Direct to the Brain of the Boss – Inventory Analytics and Reporting

I’ll start with a confession: I’m an algorithm guy. My heart lives in the “engine room” of our software, where lightning-fast calculations zip back and forth across the AWS cloud, generating demand and supply scenarios used to guide important decisions about demand forecasting and inventory management.

But I recognize that the target of all that beautiful, furious calculation is the brain of the boss, the person responsible for making sure that customer demand is satisfied in the most efficient and profitable way. So, this blog is about Smart Operational Analytics (SOA), which creates reports for management. Or, as they are called in the military, sit-reps.

All the calculations guided by the planners using our software ultimately get distilled into the SOA reports for management. The reports focus on five areas: inventory analysis, inventory performance, inventory trending, supplier performance, and demand anomalies.

Inventory Analysis

These reports keep tabs on current inventory levels and identify areas that need improvement. The focus is on current inventory counts and their status (on hand, in transit, in quarantine), inventory turns, and excesses vs shortages.

Inventory Performance

These reports track Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as Fill Rates, Service Levels, and inventory Costs. The analytic calculations elsewhere in the software guide you toward achieving your KPI targets by calculating Key Performance Predictions (KPPs) based on recommended settings for, e.g., reorder points and order quantities. But sometimes surprises occur, or operating policies are not executed as recommended, so there will always be some slippage between KPPs and KPIs.

Inventory Trending

Knowing where things stand today is important, but seeing where things are trending is also valuable. These reports reveal trends in item demand, stockout events, average days on hand, average time to ship, and more.

Supplier Performance

Your company cannot perform at its best if your suppliers are dragging you down. These reports monitor supplier performance in terms of the accuracy and promptness of filling replenishment orders. Where you have multiple suppliers for the same item, they let you compare them.

Demand Anomalies

Your entire inventory system is demand driven, and all inventory control parameters are computed after modeling item demand. So if something odd is happening on the demand side, you must be vigilant and prepare to recalculate things like mins and maxes for items that are starting to act in odd ways.


The end point for all the massive calculations in our software is the dashboard showing management what’s going on, what’s next, and where to focus attention. Smart Inventory Analytics is the part of our software ecosystem aimed at your company’s C-Suite.

 Smart Reporting Studio Inventory Management Supply Software

Figure 1: Some sample reports in graphical form


You Need to Team up with the Algorithms

Over forty years ago, Smart Software consisted of three friends working to start a company in a church basement. Today, our team has expanded to operate from multiple locations across Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Texas, with team members in England, Spain, Armenia and India. Like many of you in your jobs,  we have found ways to make distributed teams work for us and for you.

This note is about a different kind of teamwork: the collaboration between you and our software that happens at your fingertips. I often write about the software itself and what goes on “under the hood”. This time, my subject is how you should best team up with the software.

Our software suite, Smart Inventory Planning and Optimization (Smart IP&O™) is capable of massively detailed calculations of future demand and the inventory control parameters (e.g., reorder points and order quantities) that would most effectively manage that demand. But your input is required to make the most of all that power. You need to team up with the algorithms.

That interaction can take several forms. You can start by simply assessing how you are doing now. The report writing functions in Smart IP&O (Smart Operational Analytics™) can collate and analyze all your transactional data to measure your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), both financial (e.g., inventory investment) and operational (e.g., fill rates).

The next step might be to use SIO (Smart Inventory Optimization™), the inventory analytics within SIP&O, to play “what-if” games with the software. For example, you might ask “What if we reduced the order quantity on item 1234 from 50 to 40?” The software grinds the numbers to let you know how that would play out, then you react. This can be useful, but what if you have 50,000 items to consider? You would want to do what-if games for a few critical items, but not all of them.

The real power comes with using the automatic optimization capability in SIO. Here you can team with the algorithms at scale. Using your business judgement, you can create “groups”, i.e., collections of items that share some critical features. For example, you might create a group for “critical spare parts for electric utility customers” consisting of 1,200 parts. Then again calling on your business judgement, you could specify what item availability standard should apply to all the items in that group (e.g., “at least 95% chance of not stocking out in a year”). Now the software can take over and automatically work out the best reorder points and order quantities for every one of those items to achieve your required item availability at the lowest possible total cost. And that, dear reader, is powerful teamwork.



Rethinking forecast accuracy: A shift from accuracy to error metrics

Measuring the accuracy of forecasts is an undeniably important part of the demand planning process. This forecasting scorecard could be built based on one of two contrasting viewpoints for computing metrics. The error viewpoint asks, “how far was the forecast from the actual?” The accuracy viewpoint asks, “how close was the forecast to the actual?” Both are valid, but error metrics provide more information.

Accuracy is represented as a percentage between zero and 100, while error percentages start at zero but have no upper limit. Reports of MAPE (mean absolute percent error) or other error metrics can be titled “forecast accuracy” reports, which blurs the distinction.  So, you may want to know how to convert from the error viewpoint to the accuracy viewpoint that your company espouses.  This blog describes how with some examples.

Accuracy metrics are computed such that when the actual equals the forecast then the accuracy is 100% and when the forecast is either double or half of the actual, then accuracy is 0%. Reports that compare the forecast to the actual often include the following:

  • The Actual
  • The Forecast
  • Unit Error = Forecast – Actual
  • Absolute Error = Absolute Value of Unit Error
  • Absolute % Error = Abs Error / Actual, as a %
  • Accuracy % = 100% – Absolute % Error

Look at a couple examples that illustrate the difference in the approaches. Say the Actual = 8 and the forecast is 10.

Unit Error is 10 – 8 = 2

Absolute % Error = 2 / 8, as a % = 0.25 * 100 = 25%

Accuracy = 100% – 25% = 75%.

Now let’s say the actual is 8 and the forecast is 24.

Unit Error is 24– 8 = 16

Absolute % Error = 16 / 8 as a % = 2 * 100 = 200%

Accuracy = 100% – 200% = negative is set to 0%.

In the first example, accuracy measurements provide the same information as error measurements since the forecast and actual are already relatively close. But when the error is more than double the actual, accuracy measurements bottom out at zero. It does correctly indicate the forecast was not at all accurate. But the second example is more accurate than a third, where the actual is 8 and the forecast is 200. That’s a distinction a 0 to 100% range of accuracy doesn’t register. In this final example:

Unit Error is 200 – 8 = 192

Absolute % Error = 192 / 8, as a % = 24 * 100 = 2,400%

Accuracy = 100% – 2,400% = negative is set to 0%.

Error metrics continue to provide information on how far the forecast is from the actual and arguably better represent forecast accuracy.

We encourage adopting the error viewpoint. You simply hope for a small error percentage to indicate the forecast was not far from the actual, instead of hoping for a large accuracy percentage to indicate the forecast was close to the actual.  This shift in mindset offers the same insights while eliminating distortions.





Using Key Performance Predictions to Plan Stocking Policies

I can’t imagine being an inventory planner in spare parts, distribution, or manufacturing and having to create safety stock levels, reorder points, and order suggestions without using key performance predictions of service levels, fill rates, and inventory costs:

Using Key Performance Predictions to Plan Stocking Policies Iventory

Smart’s Inventory Optimization solution generates out-of-the-box key performance predictions that dynamically simulate how your current stocking policies will perform against possible future demands.  It reports on how often you’ll stock out, the size of the stockouts, the value of your inventory, holding costs, and more.  It lets you proactively identify problems before they occur so you can take corrective action in the short term. You can create what-if scenarios by setting targeted service levels and modifying lead times so you an see the predicted impact of these changes before committing to it.

For example,

  • You can see if a proposed move from the current service level of 90% to a targeted service level of 97% is financially advantageous
  • You can automatically identify if a different service level target is even more profitable to your business that the proposed target.
  • You can see exactly how much you’ll need to increase your reorder points to accommodate a longer lead time.


If you aren’t equipping planners with the right tools, they’ll be forced to set stocking policies, safety stock levels, and create demand forecasts in Excel or with outdated ERP functionality.   Not knowing how policies are predicted to perform will leave your company ill equipped to properly allocate inventory.  Contact us today to learn how we can help!


Every Forecasting Model is Good for What it is Designed for

​When you should use traditional extrapolative forecasting techniques.

With so much hype around new Machine Learning (ML) and probabilistic forecasting methods, the traditional “extrapolative” or “time series” statistical forecasting methods seem to be getting the cold shoulder.  However, it is worth remembering that these traditional techniques (such as single and double exponential smoothing, linear and simple moving averaging, and Winters models for seasonal items) often work quite well for higher volume data. Every method is good for what it was designed to do.  Just apply each appropriately, as in don’t bring a knife to a gunfight and don’t use a jackhammer when a simple hand hammer will do. 

Extrapolative methods perform well when demand has high volume and is not too granular (i.e., demand is bucketed monthly or quarterly). They are also very fast and do not use as many computing resources as probabilistic and ML methods. This makes them very accessible.

Are the traditional methods as accurate as newer forecasting methods?  Smart has found that extrapolative methods do very poorly when demand is intermittent. However, when demand is higher volume, they only do slightly worse than our new probabilistic methods when demand is bucketed monthly.  Given their accessibility, speed, and the fact you are going to apply forecast overrides based on business knowledge, the baseline accuracy difference here will not be material.

The advantage of more advanced models like Smart’s GEN2 probabilistic methods is when you need to predict patterns using more granular buckets like daily (or even weekly) data.  This is because probabilistic models can simulate day of the week, week of the month, and month of the year patterns that are going to be lost with simpler techniques.  Have you ever tried to predict daily seasonality with a Winter’s model? Here is a hint: It’s not going to work and requires lots of engineering.

Probabilistic methods also provide value beyond the baseline forecast because they generate scenarios to use in stress-testing inventory control models. This makes them more appropriate for assessing, say, how a change in reorder point will impact stockout probabilities, fill rates, and other KPIs. By simulating thousands of possible demands over many lead times (which are themselves presented in scenario form), you’ll have a much better idea of how your current and proposed stocking policies will perform. You can make better decisions on where to make targeted stock increases and decreases.

So, don’t throw out the old for the new just yet. Just know when you need a hammer and when you need a jackhammer.





Top Differences Between Inventory Planning for Finished Goods and for MRO and Spare Parts

What’s different about inventory planning for Maintenance, Repair, and Operations (MRO) compared to inventory planning in manufacturing and distribution environments? In short, it’s the nature of the demand patterns combined with the lack of actionable business knowledge.

Demand Patterns

Manufacturers and distributors tend to focus on the top sellers that generate the majority of their revenue. These items typically have high demand that is relatively easy to forecast with traditional time series models that capitalize on predictable trend and/or seasonality.  In contrast, MRO planners almost always deal with intermittent demand, which is more sparse, more random, and harder to forecast.  Furthermore, the fundamental quantities of interest are different. MRO planners ultimately care most about the “when” question:  When will something break? Whereas the others focus on the “how much” question of units sold.


Business Knowledge

Manufacturing and distribution planners can often count on gathering customer and sales feedback, which can be combined with statistical methods to improve forecast accuracy. On the other hand, bearings, gears, consumable parts, and repairable parts are rarely willing to share their opinions. With MRO, business knowledge about which parts will be needed and when just isn’t reliable (excepting planned maintenance when higher-volume consumable parts are replaced). So, MRO inventory planning success goes only as far as their probability models’ ability to predict future usage takes them. And since demand is so intermittent, they can’t get past Go with traditional approaches.


Methods for MRO

In practice, it is common for MRO and asset-intensive businesses to manage inventories by resorting to static Min/Max levels based on subjective multiples of average usage, supplemented by occasional manual overrides based on gut feel. The process becomes a bad mixture of static and reactive, with the result that a lot of time and money is wasted on expediting.

There are alternative planning methods based more on math and data, though this style of planning is less common in MRO than in the other domains. There are two leading approaches to modeling part and machine breakdown: models based on reliability theory and “condition-based maintenance” models based on real-time monitoring.


Reliability Models

Reliability models are the simpler of the two and require less data. They assume that all items of the same type, say a certain spare part, are statistically equivalent. Their key component is a “hazard function”, which describes the risk of failure in the next little interval of time. The hazard function can be translated into something better suited for decision making: the “survival function”, which is the probability that the item is still working after X amount of use (where X might be expressed in days, months, miles, uses, etc.). Figure 1 shows a constant hazard function and its corresponding survival function.


MRO and Spare Parts function and its survival function

Figure 1: Constant hazard function and its survival function


A hazard function that doesn’t change implies that only random accidents will cause a failure. In contrast, a hazard function that increases over time implies that the item is wearing out. And a decreasing hazard function implies that an item is settling in. Figure 2 shows an increasing hazard function and its corresponding survival function.


MRO and Spare Parts Increasing hazard function and survival function

Figure 2: Increasing hazard function and its survival function


Reliability models are often used for inexpensive parts, such as mechanical fasteners, whose replacement may be neither difficult nor expensive (but still might be essential).


Condition-Based Maintenance

Models based on real-time monitoring are used to support condition-based maintenance (CBM) for expensive items like jet engines. These models use data from sensors embedded in the items themselves. Such data are usually complex and proprietary, as are the probability models supported by the data. The payoff from real-time monitoring is that you can see trouble coming, i.e., the deterioration is made visible, and forecasts can predict when the item will hit its red line and therefore need to be taken off the field of play. This allows individualized, pro-active maintenance or replacement of the item.

Figure 3 illustrates the kind of data used in CBM. Each time the system is used, there is a contribution to its cumulative wear and tear. (However, note that sometimes use can improve the condition of the unit, as when rain helps keep a piece of machinery cool). You can see the general trend upward toward a red line after which the unit will require maintenance. You can extrapolate the cumulative wear to estimate when it will hit the red line and plan accordingly.


MRO and Spare Parts real-time monitoring for condition-based maintenance

Figure 3: Illustrating real-time monitoring for condition-based maintenance


To my knowledge, nobody makes such models of their finished goods customers to predict when and how much they will next order, perhaps because the customers would object to wearing brain monitors all the time. But CBM, with its complex monitoring and modeling, is gaining in popularity for can’t-fail systems like jet engines. Meanwhile, classical reliability models still have a lot of value for managing large fleets of cheaper but still essential items.


Smart’s approach
The above condition-based maintenance and reliability approaches require an excessive data collection and cleansing burden that many MRO companies are unable to manage. For those companies, Smart offers an approach that does not require development of reliability models. Instead, it exploits usage data in a different way. It leverages probability-based models of both usage and supplier lead times to simulate thousands of possible scenarios for replenishment lead times and demand.  The result is an accurate distribution of demand and lead times for each consumable part that can be exploited to determine optimal stocking parameters.   Figure 4 shows a simulation that begins with a scenario for spare part demand (upper plot) then produces a scenario of on-hand supply for particular choices of Min/Max values (lower line). Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) can be estimated by averaging the results of many such simulations.

MRO and Spare Parts simulation of demand and on-hand inventory

Figure 4: An example of a simulation of spare part demand and on-hand inventory

You can read about Smart’s approach to forecasting spare parts here:



Spare Parts Planning Software solutions

Smart IP&O’s service parts forecasting software uses a unique empirical probabilistic forecasting approach that is engineered for intermittent demand. For consumable spare parts, our patented and APICS award winning method rapidly generates tens of thousands of demand scenarios without relying on the assumptions about the nature of demand distributions implicit in traditional forecasting methods. The result is highly accurate estimates of safety stock, reorder points, and service levels, which leads to higher service levels and lower inventory costs. For repairable spare parts, Smart’s Repair and Return Module accurately simulates the processes of part breakdown and repair. It predicts downtime, service levels, and inventory costs associated with the current rotating spare parts pool. Planners will know how many spares to stock to achieve short- and long-term service level requirements and, in operational settings, whether to wait for repairs to be completed and returned to service or to purchase additional service spares from suppliers, avoiding unnecessary buying and equipment downtime.

Contact us to learn more how this functionality has helped our customers in the MRO, Field Service, Utility, Mining, and Public Transportation sectors to optimize their inventory. You can also download the Whitepaper here.



White Paper: What you Need to know about Forecasting and Planning Service Parts


This paper describes Smart Software’s patented methodology for forecasting demand, safety stocks, and reorder points on items such as service parts and components with intermittent demand, and provides several examples of customer success.