Supply Chain Math: Don’t Bring a Knife to a Gunfight

Whether you understand it in detail yourself or rely on trustworthy software, math is a fact of life for anyone in inventory management and demand forecasting who is hoping to remain competitive in the modern world.

At a conference recently, the lead presenter in an inventory management workshop proudly proclaimed that he had no need for “high-fallutin’ math”, which was explained to mean anything beyond sixth-grade math.

Math is not everyone’s first love. But if you really care about doing your job well, you can’t approach the work with a grade school mentality. Supply chain tasks like demand forecasting and inventory management are inherently mathematical. The blog associated with edX, a premier site for online college course material, has a great post on this topic, at https://www.mooc.org/blog/how-is-math-used-in-supply-chain. Let me quote the first bit:

Math and the supply chain go hand and hand. As supply chains grow, increasing complexity will drive companies to look for ways to manage large-scale decision-making. They can’t go back to how supply chains were 100 years ago—or even two years ago before the pandemic. Instead, new technologies will help streamline and manage the many moving parts. The logistics skills, optimization technologies, and organizational skills used in supply chain all require mathematics.

Our customers don’t need to be experts in supply chain math, they just need to be able to wield the software that contains the math. Software combines users’ experience and subject matter expertise to produce results that make the difference between success and failure. To do its job, the software can’t stop at sixth-grade math; it needs probability, statistics, and optimization theory.

It’s up to us software vendors to package the math in such a way that what goes into the calculations is all that is relevant, even if complicated; and that what comes out is clear, decision-relevant, and defensible when you must justify your recommendations to higher management.

Sixth-grade math can’t warn you when the way you propose to manage a critical spare part will mean a 70% chance of falling short of your item availability target. It can’t tell you how best to adjust your reorder points when a supplier calls and says, “We have a delivery problem.” It can’t save your skin when there is a surprisingly large order and you have to quickly figure out the best way to set up some expedited special orders without busting the operating budget.

So, respect the folk wisdom and don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

 

 

The Supply Chain Blame Game: Top 3 Excuses for Inventory Shortage and Excess
  1. Blaming Shortages on Lead Time Variability
    Suppliers will often be late, sometimes by a lot. Lead time delays and supply variability are supply chain facts of life, yet inventory carrying organizations are often caught by surprise when a supplier is late.  An effective inventory planning process embraces these facts of life and develops policies that effectively account for this uncertainty.  Sure, there will be times when lead time delays come out of nowhere.  But most often the stocking policies like reorder points, safety stocks, and Min/Max levels aren’t recalibrated often enough to catch changes in the lead time over time.  Many companies only review the reorder point after it has been breached, instead of recalibrating after each new lead time receipt.  We’ve observed situations where the Min/Max settings are only recalibrated annually or are even entirely manual.  If you have a mountain of parts using old Min/Max levels and associated lead times that were relevant a year ago, it should be no surprise that you don’t have enough inventory to hold you until the next order arrives. 

 

  1. Blaming Excess on Bad Sales/Customer Forecasts
    Forecasts from your customers or your sales team are often intentionally over-estimated to ensure supply, in response to past inventory shortages where they were left out to dry. Or, the demand forecasts are inaccurate simply because the sales team doesn’t really know what their customer demand is going to be but are forced to give a number. Demand Variability is another supply chain fact of life, so planning processes need to do a better job account for it.  Why should rely on sales teams to forecast when they best serve the company by selling? Why bother playing the game of feigning acceptance of customer forecasts when both sides know it is often nothing more than a WAG?  A better way is to accept the uncertainty and agree on a degree of stockout risk that is acceptable across groups of items.  Once the stockout risk is agreed to, you can generate an accurate estimate of the safety stock needed to counter the demand variability.  The catch is getting buy-in, since you may not be able to afford super high service levels across all items.  Customers must be willing to pay a higher price per unit for you to deliver extremely high service levels.  Sales people must accept that certain items are more likely to have backorders if they prioritize inventory investment on other items.  Using a consensus safety stock process ensures you are properly buffering and setting the right expectations.  When you do this, you free all parties from having to play the prediction game they were not equipped to play in the first place. 

 

  1. Blaming Problems on Bad Data
    “Garbage In/Garbage Out” is a common excuse for why now is not the right time to invest in planning software. Of course, it is true that if you feed bad data into a model, you won’t get good results, but here’s the thing:  someone, somewhere in the organization is planning inventory, building a forecast, and making decisions on what to purchase. Are they doing this blindly, or are they using data they have curated in a spreadsheet to help them make inventory planning decisions? Hopefully, the latter.  Combine that internal knowledge with software, automating data import from the ERP, and data cleansing.  Once harmonized, your planning software will provide continually updated, well-structured demand and lead time signals that now make effective demand forecasting and inventory optimization possible.  Smart Software cofounder Tom Willemain wrote in an IBF newsletter that “many data problems derive from data having been neglected until a forecasting project made them important.” So, start that forecasting project, because step one is making sure that “what goes in” is a pristine, documented, and accurate demand signal.

 

 

Call an Audible to Proactively Counter Supply Chain Noise

 

You know the situation: You work out the best way to manage each inventory item by computing the proper reorder points and replenishment targets, then average demand increases or decreases, or demand volatility changes, or suppliers’ lead times change, or your own costs change. Now your old policies (reorder points, safety stocks, Min/Max levels, etc.)  have been obsoleted – just when you think you’d got them right.   Leveraging advanced planning and inventory optimization software gives you the ability to proactively address ever-changing outside influences on your inventory and demand.  To do so, you’ll need to regularly recalibrate stocking parameters based on ever-changing demand and lead times.

Recently, some potential customers have expressed concern that by regularly modifying inventory control parameters they are introducing “noise” and adding complication to their operations. A visitor to our booth at last week’s Microsoft Dynamics User Group Conference commented:

“We don’t want to jerk around the operations by changing the policies too often and introducing noise into the system. That noise makes the system nervous and causes confusion among the buying team.”

This view is grounded in yesterday’s paradigms.  While you should generally not change an immediate production run, ignoring near-term changes to the policies that drive future production planning and order replenishment will wreak havoc on your operations.   Like it or not, the noise is already there in the form of extreme demand and supply chain variability.  Fixing replenishment parameters, updating them infrequently, or only reviewing at the time of order means that your Supply Chain Operations will only be able to react to problems rather than proactively identify them and take corrective action.

Modifying the policies with near-term recalibrations is adapting to a fluid situation rather than being captive to it.  We can look to this past weekend’s NFL games for a simple analogy. Imagine the quarterback of your favorite team consistently refusing to call an audible (change the play just before the ball is snapped) after seeing the defensive formation.  This would result in lots of missed opportunities, inefficiency, and stalled drives that could cost the team a victory.  What would you want your quarterback to do?

Demand, lead times, costs, and business priorities often change, and as these last 18 months have proved they often change considerably.  As a Supply Chain leader, you have a choice:  keep parameters fixed resulting in lots of knee-jerk expedites and order cancellations, or proactively modify inventory control parameters.  Calling the audible by recalibrating your policies as demand and supply signals change is the right move.

Here is an example. Suppose you are managing a critical item by controlling its reorder point (ROP) at 25 units and its order quantity (OQ) at 48. You may feel like a rock of stability by holding on to those two numbers, but by doing so you may be letting other numbers fluctuate dramatically.  Specifically, your future service levels, fill rates, and operating costs could all be resetting out of sight while you fixate on holding onto yesterday’s ROP and OQ.  When the policy was originally determined, demand was stable and lead times were predictable, yielding service levels of 99% on an important item.   But now demand is increasing and lead times are longer.  Are you really going to expect the same outcome (99% service level) using the same sets of inputs now that demand and lead times are so different?  Of course not.  Suppose you knew that given the recent changes in demand and lead time, in order to achieve the same service level target of 99%, you had to increase the ROP to 35 units.  If you were to keep the ROP at 25 units your service level would fall to 92%.  Is it better to know this in advance or to be forced to react when you are facing stockouts?

What inventory optimization and planning software does is make visible the connections between performance metrics like service rate and control parameters like ROP and ROQ. The invisible becomes visible, allowing you to make reasoned adjustments that keep your metrics where you need them to be by adjusting the control levers available for your use.  Using probabilistic forecasting methods will enable you to generate Key Performance Predictions (KPPs) of performance and costs while identifying near-term corrective actions such as targeted stock movements that help avoid problems and take advantage of opportunities. Not doing so puts your supply chain planning in a straightjacket, much like the quarterback who refuses to audible.

Admittedly, a constantly-changing business environment requires constant vigilance and occasional reaction. But the right inventory optimization and demand forecasting software can recompute your control parameters at scale with a few mouse clicks and clue your ERP system how to keep everything on course despite the constant turbulence.  The noise is already in your system in the form of demand and supply variability.  Will you proactively audible or stick to an older plan and cross your fingers that things will work out fine?

 

 

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The Supply Chain Blame Game:  Top 3 Excuses for Inventory Shortage and Excess

The Supply Chain Blame Game: Top 3 Excuses for Inventory Shortage and Excess

The supply chain has become the blame game for almost any industrial or retail problem. Shortages on lead time variability, bad forecasts, and problems with bad data are facts of life, yet inventory-carrying organizations are often caught by surprise when any of these difficulties arise. So, again, who is to blame for the supply chain chaos? Keep reading this blog and we will try to show you how to prevent product shortages and overstocking.

Assessing How Suppliers Influence Your Inventory Costs

The Smart Forecaster

 Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

forecasting and inventory optimization

Software for inventory optimization is most often used to crank out the analytical results you need to run your day-to-day business, such as Reorder Points (also known as Mins) and Order Quantities. This specialized software helps you find the sweet spot that balances inventory costs against item availability during routine operations.

Inventory optimization software can also be used to perform “what-if” analyses on scenarios that describe changes from your current operating environment. What-if analysis (also called “sensitivity analysis”) lets you elevate your thinking from the tactical to the strategic. It helps you imagine how you should change your operations to adapt to potential changes in your operating environment. These changes might be negative pressures imposed on you from the outside, or they might result from your own positive actions. In this blog, we provide an example of how to conduct “what-analysis” on lead times and order quantities.  Outputs from the analysis can be used by the business to assess the impact of these changes on inventory costs and service level performance.

How Suppliers Limit Your Freedom of Maneuver

 

Discussing with our customers the data inputs required by inventory optimization software, we noted that suppliers are a prominent influence on their operations. We leave aside for now such important topics as sharing demand forecasts with suppliers and working out responses to supply chain disruptions, such as Hurricane Matthew last year in the southeastern US. Instead, we focus on two more common ways that suppliers influence producers’ inventory costs: replenishment lead times and restrictions on order quantities.

Replenishment lead time is the number of days that elapse between inventory reaching or breaching a reorder point and the appearance of replenishment units in stock. Some portion of lead time is internal to the producer, perhaps due to slow reactions in a purchasing department. The rest of lead time is down to the supplier. In this discussion, we assume that suppliers’ contribution to lead times might be changed, for better or for worse. (But the same results could apply to changes in producers’ contributions to lead times.)

The restrictions on order quantities that we consider are order minima and order multiples. You might want to order 3 units of some item, but the supplier might impose a minimum order size of 6 units, so your 3 unit order would have to become a 6 unit order. Or you might want to order 21 units, handily exceeding the minimum order size of 6 units, but if the supplier also has an order multiple of 6, meaning every order must be a multiple of 6 units, then your 21 unit order would have to be increased to 24 units.

Scenario Analyses

 

To illustrate the use of inventory optimization software for what-if analysis, we examine two sets of scenarios. In the first set, lead times are varied from -20% to +20% of their values in a baseline scenario. In the second set, results are computed first with no supplier restrictions, then with order minima only, and finally with a combination of order minima and order multiples. We use Smart Inventory Optimization software for the calculations.

The baseline scenario uses real-world data on 2,852 spare parts managed by a progressive public transit agency. These parts have an extremely heterogeneous mix of attributes. Their per unit costs range from $1 to $23,105, and their lead times vary between 1 day and 300 days. Over 24 months, the mean demand ranged from less than 1 unit per month to 1,508 units per month, with coefficients of variation ranging from a manageable 10% to a scary 2,171%. Furthermore, the supplier picture is also very complex, involving 293 unique vendors, supplying an average of about 10 parts each. This heterogeneity implies that a real-world optimization would pick and choose among items and vendors. However, for simplicity of exposition and to develop basic insights, our what-if scenarios in this example treat every item and vendor equally. Similarly, we assumed in the baseline that holding costs equaled 20% of the dollar value of an item and that every replenishment order had a fixed cost of $40.

We conducted two what-if experiments. The first examined the effects of changing lead times. The second examined the effects of introducing restrictions on order quantities. In each experiment, we recorded the effects of the changes on two operational metrics: average number of units in stock and average number of orders per year. In turn, these influenced four financial metrics: average dollar value of inventory, average holding cost, average ordering cost, and the sum of the last two, which is total inventory operating cost.

In all scenarios, reorder points were calculated so as to achieve 95% probability of avoiding stockouts while waiting for replenishment. Order quantities, in the absence of supplier restrictions, were computed as what we call “feasible EOQ”. EOQ is the classic “economic order quantity” taught in Inventory 101; it is computed from average demand, holding cost and ordering cost. Feasible EOQ adds an additional consideration: inventory dynamics. If the reorder point is very low, it is possible for EOQ to be too small to sustain a stable, positive level of inventory. In these cases, feasible EOQ increases the order quantity above the EOQ to insure that average inventory does not go negative.

Effects of Changing Lead Times

Table 1 shows the results of changing the lead times. Working around the base case, we changed every item’s lead time by -20%, -10%, +10% and +20%.

It is no surprise that reducing lead times reduced the required level of inventory and increasing them did the opposite. Both the average number of units and the associated dollar value behaved as expected. What may be surprising is that the effects were somewhat muted, i.e., an X percent change in lead time produced a less-than-X percent response. For instance, a 20% reduction in lead time produced only a 7.9% reduction in on-hand inventory and only a 12.0% reduction in the dollar value of those units. Furthermore, the effects of reductions and increases are asymmetric: a 20% increase in lead time led to just a 7.3% increase in units (vs 7.9%) and only a 9.6% increase in inventory value (vs 12.0%).

Similar attenuated and asymmetric results held for operating costs. A 20% reduction in lead time decreased total operating costs by 7.0%, but a 20% increase in lead time caused only a 5.1% increase in operating costs.

Now consider the implications of these results for practice. In a competitive world, cost reductions on the order of 10% or even 5% are significant. This means that efforts to reduce lead times can have important payoffs. In turn, this means that efforts to streamline purchasing processes may be worth doing. Likewise, there is a case for engaging suppliers about reducing their part of lead time, possibly by sharing the savings to incentive them.

 

Inventory Optimization - Effects of Changing Lead Times
Table 1: Effects of changing lead times

Effect of Order Quantity Restrictions

 

Table 2 shows the effect of imposing supplier restrictions on order quantities. In the base case, there are no restrictions, i.e., the order minimum is 0 and the order multiple is 1, implying that any order quantity is acceptable to suppliers. Working away from the base case, we first looked at imposing an order minimum of 5 units on all items, then adding an order multiple of 5 for all items.

Forcing orders to be larger than they otherwise would be had the expected impact on the average number of units on hand, increasing it by 0.9% with only an order minimum and by 3.4% with both a minimum and a multiple. The corresponding changes in the dollar value of the inventory were more dramatic: 22.4% and 23.3%. This difference in the size of the percentage response probably traces back to the large number of low-volume/high-cost replacement parts managed by the public transit agency.

Another surprise was the net reduction in operating costs when supplier restrictions were imposed. While holding costs went up by 22.4% and 23.3% in the two what-if scenarios, the larger order quantities allowed for fewer orders per year, resulting in offsetting reductions in ordering costs of, respectively, -24.4% and -32.7%. The net impacts on operating costs were then reductions of 3.7% and 7.9%.

In general, placing restrictions on producer actions would be expected to reduce performance. So the results in these scenarios were counter-intuitive. However, the real message here is that using EOQ, or even enhanced EOQ, to set an order quantity does not give optimum results. Paradoxically, the order quantity restrictions we investigated seem to have forced order quantities closer to optimal levels.

 

Inventory Optimization - Effect of Order Quantity Restrictions
Table 2: Effect of order quantity restrictions

Conclusions

 

The what-if analyses shown here do not lead to universal conclusions. For instance, changing the assumed cost per order from $40 to some smaller number could show that the supplier restrictions increased rather than decreased the producer’s inventory operating costs.

When doing what-if analysis in real-word situations, users would naturally craft scenarios at a lower level of detail. For instance, they might evaluate the effect of changes in supplier lead times on a supplier-by-supplier basis to find the ones that would have the highest potential payoffs. Or they might arrange for order minima, if they exist already for all items, to change by a specified percentage instead of a fixed amount, which might be somewhat more realistic.

The key takeaway is that inventory optimization software can be used in “what-if mode” to explore strategic issues, beyond its customary use to calculate reorder points, safety stocks, order quantities, and inventory transfers.

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        Redefine Exceptions and Fine Tune Planning to Address Uncertainty

        The Smart Forecaster

         Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

        forecasting and inventory optimization

        Inventory Planning from the Perspective of a Physicist

        In a perfect world, Just in Time (JIT) would be the appropriate solution for inventory management. If you can exactly predict what you need and where you need it and your suppliers can get what you need without delay, then you do not need to maintain much inventory locally.  But as the saying goes from famous pugilist Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” And the latest punch in the mouth for the global supply chain was last week’s Suez Canal Blockage that held up $9.6B in trade costing an estimated $6.7M per minute[1].  Disruptions from these and similar events should be modeled and accounted for in your planning.

        The assumption that you can exactly predict the future was apparent in Isaac Newton’s laws. Since the 1920’s with the introduction of quantum physics, uncertainty became fundamental to our understanding of nature. Uncertainty is built into fundamental reality.  So too should it be built into Supply and Demand Planning processes.  Yet too often, black swan events such as the Suez Canal blockage are often thought of as anomalies and as a result, discounted when planning. It is not enough to look back in hindsight and proclaim that it should have been expected. Something needs to be done about addressing the occurrence of other such events in the future and planning stocking levels accordingly.

        We must move beyond the “thin tailed distribution” thinking where extreme outcomes are discounted and plan for “fat tails.”  So how do we execute a real-world JIT plan when it comes to planning inventory? To do this, the first step is to estimate the realistic lead time to obtain an item. However, estimation is difficult due to lead time uncertainty.  Using actual supplier lead times in your company database and external data, you can develop a distribution of possible future lead times and demands within those lead times. Probabilistic forecasting will allow you to account for disruptions and unusual events by not limiting your estimates to what has been observed solely on your own short-term demand and lead time data.  You’ll be able to generate possible outcomes with associated probabilities for each occurrence.

        Once you have an estimate of the lead time and demand distribution, you can then specify the service level you need to have for that part. Using solutions such as Smart Inventory Optimization (SIO), you will be able confidently stock based on the targeted stock-out risk with minimal inventory carrying cost. You may also consider letting the solution prescribe optimal service level targets by assessing the costs of additional inventory vs. cost of stockout.

        Finally, as I have already noted, we need to accept that we can never eliminate all uncertainty. As a physicist, I have always been intrigued by the fact that, even at the most basic levels of reality as we understand it today, there is still uncertainty. Albert Einstein believed in certainty (determinism) in physical law.  If he were an inventory manager, he might have argued for JIT because he believed physical laws should allow perfect predictability. He famously said, “God does not play with dice.”  Or could it be possible that the universe we exist in was a “black swan” event in a prior “multi-verse” that produced a particular kind of universe that allowed us to exist.

        In inventory planning, as in science, we cannot escape the reality of uncertainty and the impact of unusual events.  We must plan accordingly.

         

        [1] https://www.bbc.com/news/business-56559073#:~:text=Looking%20at%20the%20bigger%20picture,0.2%20to%200.4%20percentage%20points.

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              Key Considerations When Evaluating your ERP system’s Forecasting Capabilities

              The Smart Forecaster

               Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

              forecasting and inventory optimization

               

              1. Built-in ERP functionality is baked into Order Management.

              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” consists of executing MRP and reconciling demand and supply for the purpose of placing orders, i.e., “order management.” It has very little to do with demand planning which is discrete process focused on developing the best possible predictions of future demand by combining statistical analysis with business knowledge of events, promotions, and sales force intelligence.   Most ERP systems offer little statistical capability and, when offered, the user is left with a choice of a few statistical methods that they either have to apply manually from a drop-down list or program themselves. It’s baked into the order management process enabling the user to possibly how the forecast might impact inventory.  However, there isn’t any ability to manage the forecast, improve the quality of the forecast, apply and track management overrides, collaborate, measure forecast accuracy, and track “forecast value add.” 

              2. ERP planning methods are often based on simplistic rules of thumb.

              ERP systems will always offer min, max, safety stock, reorder point, reorder quantity, and forecasts to drive replenishment decisions.  But what about the underlying methods used to calculate these important drivers?   In nearly every case, the methods provided are nothing more than rule-of-thumb approaches that don’t account for demand or supplier variability.  Some do offer “service level targeting” but mistakenly rely on the assumption of a Normal distribution (“bell-shaped curve”) which means the required safety stocks and reorder points recommended by the system to achieve the service level target are going to be flat out wrong if your data doesn’t fit the ideal theoretical model, which is often gravely unrealistic.  Such over-simplified calculations tend to do more harm than good.  

              3. You’ll probably still use spreadsheets for at least 2 years after purchase.

              Most often, if you were to implement a new ERP solution, your old data would be stranded.  So, any native ERP functionality for forecasting, setting stocking policy such as Min/Max, etc., cannot be used, and you will be forced to revert back to cumbersome and error-prone spreadsheets for at least two years (one year to implement at earliest and another year to collect at least 12 months of history).  Hardly a digital transformation.  Using a best-of-breed solution avoids this problem.  You can load data from your legacy ERP system and not disrupt your ERP deployment.  This means that on Day 1 of ERP go-live you can populate your new ERP system with better inputs for demand forecasts, safety stocks, reorder points, and Min/Max settings.

              4. ERP isn’t designed to do everything

              The “Do everything in ERP/One-Vendor” mindset was a marketing message promoted by ERP firms, particularly SAP, to get you, the customer, to spend 100% of your IT budget with them.  That marketing message has been parroted back to users by analyst groups, IT firms, and systems integrators, drowning out rational voices who asked “Why do you want to be so dependent on one firm to the point of using inferior forecasting and inventory planning technology?”  The sheer number of IT failures and huge implementation costs have caused many companies to rethink their approach to ERP.  With the advent of specialized planning apps born in the cloud with no IT footprint, the way to go is a “thin” ERP focused on the fundamentals – accounting, order management, financials – but supported by specialized planning apps. 

              The expertise of ERP consultant’s lies in how their system is designed to automate certain business processes and how the system can be configured or customized.   Their consultants are not specialists in on proper approaches to planning stock, forecasting, and inventory planning.  So if you are trying to understand what demand planning approach is right for your business, how should you buffer properly, (e.g., “Should we do Min/Max or forecast-based replenishment?” “Should we use forecasting method X?”), you generally aren’t going to find it and if you do that resource will be spread quite thin. 

               

               

               

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