Daily Demand Scenarios

In this Videoblog, we will explain how time series forecasting has emerged as a pivotal tool, particularly at the daily level, which Smart Software has been pioneering since its inception over forty years ago. The evolution of business practices from annual to more refined temporal increments like monthly and now daily data analysis illustrates a significant shift in operational strategies.

Initially, during the 1980s, the usual practice of using annual data for forecasting and the introduction of monthly data was considered innovative. This period marked the beginning of a trend toward increasing the resolution of data analysis, enabling businesses to capture and react to faster shifts in market dynamics. As we progressed into the 2000s, the norm of monthly data analysis was well-established, but the ‘cool kids’—innovators at the edge of business analytics—began experimenting with weekly data. This shift was driven by the need to synchronize business operations with increasingly volatile market conditions and consumer behaviors that demanded more rapid responses than monthly cycles could provide. Today, in the 2020s, while monthly data analysis remains common, the frontier has shifted again, this time towards daily data analysis, with some pioneers even venturing into hourly analytics.

The real power of daily data analysis lies in its ability to provide a detailed view of business operations, capturing daily fluctuations that might be overlooked by monthly or weekly data.  However, the complexities of daily data necessitate advanced analytical approaches to extract meaningful insights. At this level, understanding demand requires grappling with concepts like intermittency, seasonality, trend, and volatility. Intermittency, or the occurrence of zero-demand days, becomes more pronounced at a daily granularity and demands specialized forecasting techniques like Croston’s method for accurate predictions. Seasonality at a daily level can reveal multiple patterns—such as increased sales on weekends or holidays—that monthly data would mask. Trends can be observed as short-term increases or decreases in demand, demanding agile adjustment strategies. Finally, volatility at the daily level is accentuated, showing more significant swings in demand than seen in monthly or weekly analyses, which can affect inventory management strategies and the need for buffer stock. This level of complexity underscores the need for sophisticated analytical tools and expertise in daily data analysis.

In conclusion, the evolution from less frequent to daily time series forecasting marks a substantial shift in how businesses approach data analysis. This transition not only reflects the accelerating pace of business but also highlights the requirement for tools that can handle increased data granularity. Smart Software’s dedication to refining its analytical capabilities to manage daily data highlights the industry’s broader move towards more dynamic, responsive, and data-driven decision-making. This shift is not merely about keeping pace with time but about leveraging detailed insights to forge competitive advantages in an ever-changing business environment.

 

Constructive Play with Digital Twins

Those of you who track hot topics will be familiar with the term “digital twin.” Those who have been too busy with work may want to read on and catch up.

What is a digital twin?

While there are several definitions of digital twin, here’s one that works well:

A digital twin is a dynamic virtual copy of a physical asset, process, system, or environment that looks like and behaves identically to its real-world counterpart. A digital twin ingests data and replicates processes so you can predict possible performance outcomes and issues that the real-world product might undergo. [Source: Unity.com]. For additional background, you might go to Mckinsey.com.

What is the difference between a digital twin (hereafter DT) and a model? Primarily, a DT gets connected to real-time data to maintain the model as an up-to-the-minute representation of the system you are working with.

Our current products might be called “slow-motion DT’s” because they are usually used with non-real-time data (though not stale data, since it is updated overnight) and applied to problems like planning the next quarter’s raw material buys or setting inventory parameters for a month or longer.

Are people using digital twins in my industry?

My impression is that the penetration of DT’s may be highest in the aerospace and nuclear industries. Most of our customers are elsewhere: in manufacturing, distribution, and public utilities such as transportation and power. Soon we’ll be offering new products that come closer to the strict definition of a DT that is connected intimately to the system it represents.

DT Preview

Most users of Smart Inventory Optimization (SIO) run the application periodically, typically monthly. SIO analyzes current demand for inventory items and recent supplier lead times, converting these into demand and supply scenarios, respectively. Then users either interactively (for individual items) or automatically (at scale) set inventory control parameters that will provide the long-term average performance they want, balancing the competing goals of minimizing inventory while guaranteeing a sufficient level of item availability.

Smart Supply Planner (SSP) operates in a more immediate way to react to contingencies. Any day could bring an anomalous order that spikes up demand, such as when a new customer places a surprising initial stocking order. Or a key supplier could experience a problem at its factory and be forced to delay shipment of your planned replenishment orders. In the long run, these contingencies average out and justify the recommendations coming out of SIO. However, SSP will give you a way to react in the short run to seize opportunities or dodge bullets.

At its core, SSP operates like SIO in that it is scenario driven. The differences are that it uses short planning horizons and uses real-time initial conditions as the basis for its simulations of inventory system performance. Then it will provide real-time recommendations for interventions that offset the disruption caused by the contingencies. These would include cancelling or expediting replenishment orders.

Summary

Digital twins let you try out plans “in silico” before you implement them in the factory or warehouse. At their core are mathematical models of your operation but connected to real-time data. They provide a “digital sandbox” in which you can try out ideas and get immediate predictions of how well they will work. Much more than a spreadsheet, DT’s will soon be the key tool in your inventory planning toolbox.

 

Are You Playing the Inventory Guessing Game?

Some companies invest in software to help them manage their inventory, whether it’s spare parts or finished goods. But a surprising number of others play the Inventory Guessing Game every day, trusting to an imagined “Golden Gut” or to plain luck to set their inventory control parameters. But what kind of results do you expect with that approach?

How good are you at intuiting the right values? This blog post challenges you to guess the best Min and Max values for a notional inventory item. We’ll show you its demand history, give you a few relevant facts, then you can pick Min and Max values and see how well they would work. Ready?

The Challenge

Figure 1 shows the daily demand history of the item. The average demand is 2 units per day. Replenishment lead time is a constant 10 days (which is unrealistic but works in your favor). Orders that cannot be filled immediately from stock cannot be backordered and are lost. You want to achieve at least an 80% fill rate, but not at any cost. You also want to minimize the average number of units on hand while still achieving at least an 80% fill rate. What Min and Max values would produce an 80% fill rate with the lowest average number of units on hand? [Record your answers for checking later. The solution appears below at the end of the article.]

Are You Playing the Inventory Guessing Game-1

Computing the Best Min and Max Values

The way to determine the best values is to use a digital twin, also known as a Monte Carlo simulation. The analysis creates a multitude of demand scenarios and passes them through the mathematical logic of the inventory control system to see what values will be taken on by key performance indicators (KPI’s).

We built a digital twin for this problem and systematically exercised it with 1,085 pairs of Min and Max values. For each pair, we simulated 365 days of operation a total of 100 times. Then we averaged the results to assess the performance of the Min/Max pair in terms of two KPI’s: fill rate and average on hand inventory.

Figure 2 shows the results. The inherent tradeoff between inventory size and fill rate is clear in the figure: if you want a higher fill rate, you have to accept a larger inventory. However, at each level of inventory there is a range of fill rates, so the game is to find the Min/Max pair that yields the highest fill rate for any given size inventory.

A different way to interpret Figure 2 is to focus on the dashed green line marking the target 80% fill rate. There are many Min/Max pairs that can hit near the 80% target, but they differ in inventory size from about 6 to about 8 units. Figure 3 zooms in on that region of Figure 2 to show  quite a number of Min/Max pairs that are competitive.

We sorted the results of all 1,085 simulations to identify what economists call the efficient frontier. The efficient frontier is the set of most efficient Min/Max pairs to exploit the tradeoff between fill rate and units on hand. That is, it is a list of Min/Max pairs that provide the least cost way to achieve any desired fill rate, not just 80%. Figure 4 shows the efficient frontier for this problem. Moving from left to right, you can read off the lowest price you would have to pay (as measured by average inventory size) to achieve any target fill rate. For example, to achieve a 90% fill rate, you would have to carry an average inventory of about 10 units.

Figures 2, 3, and 4 show results for various Min/Max pairs but do not display the values of Min and Max behind each point. Table 1 displays all the simulation data: the values of Min, Max, average units on hand and fill rate. The answer to the guessing game is highlighted in the first line of the table: Min=7 and Max=131. Did you get the right answer, or something close2? Did you maybe get onto the efficient frontier?

Conclusions

Maybe you got lucky, or maybe you do indeed have a Golden Gut, but it’s more likely you didn’t get the right answer, and it’s even more likely you didn’t even try. Figuring out the right answer is extremely difficult without using the digital twin. Guessing is unprofessional.

One step up from guessing is “guess and see”, in which you implement your guess and then wait a while (months?) to see if you like the results. That tactic is at least “scientific”, but it is inefficient.

Now consider the effort to work out the best (Min,Max) pairs for thousands of items. At that scale, there is even less justification for playing the Inventory Guessing Game. The right answer is to play it… Smart3.

1 This answer has a bonus, in that it achieves a bit more than 80% fill rate at a lower average inventory size than the Min/Max combination that hit exactly 80%. In other words, (7,13) is on the efficient frontier.

2 Because these results come from a simulation instead of an exact mathematical equation, there is a certain margin of error associated with each estimated fill rate and inventory level. However, because the average results were based on 100 simulations each 365 days long, the margins of error are small. Across all experiments, the average standard errors in fill rate and mean inventory were, respectively, only 0.009% and 0.129 units.

3 In case you didn’t know this, one of the founders of Smart Software was … Charlie Smart.

Are You Playing the Inventory Guessing Game-111

Are You Playing the Inventory Guessing Game-Table 1

 

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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      Infrequent Updates to Inventory Planning Parameters Costs Time, Money, and Hurts Service

      The Smart Forecaster

       Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

      forecasting and inventory optimization

      Inventory planning parameters, such as safety stock levels, reorder points, Min/Max settings, lead times, order quantities, and DDMRP buffers directly impact inventory spending and ability to meet customer demand. Based on these parameter settings, your ERP system makes daily purchase order suggestions.

      Ensuring that these inputs are understood and optimized regularly will substantially reduce wasteful inventory spending and dramatically improve customer service levels.

      Given the importance of getting these planning parameters right, we spend a lot of time during our consultations asking (1) how these parameter values are calculated and (2) how often they are updated. Most often the methods for calculating the parameter values are rule of thumb. You can read about why using rule of thumb approaches is so problematic here  – Beware of Simple Rules of Thumb for Managing Inventory.

      This blog will focus on the frequency of updates. When we interview companies and ask them how often they update planning parameters, the answer we nearly always hear is “every day!” A follow up question or two most often reveals that this just isn’t true. What “every day” actually means in practice is this: Every day, the ERP system suggests dozens to hundreds of purchase orders and/or production jobs. The planner, let’s call him Peter, reviews these orders daily and decides whether to release, modify, or cancel them. If the order suggestion doesn’t “feel right”, Peter reviews the planning inputs and modifies the order if necessary. For example, Peter may feel there is already enough inventory on hand. To “fix” the issue, he will reduce the reorder point and cancel the order. Or if he feels that the order should have been placed weeks ago, Peter may expedite the order and increase the reorder point and order quantity to ensure there will be plenty of stock the next time.

      The principal flaws with this approach are that it is reactive and incomplete. Here is why:

      Reactive

      It only assesses the handful of items marked for replenishment on any given day but not others. The trigger for reviewing an item is when the ERP suggests an order, and that will only happen when the reorder point or Min is breached. If the Min is too high and breaches earlier than it should have, an unneeded order will be placed unless caught by the planner. If the Min is too low, well, it is too late to fix the error. No matter how large the order suggestion is, you still have to wait to be resupplied and since the order was suggested late, a stockout during the replenishment period is highly probable. Where is the “planning” in such a process? As one customer put it, “Our former process was, in hindsight, spent managing the outputs and not the inputs.”

       

      Incomplete

      Graphics for inventory gets excess and shortage for all locations of a bill of distributionWhat about the thousands of other items that have a Min/Max, safety Stock, Reorder Point, or other parameters that isn’t being reassessed given the updated demand and supply data. The planner isn’t reviewing any of these items which means problems aren’t being identified in advance. Compounding the problem is that when Peter does make a change he doesn’t have any tools to assess the quality of his changes. If he modifies the min/max settings he doesn’t know the specific impact this will have on inventory value, ordering costs, holding costs, stock outs, and service levels. He only knows that an increase in inventory will likely improve service and increase costs. He doesn’t know for example whether his inventory has reached a point of diminishing returns. When inventory decisions are made with only a very rough understanding of the trade offs it creates more problems downstream. You wouldn’t want your carpenter making rough estimates of their measurements yet it’s commonplace for inventory planning professionals to do so with millions of dollars in inventory spend at stake.

      How Often Do Most Companies Update Parameters?

      So how often do most companies make system-wide updates to their planning parameters such as reorder points, safety stocks, Min/Max settings, lead times, and order quantities? Typically, mass updates occur quarterly, annually, and in some cases never – the only times changes are made are when an order is triggered by ERP. Not exactly agile.

      The biggest reason given for not intervening more often is that it takes too much time. Most companies set these key parameters using very unwieldy Excel programs or ERP applications that simply aren’t designed to conduct systemic inventory planning. This is where inventory optimization software can help.

      Using inventory optimization software and probability forecasting to update key planning parameters frequently, say every week or month instead of quarterly or annually, enables you quickly respond to changes in your business. You can seize on cost saving opportunities, as when demand turns down and you can reduce reorder points and/or order quantities and possibly cancel outstanding orders. Or you can respond to problems, as when demand increases threaten your service level commitments to customers, or supplier lead times increase and require re-computation of reorder points.

      How to do it Right

      The key is establishing an agreed upon set of performance and inventory value metrics and letting the software monitor the state of play in the background and alert you to exceptional situations. This is simply one more way of saying that, once systems have been established, you want to go forward using management by exception. You can set ranges within which things can bubble along as they normally do, but once a critical parameter like “stock out risk exceeds a pre-defined level” or “inventory value or costs exceeds a pre-defined level,” the software can provide a daily alert and can also recommend a response, such as raising a reorder point. With this level of automated assistance, it becomes possible to keep your finger on the pulse of the inventory without being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data.

      For example, you may choose an initial set of inventory parameters as the policy because you could see from the software that it meets your service level goals within your inventory budget. You may let the system prescribe service level targets for you and be comfortable with the settings because inventory value is within the budget. However, if demand gets less predictable than historically, you won’t be able to achieve the same level of service without an increase in inventory. An exception report will identify this and enable you to make an informed decision on what to do. You can decide to modify the policy or keep it the same. If you keep it the same, you now know the additional risks and change in inventory costs. This can be communicated to all stake holders so that there aren’t any surprises.

      Plan Don’t React

      Rather than being constantly in reactive mode, you can handle what really needs to be handled and still have some time to do forward thinking. For instance, you can do “what if” analyses on such issues as which supplier lead times would yield the biggest payoff if reduced, or whether service level targets should be adjusted to account for shifts in customer criticality, or similar policy issues. After all, it’s not as if you are not going to end up with a full daily agenda, it’s just a question of whether you can elevate that agenda to a more strategic level. So if you are spending all of your “planning” time managing the outputs of your ERP instead of constructively reviewing and optimizing the inputs, it is time to reassess your inventory planning process.

       

       

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