Four Ways to Optimize Inventory

The Smart Forecaster

 Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

forecasting and inventory optimization

Now More than Ever

Inventory optimization has become an even higher priority in recent months for many of our customers.  Some are finding their products in vastly greater demand; more have the opposite problem. In either case, events like the Covid19 pandemic are forcing a reexamination of standard operating conditions, such as choices of reorder points and order quantities.

Even in quieter times, inventory control parameters like Mins and Maxes may be set far from their best values. We may ask “Why is the reorder point for SKU_1234 set at 20 units and the order quantify set at 35?” Those choices were probably the ossified result of years of accumulated guesses. A little investigation may show that the choices of 20 and 35 are no longer properly aligned with current demand level, demand volatility, supplier lead time and item costs.

The nagging feeling that “We should re-think all these choices” is often followed by “Oh no, we have to figure this out for all 10,000 items in inventory?” The savior here is advanced software that can scale up the process and make it not only desirable but feasible.  The software uses sophisticated algorithms to translate changes in inventory parameters such as reorder points into key performance indicators such as service levels and operating costs (defined as the sum of holding costs, ordering costs, and shortage costs).

This blog describes how to gain the benefits of inventory optimization by outlining 4 approaches with varying degrees of automation.

Four Approaches to Inventory Optimization

 

Hunt-and Peck

The first way is item-specific “hunt and peck” optimization. That is, you isolate one inventory item at a time and make “what if” guesses about how to manage that item. For instance, you may ask software to evaluate what happens if you change the reorder point for SKU123 from 20 to 21 while leaving the order quantity fixed at 35. Then you might try leaving 20 alone and reducing 35 to 34. Hours later, because your intuitions are good, you may have hit on a better pair of choices, but you don’t know if there is an even better combination that you didn’t try, and you may have to move on to the next SKU and the next and the next… You need something more automated and comprehensive.

There are three ways to get the job done more productively. The first two combine your intuition with the efficiency of treating groups of related items. The third is a fully automatic search.

Service-level Driven Optimization

  1. Identify items that you want to all have the same service level. For instance, you might manage hundreds of “C” items and wonder whether their service level target should be 70%, or more, or less.
  2. Input a potential service level target and have the software predict the consequences in terms of inventory dollar investment and inventory operating cost.
  3. If you don’t like what you see, try another service level target until you are comfortable. Here the software does group-level predictions of the consequences of your choices, but you are still exploring your choices.

Optimization by Reallocation from a Benchmark

  1. Identify items that are related in some way, such as “all spares for undercarriages of light rail vehicles.”
  2. Use the software to assess the current spectrum of service levels and costs across the group of items. Usually, you will discover some items to be grossly overstocked (as indicated by service levels unreasonably high) and others grossly understocked (service levels embarrassingly low).
  3. Use the software to calculate the changes needed to lower the highest service levels and raise the lowest. This adjustment will often result in achieving two goals at once: increasing average service level while simultaneously decreasing average operating costs.

Fully automated, Item-Specific Optimization

  1. Identify items that all require service levels above a certain minimum. For instance, maybe you want all your “A” items to have at least a 95% service level.
  2. Use the software to identify, for each item, the choice of inventory parameters that will minimize the cost of meeting or exceeding the service level minimum. The software will efficiently search the “design space” defined by pairs of inventory parameters (e.g., Min and Max) for designs (e.g., Min=10, Max=23) that satisfy the service level constraint. Among those, it will identify the least cost design.

This approach goes farthest to shift the burden from the planner to the program. Many would benefit from making this the standard way they manage huge numbers of inventory items. For some items, it may be useful to put in a little more time to make sure that additional considerations are also accounted for. For instance, limited capacity in a purchasing department may force the solution away from the ideal by requiring a decrease in the frequency of orders, despite the price paid in higher overall operating costs.

Going Forward

Optimizing inventory parameters has never been more important, but it has always seemed like an impossible dream: it was too much work, and there were no good models to relate parameter choices to key performance indicators like service level and operating cost. Modern software for supply chain analytics has changed the game. Now the question is not “Why would we do that?” but “Why are we not doing that?” With software, you can connect “Here’s what we want” to “Make it so.”

 

 

 

 

Volume and color boxes in a warehouese

 

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      Managing Demand Variability

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      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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          Inaccurate data, raw material shortages, suppliers with long lead times in far-away countries can affect Demand. 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.