How to Tell You Don’t Really Have an Inventory Planning and Forecasting Policy

The Smart Forecaster

 Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

forecasting and inventory optimization

You can’t properly manage your inventory levels, let alone optimize them, if you don’t have a handle on exactly how demand forecasts and stocking parameters (such as Min/Max, safety stocks, and reorder points, and order quantities) are determined.

Many organizations cannot specify how policy inputs are calculated or identify situations calling for management overrides to the policy.   For example, many people can say they rely on a particular planning method such as Min/Max, reorder point, or forecast with safety stock, but they can’t say exactly how these planning inputs are calculated.  More fundamentally, they may not understand what would happen to their KPI’s if they were to change Min,Max, or Safety Stock. They may know that the forecast relies on “averages” or “history” or “sales input”, but specific details about how the final forecast is arrived at are unclear.

Often enough, a company’s inventory planning and forecasting logic was developed by a former employee or vanished consultant and entombed in a spreadsheet.  It otherwise may rely on outdated ERP functionality or ERP customization by an IT organization that incorrectly assumed that ERP software can and should do everything. (Read this great and, as they say, “funny because it’s true,” blog by Shaun Snapp about ERP Centric Strategies.)  The policy may not have been properly documented, and no one currently on the job can improve it or use it to best advantage.

This unhappy situation leads to another, in which buyers and inventory planners flat out ignore the output from the ERP system, forcing reliance on Microsoft Excel to determine order schedules.  Ad hoc methods are developed that impede cohesive responses to operational issues and aren’t visible to the rest of the organization (unless you want your CFO to learn the complex and finicky spreadsheet).  These methods often rely on rules of thumb, averaging techniques, or textbook statistics without a full understanding of their shortcomings or applicability.  And even when documented, most companies often discover that actual ordering strays from the documented policy.  One company we consulted for had on hand inventory levels that were routinely 2 x’s the Max quantity!  In other words, there isn’t really a policy at all.

In summary, many current inventory and demand forecast “systems” were developed out of distrust for the previous system’s suggestions but don’t actually improve KPI’s.  They also force the organization to rely on a few employees to manage demand forecasting, daily ordering, and inventory replenishment.

And when there is a problem, it is impossible for the executive team to unwind how you got there, because there are too many moving parts.  For example, was the excess stock the fault of an inaccurate demand forecast that relied on an averaging method that didn’t account for a declining demand?  Or was it due to an outdated lead time setting that was higher than it should’ve been?  Or was it due to a forecast override a planner made to account for an order that just never happened?  And who gave the feedback to make that override?  A customer? Salesperson?

Do you have any of these problems?  If so, you are wasting hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars each year in unnecessary shortage costs, holding costs, and ordering costs.  What would you be able to do with that extra cash?  Imagine the impact that this would have on your business.

This blog details the top 10 questions that you can ask in order to uncover what’s really happening at your company.  We detail the typical answers provided when a forecasting/inventory planning policy doesn’t really exist, explain how to interpret these answers, and offer some clear advice on what to do about it.

 

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      The Trouble With Turns

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      In our travels around the industrial scene, we notice that many companies pay more attention to inventory Turns than they should. We would like to deflect some of this attention to more consequential performance metrics.

      Recall the definition: Turns = Annual dollar cost of goods sold / Average dollar value of inventory. If you sell $1 million of stuff in a year and have an average of $100,000 of stuff on the shelf each day, you are running at an impressive 10 Turns (Walmart runs at around 8). Supposedly, having high Turns signals efficient management, and keeping your Turns higher than competitors’ signals competitive advantage.

      But as happens with most performance metrics, there is more to the story. Turns may be very salient to the CFO, but they can be a straightjacket to the COO. This is because Turns are not directly related to customer service; in fact, high Turns can be synonymous with low service levels and fill rates. S&OP consultant Darrin Oliver calls Turns his “pet peeve metric” because “the customer doesn’t care about Turns.”

      Suppose you are unhappy with your current Turns value. What can you do to boost the number? Since Turns is a ratio, you can increase it by either increasing the numerator (goods sold) or decreasing the denominator (inventory). Increasing sales is more difficult because it requires the cooperation of the customer. Decreasing inventory is easier because it’s completely under your control: just make smaller replenishment orders, which also saves money in the short run. Indeed, you can get very enthusiastic and cut inventory to the bone. You end up with a better looking number for Turns—and a serious problem with stockouts, backorders, lost sales, lost customer good will and lost market share. Who’s sorry now?

      Here’s a lightly edited version of a story on this topic told by a very wise practitioner. “Back in my other life they were all about improving Turns. Why, I have no idea. So I pointed out the risks that you run. And they really weren’t interested. So we took our global inventories down to [a lower level], and then were breaking on stock left and right on a daily basis. Our turns were great, but we weren’t making any money, because we couldn’t get anything out the door, because we didn’t own it. The higher your turns, the lower your inventory’s going to have to be, or you’re just going to have really good flow. And in our industry that’s a very, very difficult thing to achieve. So if we can have reasonable Turns but still be in stock, I think that’s what we want to do. It can be very frustrating in an operations world to try to explain what we do every day and what the risks to the business are when the financial people are just looking at one or two metrics. They’re basically trying to plan the business in a vacuum, and it’s very difficult and very risky to do that.”

      Thomas Willemain, PhD, co-founded Smart Software and currently serves as Senior Vice President for Research. Dr. Willemain also serves as Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute and as a member of the research staff at the Center for Computing Sciences, Institute for Defense Analyses.

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