The Smart Forecaster
Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization
Fluctuations in an inventory supply chain are inevitable. Randomness, which can be a source of confusion and frustration, guarantees it. A ship carrying goods from China may be delayed by a storm at sea. A sudden upswing in demand one day can wipe out inventory in a single day, leaving you unable to meet the next day’s demand. Randomness creates frictions that make it hard to do your job.
At first blush, it sometimes seems best to respond to randomness with the ostrich approach: head buried in the sand. You can settle on a prediction and proceed on the assumption that the prediction will always be spot on. The flaw in that approach is that it ignores statistical methods that allow us to make use of a wealth of knowledge about our knowledge itself—how confident we can be in our predictions, and what breadth of possibilities confront us. The efficient approach to tackling the problems that stem from randomness is not to ignore uncertainty, but to embrace it with eyes open.
As a fundamental tenet of Smart Software’s approach to forecasting, we will always provide you with an assessment of the level of uncertainty in forecasts. If you are expecting nothing more than an absolute figure—the demand for widgets in February will be 120 units—you may dismiss the added element of uncertainty as a negative, or lose faith in a forecast you had hoped would be definite. But we argue for what we consider the adult approach; you need to know what you are risking when you commit to a forecast and premise your decision-making upon it.
Your forecasts can have big consequences that go beyond inventory stocking levels. They can determine your raw materials needs or staffing levels—forecasts drive many important resource allocation decisions. If you have too much faith in the most likely outcome, without also specifically considering just how likely it is, you aren’t really understanding the risks you face, and you may put yourself in a precarious position.
The need to make fully informed decisions forces us to see, in a forecast, the plus/minus range of results with a certain likelihood of occurring. In the specific case of forecasts that are going into inventory systems, this is an important part of deliberately planning for contingencies. This is how you determine not only the inventory you need to maintain in order to satisfy typical demand, but also the additional inventory you need on hand to deal with most unexpected outcomes.
This importance only increases when you are trying to maintain a reliable store of critical spare parts. Between the cost of stocking additional inventory, and accounting for the degree of reliability in your forecasts, there is a balance that crystallizes when an airplane that you need in the air is grounded—because you don’t have the replacement for a damaged part.
(While stocking extra inventory relies on the high end of the uncertainty range, if cash flow is tight, it’s the low end of the range that becomes important. Treasury-minded users find value in this other side of uncertainty in scenarios where even minimal overstocking can be more of a problem than a missed sales opportunity, for example. Reliable information about the lowest likely outcomes pays off at this time.)
Inventory theory says that you need to think about the outer ends of likely possibilities and prepare to cope with more scenarios than just what is most likely. Randomness is a reality that can’t be ignored. The average is not the answer.
Thomas Willemain, PhD, co-founded Smart Software and currently serves as Senior Vice President for Research. Dr. Willemain also serves as Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and as a member of the research staff at the Center for Computing Sciences, Institute for Defense Analyses.
In the supply chain planning world, the most fundamental decision is how to balance item availability against the cost of maintaining that availability (service levels and fill rates). At one extreme, you can grossly overstock and never run out until you go broke and have to close up shop from sinking all your cash into inventory that doesn’t sell. At the other extreme, you can grossly understock and save a bundle on inventory holding costs but go broke and have to close up shop because all your customers took their business elsewhere.
An inventory professional who is responsible for 10,000 items has 10,000 things to stress over every day. Double that for someone responsible for 20,000 items. In the crush of business, routine decisions often take second place to fire-fighting: dealing with supplier hiccups, straightening out paperwork mistakes, recovering from that collision between a truck and the loading dock.
Consider what is meant by “demand management”, “demand planning”, and “forecasting”. These terms imply certain standard functionality for collaboration, statistical analysis, and reporting to support a professional demand planning process. However, in most ERP systems, “demand management” running MRP and reconciling demand and supply for the purpose of placing orders