning, she outlines a traditional “hold out” test in which 2012-2016 data are provided to software vendors and 2017 is held out for later comparison against forecasts provided by competing vendors. The company then measures forecast error and bias. This approach is advocated nearly universally for assessing forecast accuracy. It’s a good way to assess monthly or weekly forecast accuracy, but it is minimally useful if you have a different objective: Optimizing inventory.

In our last blog, we discussed how to pick a targeted service level. We indicated that just because you set a target (or a system recommends a target) doesn’t mean you’ll actually achieve the target. The right way to measure accuracy if you are interested in optimizing stock levels is to focus on the accuracy of the service level projection. This will account for both lead time demand and safety stock.

Setting a target service level is a strategic decision about inventory risk management. Inventory software does the tactical work by computing reorder points (a.k.a. mins) meant to achieve a user-defined target or that will achieve a system-calculated optimal target. But if the software uses the wrong demand model, the achieved service level will miss the target, sometimes significantly. The result of this error will be either shortages or inventory bloat, depending on the direction of the miss.

Forecasting is a means to an end. The end is to optimize inventory levels. Because demand is uncertain, companies that need to provide even moderate service levels must stock more than the forecast, often much more. But doesn’t low forecast error mean lower safety stock? The better my forecasts, the lower my inventory? Yes, true. But what matters when determining the required inventory are both accurate forecasts of the most likely demand and accurate estimates of the variability around the most likely demand.
Especially with with long tail, intermittent demand, traditional forecast accuracy assessments over a conventional 12 month forecast horizon miss the point three ways.

– First, the relevant time scale for inventory optimization is the replenishment lead time, which is usually much shorter than 12 months. Demand during lead times measured in days or weeks has volatility that gets averaged out over long forecast horizons. This is bad because factoring in the effect of volatility is essential to calculation of optimal reorder points.

– Second, forecast accuracy assessed over a multi-month forecast horizon focuses on the typical error in a typical month within the horizon. In contrast, inventory optimization requires a focus on cumulative demand, not period-by-period demand.

– Third, and most important is that forecast error metrics are focused on the middle of the demand distribution, aiming to estimate the most likely demand. But setting reorder points involves estimating high percentiles of the cumulative demand distribution over a lead time. Estimating the middle a bit better but having no clue about, say, the 95th percentile, is not helpful.

Consider this hypothetical example. If Vendor A forecasts 20 units with 110% error and Vendor B forecasts 22 units with 105% error, then Vendor B has an advantage in the forecasting game. But if you want a high service level and the demand is intermittent, you’ll have to stock a lot more than 20 or 22 units. Let’s assume you select Vendor B’s technology to plan stocking levels. You then notice that when planning reorder points to achieve a 95% service level, you often fall short – way more often that the expected 5% of the time. You come to realize that Vendor B’s approach completely underestimates the safety stock required to achieve the target service target. Focusing on vendors’ forecast error isn’t going to help. You will come to wish that you had verified Vendor A and B’s service level accuracy. Now you are stuck arbitrarily adjusting Vendor B’s service level targets to compensate for the shortfall.

So what’s needed in vendor competitions is assessment of their systems’ abilities to accurately forecast the inventory required to meet a given service level over an item’s replenishment lead time. Narrowly focusing on measuring forecast error is not appropriate if the mission is managing inventory. This is especially true for long tail items with intermittent demand or items that have medium to high volume but don’t have a demand distribution that looks like the classic “bell shaped curve” (Normal distribution).

The remainder of this blog explains how to test the accuracy of software’s service level calculations, so you can monitor the risk of missing your service level targets. We recommend this accuracy test over traditional “forecast versus actuals” tests because it provides much more insight into how reorder point recommendations will influence inventory levels and customer service.

Service Level Defined

Consider a single inventory item. When inventory drops to or below the reorder point, a replenishment order is generated. This starts a period of risk that lasts as long as the replenishment lead time. During the period of risk, there might be enough incoming demands to create backorders or lost sales. The service level is the probability that there are no backorders or stockouts during the replenishment lead time. Critical items might be given very high target service levels, say 99%, whereas other items might have more relaxed targets, such as 75%. Whatever the target service level, it is best to hit that target.

Calculating Service Level

The service level for an individual item can only be estimated by repeated comparison of observed lead time demand against the calculated reorder point. These estimates take a lot of time: at least dozens of lead times. But fleet-wise service level can be estimated using data compiled over a single lead time.

Let’s do an example. Suppose you have demand histories for 1,000 items over 365 days and that (for simplicity) all items have 45-day lead times. For each item, follow these steps to estimate the fleet-wise achieved service level:

Step 1: Step aside (“hold out”) the most recent 45 days of demand (or however many days is closest to your typical lead times). Compute their sum, which is the most recent value of the actual lead time demand. This is the ground truth to be used to estimate the achieved service level.

Step 2: Use the prior 320 days of demand history to forecast the required inventory to hit a range of service level targets, say 90%, 95%, 97%, and 99%.

Step 3: Check whether the observed lead time demand is less than or equal to the reorder point. If it is, count this as a win; otherwise, count it as a loss. For instance, if the reorder point is 15 units but the most recent lead time demand is 10 units, then this is a win, since the reorder point is high enough to cover a lead time demand of 10 without any shortage. However, if the most recent lead time demand is 18 units, there would be a stockout, and 3 units would either be backordered or counted as lost sales.

Step 4: Working across all items, and all service level targets, tally the percentage of tests for each service level target that resulted in a win. This is the achieved service level. If the target was 90% and 853 of the 1,000 units record a win, then the achieved service level is 85.3%.

Example

Consider a real-world example. The data are daily demand histories of 590 medical supply items used in an internationally famous clinic. For simplicity, we assume each item has a lead time of 45 days. We evaluate target service levels of 70%, 90%, 95% and 99%.
We compare two demand models. The “Normal” model assumes that daily demand has a Normal (“bell-shaped”) distribution. This is the classic assumption used in most introductory textbooks on inventory control and in many software products. Classic though it may be, it is often an inappropriate model of demand for spare parts or supplies. The “Probability Forecast” model takes explicit account of the intermittent nature of demand.

Exhibit 1 shows the results. Column J shows the actual demand over the final 45 observations. The computed reorder points for the Advanced Model are shown in columns L-O.  The computed reorder points for the Normal model are not displayed.  Columns Q-T and V-Y hold the results of the tests for whether the reorder points were high enough to handle the lead time demands in column J.

The final results (yellow cells) show a clear difference between the Normal and Probability (Advanced) demand models. Both did a good job of hitting the 70% service level target, but estimating higher service levels is a more delicate calculation, and the Probability model does a much better job. For instance, the Normal model’s supposed 99% service level turned out to be only 94.4%, while the Probability model hit the target with a 98.5% achieved service level.

Implications

Utilizing the more accurate method achieved the targeted service level, while the less accurate method did not. If the less accurate method is used then real and costly business decisions will be made on the false assumption that a higher service level will be achieved. For example, if a Service Level Agreement (SLA) is based on these results and a 99% service level is committed to, the supplier would actually be five times more likely to stock out than planned (service level promised = 99% or 1% stockout risk vs. service level achieved = 94.5% or 5.5% stock out risk)! This means financial penalties will be incurred five times more often than expected.

Suppose that planners knew the target service level would not be met but were stuck using an inaccurate model. They would still need a way to increase inventory and achieve the desired level of service. What might they choose to do? We have observed situations where the planner enters a higher service level target than needed in order to “trick” the system into delivering the required service level. In the above example, the Normal model needed to have a 99.99% service level entered before it could achieve a target service level of 99%. This change resulted in achieving a 99% service but more than doubled the inventory investment when compared to the Advanced model.

Implementing a Service Level Accuracy Test

At Smart Software, we’ve encouraged many of our customers to conduct the test of service level accuracy as a way for them to assess our and other vendors’ claims during the software selection process. Missing the service level target has extremely costly implications resulting in substantial over stocks or under stocks.  So, test service level accuracy before deploying a solution to identify situations when the modeling fails. Don’t assume that you will achieve the service level you decide to target (or that the system recommends). To request an Excel spreadsheet that serves as a template for a service level accuracy test, email your contact information to info@smartcorp.com and enter “Accuracy Template” in the subject line.

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Related Posts

Don’t Become a Victim of Your Forecast Models

Don’t Become a Victim of Your Forecast Models

Generally, the supply chain field has lagged behind finance in terms of the use of statistical models. My university colleagues and I are chipping away at that, but we have a long way to go. Some supply chains are quite technically sophisticated, but many, perhaps more, are essentially managed as much by gut instinct as by the numbers. Is this avoidance of analytics safer than relying on models?

Reveal Your Real Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy by Answering These 9 Questions

Reveal Your Real Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy by Answering These 9 Questions

In this blog, we review 9 specific questions you can ask to uncover what’s really happening with the inventory planning and demand forecasting policy at your company. We detail the typical answers provided when a forecasting/inventory planning policy doesn’t really exist, explain how to interpret these answers, and offer some clear advice on what to do about it.

How to Tell You Don’t Really Have an Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy

How to Tell You Don’t Really Have an Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy

You can’t properly manage your inventory levels, let alone optimize them, if you don’t have a handle on exactly how demand forecasts and stocking parameters (such as Min/Max, safety stocks, and reorder points, and order quantities) are determined. Many organizations cannot specify how policy inputs are calculated or identify situations calling for management overrides to the policy. If you have these problems, you may be wasting hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars each year in unnecessary shortage costs, holding costs, and ordering costs.

How to Choose a Target Service Level

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

Summary

Setting a target service level or fill rate is a strategic decision about inventory risk management. Choosing service levels can be difficult. Relevant factors include current service levels, replenishment lead times, cost constraints, the pain inflicted by shortages on you and your customers, and your competitive position. Target setting is often best approached as a collaboration among operations, sales and finance. Inventory optimization software is an essential tool in the process.

Service Level Choices

Service level is the probability that no shortages occur between when you order more stock and when it arrives on the shelf. The reasonable range of service levels is from about 70% to 99%. Levels below 70% may signal that you don’t care about or can’t handle your customers. Levels of 100% are almost never appropriate and usually indicate a hugely bloated inventory.

Factors Influencing Choice of Service Level

Several factors influence the choice of service level for an inventory item. Here are some of the more important.

Current service levels:
A reasonable place to start is to find out what your current service levels are for each item and overall. If you are already in good shape, then the job becomes the easier one of tweaking an already-good solution. If you are in bad shape now, then setting service levels can be more difficult. Surprisingly few companies have data on this important metric across their whole fleet of inventory items. What often happens is that reorder points grow willy-nilly from choices made in corporate pre-history and are rarely, sometimes never, systematically reviewed and updated. Since reorder points are a major determinant of service levels, it follows that service levels “just happen”. Inventory optimization software can convert your current reorder points and lead times into solid estimates of your current service levels. This analysis often reveals subset of items with service levels either too high or too low, in which case you have guidance about which items to adjust down or up, respectively.

Replenishment lead times:
Some companies adjust service levels to match replenishment lead times. If it takes a long time to make or buy an item, then it takes a long time to recover from a shortage. Accordingly, they bump up service levels on long-lead-time items and reduce them on items for which backlogs will be brief.

Cost constraints:
Inventory optimization software can find the lowest-cost ways to hit high service level targets, but aggressive targets inevitably imply higher costs. You may find that costs constrain your choice of service level targets. Costs come in various flavors. “Inventory investment” is the dollar value of inventory. “Operating costs” include both holding costs and ordering costs. Constraints on inventory investment are often imposed on inventory executives and always imply ceilings on service level targets; software can make these relationships explicit but not take away the necessity of choice. It is less common to hear of ceilings on operating costs, but they are always at least a secondary factor arguing for lower service levels.

Shortage costs:
Shortage costs depend on whether your shortage policy calls for backorders or lost sales. In either case, shortage costs work counter to inventory investment and operating costs by arguing for higher service levels. These costs may not always be expressed in dollar terms, as in the case of medical/surgical supplies, where shortage costs are denominated in morbidity and mortality.

Competition:
The closer your company is to dominating its market, the more you can ease back on service levels to save money. However, easing back too far carries risks: It encourages potential customers to look elsewhere, and it encourages competitors. Conversely, high product availability can go far to bolstering the position of a minor player.

Collaborative Targeting

Inventory executives may be the ones tasked with setting service level targets, but it may be best to collaborate with other functions when making these calls. Finance can share any “red lines” early in the process, and they should be tasked with estimating holding and ordering costs. Sales can help with estimating shortage costs by explaining likely customer reactions to backlogs or lost sales.

The Role of Inventory Optimization and Planning Software

Without inventory optimization software, setting service level targets is pure guesswork: It is impossible to know how any given target will play out in terms of inventory investment, operating costs, shortage costs. The software can compute the detailed, quantitative tradeoff curves required to make informed choices or even recommend the target service level that results in the lowest overall cost considering holding costs, ordering costs, and stock out costs. However, not all software solutions are created equal. You might enter a user defined 99% service level into your inventory planning system or the system could recommend a target service – but it doesn’t mean you will actually hit that stated service level. In fact, you might not even come close to hitting it and achieve a much lower service level. We’ve observed situations where a targeted service level of 99% actually achieved a service level of just 82%! Any decisions made as a result of the target will result in unintended misallocation of inventory, very costly consequences, and lots of explaining to do. So be sure to check out our next blog article on how to measure the accuracy of your service level forecast so you don’t make this costly mistake.

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