Gaming Out Your Logistical Response to the Corona Virus

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

​As the world holds its breathe to see how the new corona virus (2019-nCOV) will play out, we cross our fingers for all those currently in quarantine or under treatment and pray that health authorities around the world will soon get the upper hand.

This short note is about one way your business can develop a plan to adjust to one of the likely fallouts from the virus: sudden increases in the time it takes to get inventory replenishment from suppliers. Supply chains around the world are being disrupted. If this happens to you, how can you react in a systematic way?

Reacting to Longer Lead Times

This is a problem that can be solved using advanced supply chain analytics. Presumably, you may have already used this technology to make good choices for the control parameters used in managing all your inventory items, e.g., values for Min and Max or Reorder Point and Order Quantity. The specific technical question addressed here is how to convert an increase in replenishment lead time to changes in those control parameters.

In general, longer lead times require fatter inventories if you want to maintain a high level of customer service. This general rule translates into larger values of Min and/or Max. How much larger depends critically on what new, longer lead time values will appear and their probabilities of occurring.

While many planning software systems assume a fixed lead time, the reality is that almost all lead times have some degree of randomness. Typically, ignoring that randomness increases stockout risk, so having a good estimate of the probability distribution of lead times is important. In normal times, your transactional data can be used to estimate that relationship. But sudden disruptions like 2019-nCOV create unprecedented situations in which you have to make educated guesses about what new delays you will see and how likely they are. We will assume here that you can imagine some such scenarios and want to figure out how to best respond to them.

An Example using Advanced Software

To illustrate this type of prospective planning, consider a hypothetical example. One item, a spare part, has an established pattern of replenishment lead times, with delays of 5, 10 and 15 days occurring with 15%, 70% and 15% probabilities, respectively. Given this distribution and a random demand averaging one unit every 5 days, values of Min = 5 and Max = 10 do a good job. Figure 1 shows a simulation of 10 years of daily operation under this scenario. Fill rate and service level are high, and stockouts are infrequent.

Now suppose that disruptions in the supply chain create a less favorable distribution of lead time, with a 50:50 mix of 15 and 30 days. Figure 2 shows how badly the current values of Min and Max perform in this new scenario. Fill rate and service level plummet due to frequent stockouts. Operating costs more than triple due to penalties for backorders. Only inventory investment (the average dollar value of stock on the shelf) seems to get better, but this happens only because so often there are backorders with nothing left on the shelf. The shift to longer lead times clearly requires new higher values of Min and Max.

Figure 3 shows how the system performs when the Min is increased from 5 to 10 and the Max from 10 to 15. This change compensates for the longer lead times, restoring the previous high levels of fill rate and service level. Inventory investment is necessarily greater, but operating costs are actually lower than before.

Summary

Changes in normal operating conditions require adjustments in the way inventory items are managed. One such change looming large on this date is the potential impact of the 2019-nCOV Corona virus on supply chains, with anticipated increases in replenishment lead times.

Changes in lead times require changes in inventory control parameters such as Min’s and Max’s. These changes are difficult to make with any confidence using pure guesswork. But with some estimate of the increase in lead times, you can use advanced software to learn how to make these adjustments with some confidence.

This note illustrates this point using simulations of the daily operation of an inventory control system.

Figure 1 Simulation of normal operations using current replenishment lead times, Min and Max

Figure 2 Simulation of abnormal operations using longer lead times and current Min and Max

Figure 3 Simulation of abnormal operations using longer lead times and revised Min and Max

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Gaming Out Your Logistical Response to the Corona Virus

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This short note is about one way your business can develop a plan to adjust to one of the likely fallouts from the virus: sudden increases in the time it takes to get inventory replenishment from suppliers. Supply chains around the world are being disrupted. If this happens to you, how can you react in a systematic way?

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In this Video Dr. Thomas Willemain, co–Founder and SVP Research, defines and compares the three most used inventory control policies. These policies are divided into two groups, periodic review and continuous review. There is also a fourth policy called MRP logic or forecast based inventory planning which is the subject of a separate video blog that you can see here. These videos explain each policy, how they are used in practice and the pros and cons of each approach.

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TOP 3 COMMON INVENTORY POLICIES

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Inventory control policies and strategies for a more profitable business

In this Video Dr. Thomas Willemain, co–Founder and SVP Research, defines and compares the three most used inventory control policies. These policies are divided into two groups, periodic review and continuous review. There is also a fourth policy called MRP logic or forecast based inventory planning which is the subject of a separate video blog that you can see here. These videos explain each policy, how they are used in practice and the pros and cons of each approach.

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Clean, accessible and actionable data under one roof

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Pulling all the data together on the cloud lets you automatically refresh the data every day and always see the full picture. Then you can run analytics to calculate multiple cost and performance metrics and how those metrics would change if you changed key drivers, such as supplier lead times.

Gaming Out Your Logistical Response to the Corona Virus

Gaming Out Your Logistical Response to the Corona Virus

This short note is about one way your business can develop a plan to adjust to one of the likely fallouts from the virus: sudden increases in the time it takes to get inventory replenishment from suppliers. Supply chains around the world are being disrupted. If this happens to you, how can you react in a systematic way?

TOP 3 COMMON INVENTORY POLICIES

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In this Video Dr. Thomas Willemain, co–Founder and SVP Research, defines and compares the three most used inventory control policies. These policies are divided into two groups, periodic review and continuous review. There is also a fourth policy called MRP logic or forecast based inventory planning which is the subject of a separate video blog that you can see here. These videos explain each policy, how they are used in practice and the pros and cons of each approach.

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FORECAST DRIVEN INVENTORY MANAGEMENT

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

Improve Forecast Accuracy, Eliminate Excess Inventory, & Maximize Service Levels

In this Video Dr. Thomas Willemain, co–Founder and SVP Research, talks about forecast-based inventory management policy, also known as MRP logic. This is the fourth in our series on major approaches to managing inventory.  We begin by looking at some very simple and then more robust models of inventory dynamics that help us determine how much to order or manufacture and when. We then consider how to calculate lead time and account for lead time variability. Tom concludes by describing the importance of safety stock, it’s role in properly buffering against demand and supply uncertainty, and how best to calculate it. 

 

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Clean, accessible and actionable data under one roof

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Pulling all the data together on the cloud lets you automatically refresh the data every day and always see the full picture. Then you can run analytics to calculate multiple cost and performance metrics and how those metrics would change if you changed key drivers, such as supplier lead times.

Gaming Out Your Logistical Response to the Corona Virus

Gaming Out Your Logistical Response to the Corona Virus

This short note is about one way your business can develop a plan to adjust to one of the likely fallouts from the virus: sudden increases in the time it takes to get inventory replenishment from suppliers. Supply chains around the world are being disrupted. If this happens to you, how can you react in a systematic way?

TOP 3 COMMON INVENTORY POLICIES

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In this Video Dr. Thomas Willemain, co–Founder and SVP Research, defines and compares the three most used inventory control policies. These policies are divided into two groups, periodic review and continuous review. There is also a fourth policy called MRP logic or forecast based inventory planning which is the subject of a separate video blog that you can see here. These videos explain each policy, how they are used in practice and the pros and cons of each approach.

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Managing Demand Variability

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

Anybody doing the job knows that managing inventory can be stressful. Common stressors include: Customers with “special” requests, IT departments with other priorities, balky ERP systems running on inaccurate data, raw material shortages, suppliers with long lead times in far-away countries where production often stops for various reasons and more. This note will address one particular and ever-present source of stress: demand variability.

Everybody Has a Forecasting Problem

 

Suppose you manage a large fleet of spare parts. These might be surgical equipment for your hospital, or repair parts for your power station. Your mission is to maximize up time. Your enemy is down time. But because breakdowns hit at random, you are constantly in reactive mode. You might hope for rescue from forecasting technologies. But forecasts are inevitably imperfect to some degree: the element of surprise is always present.  You might wait for Internet of Things (IOT) tech to be deployed on your equipment to monitor and detect impending failures, helping you schedule repairs well in advance. But you know you can’t meter up the thousands of small things that can fail and disable a big thing.

So, you decide to combine forecasting with inventory management and build buffers or safety stock to protect against surprise spikes in demand. Now you have to work out how much safety stock to maintain, knowing that too little means vulnerability and too much means bloat.

Suppose you handle finished goods inventories for a make-to-stock company. Your problem is essentially the same as in managing service parts: You have external customers and uncertain demand. But you may also have additional problems in terms of synchronizing multiple suppliers of components that you assemble into finished goods. The suppliers want you to tell them how much of their stuff to make so you can make your stuff, but you don’t know how much of your own stuff you’ll need to make.

Finally, suppose you handle finished goods in a build-to-order company. You might think that you no longer have a forecasting problem, since you don’t build until you are paid to build. But you do have a forecasting problem. Since your finished goods might be assembled from a mixture of components and sub-assemblies, you have to translate some forecast of finished goods demand to work out a forecast of those components. Otherwise, you will go to make your finished goods and discover that you don’t have a required component and have to wait until you can re-actively assemble everything you need. And your customers might not be willing to wait.

So, everybody has a forecasting problem.

What Makes Forecasting Difficult

 

Forecasting can be quick, easy and dead accurate – as long as the world is simple. If demand for your product is 10 units every week, month after month, you can make very accurate forecasts. But life is not quite like that. If you’re lucky and life is almost like that – maybe weekly demand is more like {10, 9, 10, 8, 12, 10, 10…} — you can still make very accurate forecast and just make minor adjustments around the edges. But if life is as it more often is – maybe weekly demand looks like {0, 0, 7, 0, 0, 0, 23, 0 …} – demand forecasting is difficult indeed. The key distinction is demand variability: it’s the zigging and zagging that creates the pain.

Safety Stock Takes Over Where Forecasting Leaves Off

 

Statistical forecasting methods are an important part of the solution. They let you squeeze as much advantage as possible from the historical patterns of demand your company has recorded for each item. The job of forecasts is to describe what is typical, which provides the base on which to cope with randomness in demand. Statistical forecasting techniques work by finding “big picture” features in demand records, such as trend and seasonality, then projecting those into the future. They all implicitly assume that whatever patterns exist now will persist, so 5% growth will continue, and July demand will always be 20% higher than February demand. To get to that point, statistical forecasting methods use some form of averaging to smother the “noise” in the demand history.

But then the rest of the job falls on inventory management, because the atypical, random component of future demand will still be a hassle in the future. This inevitable level of uncertainty has to be handled by the “shock-absorber” called safety stock.

The same methods that produce forecasts of trend and/or seasonality can be used to estimate the amount of forecast error. This has to be done carefully using a method called “holdout analysis”.  It works like this. Suppose you have 365 observations of daily demand for Item X, which has a replenishment lead time of 10 days. You want to know how many units will be demanded over some future 10-day period. You might input the first 305 days of demand history into the forecasting technique and get forecasts for the next 10 days, days 306-315.

The answer gives you one estimate of the 10-day total demand. Importantly, it also gives you one estimate of the variability around that forecast, i.e., the forecast error, the difference between what actually happened in days 306-315 and what was forecasted. Now you can repeat the process, this time using the first 306 days to forecast the next 10, the first 307 days to forecast the next 10, etc. You end up with 52 honest estimates of the variability of total demand over a 10-day lead time. Suppose 95% of those estimates are less than 28 units. Then 28 units would be a pretty safe safety stock to add to the forecast, since you will run into shortages only 5% of the time.

Modern statistical software does these calculations automatically. It can ease at least one of the chronic headaches of inventory management by helping you cope with demand variability.

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How to Choose a Target Service Level to Optimize Inventory

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 blog article on how to measure the accuracy of your service level forecast so you don’t make this costly mistake.

Volume and color boxes in a warehouese

 

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Clean, accessible and actionable data under one roof

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Pulling all the data together on the cloud lets you automatically refresh the data every day and always see the full picture. Then you can run analytics to calculate multiple cost and performance metrics and how those metrics would change if you changed key drivers, such as supplier lead times.

Gaming Out Your Logistical Response to the Corona Virus

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This short note is about one way your business can develop a plan to adjust to one of the likely fallouts from the virus: sudden increases in the time it takes to get inventory replenishment from suppliers. Supply chains around the world are being disrupted. If this happens to you, how can you react in a systematic way?

TOP 3 COMMON INVENTORY POLICIES

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In this Video Dr. Thomas Willemain, co–Founder and SVP Research, defines and compares the three most used inventory control policies. These policies are divided into two groups, periodic review and continuous review. There is also a fourth policy called MRP logic or forecast based inventory planning which is the subject of a separate video blog that you can see here. These videos explain each policy, how they are used in practice and the pros and cons of each approach.

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