The Smart Forecaster
Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization
Physicists like my Smart Software co-founder, Dr. Nelson Hartunian, tell us civilians that everything is different when we drill down to the tiniest level of the world. Physics at the quantum level is quite weird – not at all like what we experience in our usual macroscopic life. Among the oddities are “superposition”, “entanglement”, and “quantum foam.” Weird as these phenomena are, I cannot help seeing analogs in the supposedly different world of supply chain management.
Consider quantum superposition. Briefly, superposition means any quantum entity can be in two states at once. Schrödinger’s cat is the most famous illustration of this idea. But how many of you readers are also in a state of superposition? Don’t you find yourself being a manager of a team yet a member of your supervisor’s team, a trouble-shooter yet also a forecasting expert or an inventory optimizer and…? And doesn’t all this make you sometimes feel, like that cat, that you are simultaneously both dead and alive? Modern software can ease some of this burden by automating the tasks of demand planning and inventory optimization. The rest is up to you.
A second quantum analog is entanglement. Briefly, entanglement is the linkage between two elements of a system. They can be light years apart, yet changing one part of an entangled system will instantaneously change the other part. This bugged Albert Einstein, who derided it as “spooky action as a distance.” In our regular world, demand planning and inventory optimization are entangled, since the process of inventory optimization sits on top of the process of demand forecasting. Modern software links the two in an efficient interface.
Finally, the quantum foam – one of my favorite ideas. As I understand it, quantum foam is a substitute for empty space: there is no empty space, rather a constant bubbling of “vacuum energy” accompanied by a flux of “virtual particles” being born out of nothing and then disappearing back into nothing. In the supply chain world, the analogs of virtual particles are customer orders. Often it seems that they pop up with no warning out of thin air, and sometimes they disappear by cancellation in an equally random and mysterious process. This kind of demand fluctuation is the basis for all the theory of inventory control. Modern software therefore begins with probability models of customer demand. Those models then have implications for such tangible quantities as safety stocks, reorder points, and order quantities.
Does it really help demand planners and inventory managers to think about these ideas from quantum physics? Well, it’s a bit of fun to see the analogies to our regular world of work. And they do remind us of more macroscopic matters: the basic concepts of the need to deal with more than one task simultaneously, the linkage between forecasting and inventory management, and randomness as the fundamental feature of the supply chain.
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