Six Steps Up the Learning Curve for New Planners

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

forecasting and inventory optimization

If you are a new professional in the field of inventory management, you face a very steep learning curve. There are many moving parts in the system you manage, and much of the movement is random. You may find it helpful to take a step back from the day-to-day flow to think about what it takes to be successful. Here are six suggestions that you may find useful; they are distilled from working over thirty five years with some very smart practitioners.

 

1. Know what winning means.

Inventory management is not a squishy area where success can be described in vague language. Success here is a numbers game. There a number of key performance indicators (KPI’s) available to you, including Service Level, Fill Rate, Inventory Turns, Inventory Investment, and Inventory Operating Cost. Companies differ in the importance they assign to each metric such, but you can’t win without using some or all of these to keep score.

But “winning” is not as simple as getting the best possible score on each metric. The metric values that are most important vary across companies. Your company may prioritize customer service over cost control, or vice versa, and next year it might have reason to reverse that preference.

Furthermore, there are linkages among KPI’s that require you to think of them simultaneously rather than as a collection of independent scores. For example, improving Service Level will usually also improve Fill Rate, which is good, but it will also usually increase Operating Cost, which is not good.

These linkages express themselves as tradeoffs. And while the KPI’s themselves are numbers, the management of the bundle of KPI’s requires some wise subjectivity, because what is needed is a reasonable balance among competing forces. The fundamental tradeoff is to balance the cost of having inventory against the value of having the inventory available to those who need it.

If you are relatively junior, these tradeoff judgments may be made higher in the organization, but even then you can play a useful role by insuring that the tradeoffs are exposed and appreciated. This means exposed at a quantitative level, e.g., “We can increase Service Level from 85% to 90%, but it will require $100K more stock in the warehouse.” This kind of specific quantitative knowledge can be provided by advanced supply chain analytics.

 

2. Keep score.

We’re all a bit squeamish about being measured, but confident professionals insist on keeping score. Enlightened supervisors understand that external forces can ding the performance of your system (e.g., a key supplier disappears), and that always helps. But whether or not you have good top cover, you cannot demonstrate success, nor can you react to problems, without measuring those KPI’s.

Keeping score is important, but so is understanding what influences score. Suppose your Service Level has dropped from last month’s value. Is that just the usual month-to-month fluctuation or is it something out of the ordinary? If it is problematic, then you need to diagnose the problem. Often there are several possible suspects. For example, Service Level can drop because the sales and marketing folks did something great and demand has spiked, or because a supplier did something not so great and replenishment lead time has tanked. Software can help you track these key inputs to help your detective work, and supply chain analytics can estimate the impacts of changes in these inputs and point you to compensating responses.

 

3. Be sure your decisions are fact-based.

Software can guide you to good decisions, but only if you let it. Inputs such as holding costs, ordering costs, and shortage costs need to be well estimated to get accurate assessment of tradeoffs. Especially important is something as apparently simple as using correct values for item demand, since modeling demand is the starting point for simulating the results of any proposed inventory system design. In fact, if we are willing to stretch the meaning of “fact” a bit to include the results of system simulations, you should not commit to major changes without having reliable predictions of what will happen when you commit to those changes.

 

4. Realize that yesterday’s answer may not be today’s answer.

Supply chains are collections of parts, all of which are subject to change over time. Demand that is trending up may start to trend down. Replenishment lead times may slip. Supplier order minima may increase. Component prices may increase due to tariffs. Such factors mean that the facts you collected yesterday can be out of date today, making yesterday’s decisions inappropriate for today’s problems. Vigilance. Check out a prior article detailing the adverse financial impact of infrequent updates to planning parameters.

 

5. Give each item its due.

If you are responsible for hundreds or thousands of inventory items, you will be tempted to simplify your life by adopting a “one size fits all” approach. Don’t. SKU’s aren’t exactly like snowflakes, but some differentiation is required to do your job well. It’s a good idea to form groups of items based on some salient characteristics. Some items are critical and must (almost) always be available; others can run some reasonable risk of being backordered. Some items are quite unpredictable because they are “intermittent” (i.e., have lots of zero values with nonzero values mixed in at random); others have high volume and are reasonably predictable. Some items can be managed with relatively inexpensive inventory methods that make adjustments every month; some items need methods that continuously monitor and adjust the stock on hand. Some items, such as contractual purchases, may be so predictable that you can treat them as “planned demand” and pull them out from the rest.

Once you have formed sensible item groups, you still have decisions to make about each item in each group, such as deciding their reorder points and order quantities. Here advanced analytics can take over and automatically compute the best choices based on what winning means in the context of that group.  

 

6. Get everybody on the same page.

Being organized is not only pleasing, it’s efficient. If you have a system for inventory management, then everybody on your team shares the same objectives and follows the same processes. If you don’t have a system, then every planner has his or her own way of thinking about the problem and making decisions. Some of those are bound to be better than others. It’s desirable to standardize on the best practices and ban the rest. Besides being more efficient, having a standardized process makes it easier to diagnose problems when things go wrong and to implement fixes.

 

Volume and color boxes in a warehouese

 

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    Here are six suggestions that you may find useful; they are distilled from working over thirty five years with some very smart practitioners. Cloud computing companies with unique server and hardware parts, e-commerce, online retailers, home and office supply companies, onsite furniture, power utilities, intensive assets maintenance or warehousing for water supply companies have increased their activity during the pandemic. Garages selling car parts and truck parts, pharmaceuticals, healthcare or medical supply manufacturers and safety product suppliers are dealing with increasing demand. Delivery service companies, cleaning services, liquor stores and canned or jarred goods warehouses, home improvement stores, gardening suppliers, yard care companies, hardware, kitchen and baking supplies stores, home furniture suppliers with high demand are facing stockouts, long lead times, inventory shortage costs, higher operating costs and ordering costs.

    5 Demand Planning Tips for Calculating Forecast Uncertainty

    The Smart Forecaster

    Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

    forecasting and inventory optimization

    Those who produce forecasts owe it to those who consume forecasts, and to themselves, to be aware of the uncertainty in their forecasts. This note is about how to estimate forecast uncertainty and use the estimates in your demand planning process. We focus on forecasts made in support of demand planning as well as forecasts inherent in optimizing inventory policies involving reorder points, safety stocks, and min/max levels.

    Reading this, you will learn about:

    -Criteria for assessing forecasts
    -Sources of forecast error
    -Calculating forecast error
    -Converting forecast error into prediction intervals
    -The relationship between demand forecasting and inventory optimization.
    -Actions you can take to use these concepts to improve your company’s processes.

    Criteria for Assessing Forecasts

    Forecast error alone is not reason enough to reject forecasting as a management tool. To twist a famous aphorism by George Box, “All forecasts are wrong, but some are useful.” Of course, business professionals will always search for ways to make forecasts more useful. This usually involves work to reduce forecast error. But while forecast accuracy is the most obvious criterion by which to judge forecasts, but it is not the only one. Here’s a list of criteria for evaluating forecasts:

    Accuracy: Forecasts of future values should, in retrospect, be very close to the actual values that eventually reveal themselves. But there may be diminishing returns to squeezing another half percent of accuracy out of forecasts otherwise good enough to use in decision making.

    Timeliness: Fighter pilots refer to the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) and the “need to get inside the enemy’s OODA loop” so they can shoot first. Businesses too have decision cycles. Delivering a perfectly accurate forecast the day after it was needed is not helpful. Better is a good forecast that arrives in time to be useful.

    Cost: Forecasting data, models, processes and people all cost money.  A less expensive forecast might be fueled by data that are readily available; more expensive would be a forecast that runs on data that have to be collected in a special process outside the scope of a firm’s information infrastructure.  A classic, off-the-shelf forecasting technique will be less costly to acquire, feed and exploit than a complex, custom, consultant-supplied method. Forecasts could be mass-produced by software overseen by a single analyst, or they might emerge from a collaborative process requiring time and effort from large groups of people, such as district sales managers, production teams, and others. Technically advanced forecasting techniques often require hiring staff with specialized technical expertise, such as a master’s degree in statistics, who tend to cost more than staff with less advanced training.

    Credibility: Ultimately, some executive has to accept and act on each forecast. Executives have a tendency to distrust or ignore recommendations that they can neither understand nor explain to the next person above them in the hierarchy. For many, believing in a “black box” is too severe a test of faith, and they reject the black box’s forecasts in favor of something more transparent.

    All that said, we will focus now on forecast accuracy and its evil twin, forecast error.

    Sources of Forecast Error

    Those seeking to reduce error can look in three places to find trouble:
    1. The data that goes into a forecasting model
    2. The model itself
    3. The context of the forecasting exercise

    There are several ways in which data problems can lead to forecast error.

    Gross errors: Wrong data produce wrong forecasts. We have seen an instance in which computer records of product demand were wrong by a factor of two! Those involved spotted that problem immediately, but a less egregious situation can easily slip through to poison the forecasting process. In fact, just organizing, acquiring and checking data is often the largest source of delay in the implementation of forecasting software. Many data problems seem to derive from the data having been unimportant until a forecasting project made them important.

    Anomalies: Even with perfectly curated forecasting databases, there are often “needle in a haystack” type data problems. In these cases, it is not data errors but demand anomalies that contribute to forecast error. In a set of, say, 50,000 products, some number of items are likely to have odd details that can distort forecasts.

    Holdout analysis is a simple but powerful method of analysis. To see how well a method forecasts, use it with older known data to forecast newer data, then see how it would have turned out! For instance, suppose you have 36 months of demand data and need to forecast 3 months ahead. You can simulate the forecasting process by holding out (i.e., hiding) the most recent 3 months of data, forecasting using only data from months 1 to 33, then comparing the forecasts for months 34-36 against the actual values in months 34-36. Sliding simulation merely repeats the holdout analysis, sliding along the demand history. The example above used the first 33 months of data to get 3 estimates of forecast error. Suppose we start the process by using the first 12 months to forecast the next 3. Then we slide forward and use the first 13 months to forecast the next 3. We continue until finally we use the first 35 months to forecast the last month, giving us one more estimate of the error we make when forecasting one month ahead. Summarizing all the 1-step ahead, 2-step ahead and 3-step ahead forecast errors provides a way to calculate prediction intervals.

    Calculating Prediction Intervals

    The final step in calculating prediction intervals is to convert the estimates of average absolute error into the upper and lower limits of the prediction interval. The prediction interval at any future time is computed as

    Prediction interval = Forecast ± Multiplier x Average absolute error.

    The final step is the choice of the multiplier. The typical approach is to imagine some probability distribution of error around the forecast, then estimate the ends of the prediction interval using appropriate percentiles of that distribution. Usually, the assumed distribution of error is the Normal distribution, also called the Gaussian distribution or the “bell-shaped curve”.

    Use of Prediction Intervals
    The most immediate, informal use of prediction intervals is to convey a sense of how “squishy” a forecast is. Prediction intervals that are wide compared to the size of the forecasts indicate high uncertainty.

    There are two more formal uses in demand forecasting: Hedging your bets about future demand and guiding forecast adjustment.

    Hedging your bets: The forecast values themselves approximate the most likely values of future demand. A more ominous way to say the same thing is that there is about a 50% chance that the actual value will be above (or below) the forecast. If the forecast is being used to plan future production (or raw materials purchase or hiring), you might want to build in a cushion to keep from being caught short if demand spikes (assuming that under-building is worse than over-building). If the forecast is converted from units to dollars for revenue projections, you might want to use a value below the forecast to be conservative in projecting cash flow. In either case, you first have to choose the coverage of the prediction interval. A 90% prediction interval is a range of values that covers 90% of the possibilities. This implies that there is a 5% chance of a value falling above the upper limit of the 90% prediction interval. In other words, the upper limit of a 90% prediction interval marks the 95th percentile of the distribution of predicted demand at that time period. Similarly, there is a 5% chance of falling below the lower limit, which marks the 5th percentile of the demand distribution.

    Guiding forecast adjustment: It is quite common for statistical forecasts to be revised by some sort of collaborative process. These adjustments are based on information not recorded in an item’s demand history, such as intelligence about competitor actions. Sometimes they are based on a more vaporous source, such as sales force optimism. When the adjustments are made on-screen for all to see, the prediction intervals provide a useful reference: If someone wants to move the forecasts outside the prediction intervals, they are crossing a fact-based line and should have a good story to justify their argument that things will be really different in the future.

    Prediction Intervals and Inventory Optimization

    Finally, the concept behind prediction intervals play an essential role in a problem related to demand forecasting: Inventory Optimization.
    The core analytic task in setting reorders points (also called Mins) is to forecast total demand over a replenishment lead time. This total is called the lead time demand. When on-hand inventory falls down to or below the reorder point, a replenishment order is triggered. If the reorder point is high enough, there will be an acceptably small risk of a stockout, i.e., of lead time demand driving inventory below zero and creating either lost sales or backorders.

    SDP_Screenshot new statistical methods planning

    New statistical methods, and we can start planning more effectively.

    The forecasting task is to determine all the possible values of cumulative demand over the lead time and their associated probabilities of occurring. In other words, the basic task is to determine a prediction interval for some future random variable. Suppose you have computed a 90% prediction interval for lead time demand. Then the upper end of the interval represents the 95th percentile of the distribution. Setting the reorder point at this level will accommodate 95% of the possible lead time demand values, meaning there will be only a 5% chance of stocking out before replenishment arrives to re-stock the shelves. Thus there is an intimate relationship between prediction intervals in demand forecasting and calculation of reorder points in inventory optimization.

     

    5 Recommendations for Practice

    1. Set expectations about error: Sometimes  managers have unreasonable expectations about reducing forecast error to zero. You can point out that error is only one of the dimensions on which a forecasting process must be judged; you may be doing fine on both timeliness and cost. Also point out that zero error is no more realistic a goal than 100% conversion of prospects into customers, perfect supplier performance, or zero stock price volatility.

    2. Track down sources of error: Double check the accuracy of demand histories. Use statistical methods to identify outliers in demand histories and react appropriately, replacing verified anomalies with more typical values and omitting data from before major changes in the character of the demand. If you use a collaborative forecasting process, compare its accuracy against a purely statistical approach to identify items for which collaboration does not reduce error.

    3. Evaluate the error of alternative statistical methods: There may be off-the-shelf techniques that do better than your current methods, or do better for some subsets of your items. The key is to be empirical, using the idea of holdout analysis. Gather your data and do a “bake off” between different methods to see which work better for you. If you are not already using statistical forecasting methods, compare them against whoever’s “golden gut” is your current standard. Use the naïve forecast as a benchmark in the comparisons.

    4. Investigate the use of new data sources: Especially if you have items that are heavily promoted, test out statistical methods that incorporate promotional data into the forecasting process. Also check whether information from outside your company can be exploited; for instance, see whether macroeconomic indicators for your sector can be combined with company data to improve forecast accuracy (this is usually done using a method called multiple regression analysis).

    5. Use prediction intervals: Plots of prediction intervals can improve your feel for the uncertainty in your forecasts, helping you select items for additional scrutiny. While it’s true that what you don’t know can hurt you, it’s also true that knowing what you don’t know can help you.

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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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        Want to Optimize Inventory? Follow These 4 Steps

        The Smart Forecaster

        Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

        forecasting and inventory optimization

        Service Level Driven Planning (SLDP) is an approach to inventory planning. It prescribes optimal service level targets continually identifies and communicates trade-offs between service and cost that are at the root of all wise inventory decisions. When an organization understands this relationship, they can communicate where they are at risk, where they are not, and effectively wield their inventory assets.  SLDP helps expose inventory imbalances and enables informed decisions on how best to correct them.  To implement SLDP, you’ll need to look beyond traditional planning approaches such as arbitrary service level targeting (all of my A items should get 99% service level, B items 95%, C items 80%, etc.) and demand forecasting that unrealistically attempts to predict exactly what will happen and when. SLDP unfolds in 4 steps: Benchmark, Collaborate, Plan, and Track.

         

        Step 1. Benchmark Performance

         

        All participants in the inventory planning and investment process must hold a common understanding of how current policy is performing across an agreed upon set of inventory metrics. Metrics should include historically achieved service levels and fill rates, delivery time to customers, supplier lead time performance, inventory turns, and inventory investment. Once these metrics have been benchmarked and can be reported on daily, the organization will have the information it needs to begin prioritize planning efforts. For example, if inventory has increased but service levels have not, this would indicate that the inventory is not being properly allocated across SKUs.  Reports should be generated within mouse-clicks enabling planners to focus on analysis instead of time intensive report generation.   Past performance isn’t a guarantee of future performance since demand variability, costs, priorities, and lead times are always changing. So SLDP enables predictive benchmarking that estimates what performance is likely to be in the future. Inventory optimization software utilizing probability forecasting can be used to estimate a realistic range of potential demands and replenishment cycles stress testing your planning parameters helping uncover how often and which items to expect stockouts and excess.

         

        Step 2. “What if” Planning & Collaboration

         

        “What if” inventory modeling and collaboration is at the heart of SLDP. The historical and predictive benchmarks should first be shared with all relevant stakeholders including sales, finance, and operations. Efforts should be placed on answering the following questions:

        – Are both the current performance and investment acceptable?
        – If not, how should they be improved?
        – Which SKUs are likely to be demanded next and in what quantities?
        – Where are we willing to take more stock out risk?
        – Where must stock-out risk be minimized?
        – What are the specific stock out costs?
        – What business rules and constraints must we adhere to (customer service level agreements, inventory thresholds, etc.)

        Once the above questions are answered, new inventory planning policies can be developed.  Inventory Optimization software can reconcile all costs associated with managing inventory including stockout costs to generate the right set of planning parameters (min/max, safety stock, reorder points, etc.) and prescribed service levels.  The optimal policy can be compared to the current policy and modified based on constraints and business rules. For example, certain items might be targeted at a target service level in order to conform to a customer service level agreement.   Various “what if” inventory planning scenarios can be developed and shared with key stakeholders. For example, you might model how shorter lead times impacts inventory costs. Once consensus has been achieved and the risks and costs are clearly communicated,  the modified policies can be uploaded to the ERP system to drive inventory replenishment.

         

        Step 3. Continually Plan and Manage by Exception

        SLDP continually reforecasts optimized planning parameters based on changing demands, lead times, costs, and other factors. This means that service levels and inventory value have the potential to change.  For example, the prescribed service level target of 95% might increase to 99% the next planning period if the stock-out costs on that item increased suddenly. This is also true if opting to arbitrarily target a given service level or fix planning parameters to a specific unit quantity. For example, a target service level of 95% might require $1,000 in inventory today but $2,000 next month if lead times spiked.  Similarly, a reorder point of 10 units might get 95% service today and only 85% service next month in response to increased demand variability. Inventory Optimization software will identify which items are forecasted to have significant changes in service level and/or inventory value and which items aren’t being ordered according to the consensus plan. Exception lists are automatically produced making it easy for you to review these items and decide how to manage them moving forward. Prescriptive Analytics can help identify whether the root cause of the change is a demand anomaly, change in overall demand variability, change in lead time, or change in cost helping you fine tune the policy accordingly.

         

        Step 4. Track Ongoing Performance

         

        SLDP processes regularly measure historical and current operational performance.   Results must be monitored to ensure that service levels are improving and inventory levels are decreasing when compared to the historical benchmarks determined in Step 1.  Track metrics such as turns, aggregate and item specific service levels, fill rates, out-of-stocks, and supplier lead time performance.  Share results across the organization and identify root causes to operational inefficiencies.  SLDP processes makes performance tracking easy by providing tools that automatically generate the necessary reports rather than placing this burden on planners to manage in Excel. Doing so enables the organization to uncover operational issues impacting performance and provide feedback on what is working and what should be improved.

        Conclusion

        The SLDP framework is a way to rationalize the inventory planning process and generate a significant economic return. Its organizing principle is that customer service levels and inventory costs associated with the chosen policy should be understood, tracked, and continually refined. Utilizing inventory optimization software helps ensure that you are able to identify the least-cost service level.  This creates a coherent, company-wide effort that combines visibility into current operations with scientific assessments of future risks and conditions. It is realized by a combination of executive vision, staff subject matter expertise, and the power of modern inventory planning and optimization software.

        See how Smart Inventory Optimization Supports Service Level Driven Planning and download the product sheet here: https://smartcorp.com/inventory-optimization/

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          Riding the Tradeoff Curve

          The Smart Forecaster

          Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

          forecasting and inventory optimization

          What We’re Up Against

          As a third-generation Boston Red Sox fan, I’m disinclined to take advice from any New York Yankee ballplayer, even a great one but have to agree that sometimes, you just need to make a decision.   However, wouldn’t it be better if we knew the tradeoffs associated with each decision. Perhaps one road is more scenic but takes longer while the other is more direct but boring. Then you wouldn’t have to simply “take it” but could make an informed decision based on the advantages/disadvantages of each approach.

          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.

          There is no escaping this fundamental tension. They way to survive and thrive is to find a productive and sustainable balance. To do that requires fact-based tradeoffs based on the numbers. To get the numbers requires software.

          The general drift of things is obvious. If you decide to keep more inventory, you will have more Holding Costs, lower Shortage Costs, and possibly lower Ordering Costs. Whether this costs or saves money is impossible to know without some sophisticated analysis, but usually the result is that the Total Cost goes up. But if you do invest in more inventory, something will be gained, because you will offer your customers higher Service Levels and Fill Rates. How much higher requires, as you might guess, some sophisticated analysis.

          Show Me the Numbers

          This blog lays out what such an analysis looks like. There is no universal solution pointing you to the “right” decision. You might think that the right decision is the one that does best by your bottom line. But to get those numbers, you would need something rarely seen: an accurate model of customer behavior with regard to service level (check out our article “How to choose a target service level”) For example, at what point will a customer walk away and take their business elsewhere?  Will it be after you stock out 1% of the time, 5% of time, 10% of the time? Will you still keep their business as long as you fill back orders quickly?  Will it be after a back order of 1 day, 2 days? 3 weeks? Will it be after this happens one time on one an important part or many times across many parts?  While modeling the precise service level that will allow you to keep your customer while minimizing costs seems like an unapproachable ideal, another type of sophisticated analysis is more pragmatic. 

          Inventory optimization and forecasting software can factor all associated costs such as the cost of stocking out, cost of holding inventory, and cost of ordering inventory in order to prescribe an optimal service level target that yields the lowest total cost. However, even that “optimal” service level is sensitive to changes in the costs making the results potentially questionable.  For example, if you don’t accurately estimate the precise costs (shortage costs are the most difficult) it will be tough to definitely state something like “If I increase my on-hand inventory by an average of one unit for all items in an important product family, my company will see a net gain of $170,500.  That gain increases until I get to 4 units.  At 4 units and higher, the return declines due to excessive holding costs. So, the best decision factoring projected holding, ordering, and stockout is to increase inventory by 3 units to see a net gain of over $500,000.  

          Short of that ideal, you can do something that is simpler yet still extremely valuable: Quantify the tradeoff curve between inventory cost and item availability. While you won’t necessarily know the service level you should target, you will know the costs of varying service levels.  Then you can earn your big bucks by finding a good place to be on that tradeoff curve and communicating where you at risk, where you aren’t, and setting expectations with customers and internal stakeholders.  Without the tradeoff curve to guide you, you are flying blind with no way to rationally modify stocking policy.

          A Scenario to Learn From

          Let’s sketch out a realistic tradeoff curve. We start with a scenario requiring a management decision. The scenario we will use and associated assumptions about demand, lead times, and costs are detailed below:

          Inventory Policy

          • Periodic review – Reorder decisions made every 30 days
          • Order-Up-To-Level (“S”) – Varied from 30 to 60 units
          • Shortage Policy – Allow backorders, no lost orders

          Demand

          • Demand is intermittent
          • Average = 0.8 units per day
          • Standard deviation = 1.2 units per day
          • Largest demand in a year ≈ 9
          • % of days with no demand = 53%

          Lead Time

          • Random at either 7, 14 or 21 days with probabilities 70%, 20% and 10%, respectively

          Cost Parameters

          • Holding cost = $1 per day
          • Ordering Cost = $10 per order without regard to size of order
          • Shortage Cost = $100 per unit not immediately shipped from stock

          We imagine an inventory control policy that is known in the trade as a “periodic review” or (T,S) policy. In this instance, the Review Period (“T”) is 30 days, meaning that every 30 days the inventory position is checked and an ordering decision is made. The order quantity is the difference between the observed number of units on hand and the Order-Up-To Quantity (“S”). So, if the end-of-month inventory is 12 units and S = 20, the order quantity would be S – 12 = 20 -1 2 = 8. The next month, the order quantity is likely to be different. If the inventory ever goes negative (backorders) during a review period, the next order tries to restore equilibrium by ordering more in order to fill those backorders. For example, if the inventory is -5 (meaning 5 units ordered by not available for shipping, the next order would be S – (-5) = S + 5. Details of the hypothetical demand stream, supplier lead times, and cost elements are shown in Figure 1 below. Figure 2 show a sample of daily demand and daily inventory over five review periods. Demand is intermittent, as is often true for spare parts, and therefore difficult to plan for.

          Figure 1: Different choices of inventory policy (order up to), associated costs, and service levels

          Figure 2: Details of five months of system operation given one of the polices

           

          Inventory Planning Software Is Our Friend

          Software encodes the logic of the operation of the (T,S) system, generates many hypothetical but realistic demand scenarios, calculates how each of those scenarios plays out, then looks back on the simulated operation (here, 10 years or 3,650 consecutive days) to calculate cost and performance metrics.

          To reveal the tradeoff curve, we ran several computational experiments in which we varied the Order-Up-To Level, S. The plots Figure 2 show the behavior of the on-hand inventory in “richest” alternative with S = 60. In the snippet shown in Figure 2, the on-hand inventory never comes close to stocking out. You can read that too ways. One, a bit naïve, is to say “Good, we’re well protected.” The other, more aggressive, is to say, “Oh no, we’re bloated. I wonder what would happen if we reduced S.”

          The Tradeoff Curve Revealed

          Figure 3 shows the results of reducing S from 60 down to 30 in steps of 5 units. The table shows that Total Cost is the sum of Holding Cost, Ordering Cost, and Shortage Cost. For the (T,S) policy, the ordering cost is always the same, since an order is placed like clockwork every 30 days. But the other components of cost respond to the changes in S.

          Figure 3: The experimental results and corresponding tradeoff curve showing how changing the Order-Up-To Level (“S”) impacts both Service Level and Total Annual Cost

          Note that the Service Level is always lower than the Fill Rate in these scenarios. As a professor, I always think of this difference in terms of exam grading. Each replenishment cycle is like a test. Service Level is about the probability of a stockout, so it’s a like the grade on pass/fail exam with one question that must be answered perfectly. If there is no stockout in a cycle, that’s an A. If there is a stockout, that’s an F. It doesn’t matter if it’s one unit that’s not supplied or 50 – it’s still an F. But Fill Rate is like a question that is graded with partial credit. So being short one of ten units gets you 90% Fill Rate for that cycle, not 0%. It’s important to understand the difference between these two important metrics for inventory planning – check out this vlog describing service level vs. fill rate via an interactive exercise in Excel.

          The plot in Figure 3 is the real news. It pairs Total Cost and Service Level for various levels of S. If you read the graph right to left, it tells us that there are dramatic cost savings to be had by reducing S with very little penalty in terms of reduced item availability. For instance, reducing S from 60 to 55 saves close to $800 per year on this one item while reducing service level just a bit from (essentially) 100% to a still-impressive 99%. Cutting S some more does the same, though not as dramatically. If you read the graph left to right, you see that moving up from S = 30 to S = 35 costs about $1,000 per year but improves Service Level from an F grade (45%) to at least a C grade (71%). After that, pushing S higher costs progressively more while gaining progressive less.

          The tradeoff curve doesn’t give you an answer to how to set the Order-Up-To Level, but it does let you evaluate the costs and benefits of each possible answer. Take a minute and pretend that this is your problem: Where would you want to be along the tradeoff curve?

          You may object and say you hate your choices and want to change the game. Is there escape from the curve? Not from the general curve, but you might be able to shape a less painful curve. How?

          You may have other cards to play. One avenue is to try to “shape” the demand so that it is less variable. The demand plot in Figure 2 shows a lot of variability. If you could smooth out the demand, the whole tradeoff curve would shift down, making every choice less expensive. A second avenue is to try to reduce the mean and variability of supplier lead times. Achieving either would also shift the curve down to make the choice less painful. Check out our article on how suppliers influence your inventory costs

          Summary

          The tradeoff curve is always with us. Sometimes we may be able to make it more friendly, but we always to pick our spot along it. It is better to know what you’re getting for any choice of inventory policy than to try to guess, and the curve gives you that.  When you have an accurate estimate of that curve, you are no longer flying blind when it comes to inventory planning. 

           

           

           

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            Stop Leaking Money with Manual Inventory Controls

            The Smart Forecaster

            Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

            forecasting and inventory optimization

            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.

            In the meantime, however, your company’s accumulated inventory control policies keep on doing what they do, even if they are leaking money. A good manager will make time to listen to the “background noise” even when he or she hears loud crashing in the warehouse.

            Consider the current settings for your inventory control parameters (e.g., reorder points and order quantities). It’s easy to think of these as “fire and forget” decisions. But these settings usually accumulate over time and end up comprising a mish-mash of forgotten judgement calls that may be misaligned with your current operating environment. Many factors can drift away from their previous levels, such as supplier lead times, ordering costs, or average item demand. These changes can force invisible tradeoffs that are not to your best advantage.

            It’s wise to revisit these control settings now and then to see if it’s possible to align your day-to-day operations with current realities. Of course, it would be infeasible for a busy manager to manually calculate the effects of changing the control settings on, say, 10,000 items. But that’s what modern inventory optimization and demand planning software is for: making large scale analytical tasks feasible. Such software will allow you to automatically process new information and compute adjustments at scale. The result will be easy wins – many of which would otherwise go unrealized.  And continuously saving a little here and there adds up to significant dollars when you are managing thousands of items. 

            Consider this example. Company A uses a periodic review inventory system. Every 30 days, they check on-hand inventory for all their items and decide how much replenishment stock to order. Each of their 10,000 items has a specified Order-Up-To Level that determines the size of their replenishment orders.

            For instance, suppose Item 1234 has an Order-Up-To Level of 74, determined by factoring in the average item demand of 1.0 units per day, an average replenishment lead time of 8 days, and a target fill rate of 90% for this item. The choice of 74 as the Order-Up-To Level lets Company A meet its 90% fill rate target for Item 1234, but it also results in an average on hand inventory level of 40 units. At $1,500 per unit, this item alone represents $45,000 of inventory investment.

            Now supposed that average item demand were to drift up from 1.0 to 1.2 units/day. Without anyone noticing, the fill rate for Item 1234 would drop to 82%!

            Now suppose demand were to shift in the other direction and drift down to 0.8 units/day. As with the increase in average demand from 1.0 to 1.2 units/day, kind of change is difficult to see when looking at a plot (see Figure 1) but can have a significant operational impact. In this case, the fill rate would zoom to a generous 96% but on hand inventory would also zoom: from 40 units to 46. Those six extra units would represent $9,000 in excess inventory.

            Figure 1: Samples of daily demand with two different average values.  The difference in demand is unnoticeable to the naked eye but if not accounted for will have a large operational impact on inventory spend and service levels

            Now imagine similar small shifts happening unnoticed across a full fleet of 10,000 inventory items. The total financial impact of all such shifts would be sufficient to get onto the radar of any CFO.  Trying to keep on top of this turbulence would be impossible if done manually but modern inventory optimization software could calculate the proper adjustments automatically as frequently as your company can handle, even daily helping you realize substantial improvements in service levels, inventory efficiency, while lowering stockout and holding costs!

             

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