A Primer on Probabilistic Forecasting

The Smart Forecaster

 Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

forecasting and inventory optimization

If you keep up with the news about supply chain analytics, you are more frequently encountering the phrase “probabilistic forecasting.” If this phrase is puzzling, read on.

You probably already know what “forecasting” means. And you probably also know that there seem to be lots of different ways to do it. And you’ve probably heard pungent little phrases like “every forecast is wrong.” So you know that some kind of mathemagic might calculate that “the forecast is you will sell 100 units next month”, and then you might sell 110 units, in which case you have a 10% forecast error.

You may not know that what I just described is a particular kind of forecast called a “point forecast.” A point forecast is so named because it consists of just a single number (i.e., one point on the number line, if you recall the number line from your youth).

Point forecasts have one virtue: They are simple. They also have a flaw: They give rise to snarky statements like “every forecast is wrong.” That is, in most realistic cases, it is unlikely that the actual value will exactly equal the forecast. (Which isn’t such a big deal if the forecast is close enough.)

This gets us to “probabilistic forecasting.” This approach is a step up, because instead of producing a single-number (point) forecast, it yields a probability distribution for the forecast. And unlike traditional extrapolative models that rely purely on the historical data, probabilistic forecasts have the ability to simulate future values that aren’t anchored to the past.

“Probability distribution” is a forbidding phrase, evoking some arcane math that you may have heard of but never studied. Luckily, most adults have enough life experience to have an intuitive grasp of the concept.  When broken down, it’s quite straightforward to understand.

Imagine the simple act of flipping two coins. You might call this harmless fun, but I call it a “probabilistic experiment.” The total number of heads that turn up on the two coins will be either zero, one or two. Flipping two coins is a “random experiment.” The resulting number of heads is a “random variable.” It has a “probability distribution”, which is nothing more than a table of how likely it is that the random variable will turn out to have any of its possible values. The probability of getting two heads when the coins are fair works out to be ¼, as is the probability of no heads. The chance of one head is ½.

The same approach can describe a more interesting random variable, like the daily demand for a spare part.  Figure 2 shows such a probability distribution. It was computed by compiling three years of daily demand data on a certain part used in a scientific instrument sold to hospitals.

 

Probabilistic demand forecast 1

Figure 1: The probability distribution of daily demand for a certain spare part

 

The distribution in Figure 1 can be thought of as a probabilistic forecast of demand in a single day. For this particular part, we see that the forecast is very likely to be zero (97% chance), but sometimes will be for a handful of units, and once in three years will be twenty units. Even though the most likely forecast is zero, you would want to keep a few on hand if this part were critical (“…for want of a nail…”)

Now let’s use this information to make a more complicated probabilistic forecast. Suppose you have three units on hand. How many days will it take for you to have none? There are many possible answers, ranging from a single day (if you immediately get a demand for three or more) up to a very large number (since 97% of days see no demand).  The analysis of this question is a bit complicated because of all the many ways this situation can play out, but the final answer that is most informative will be a probability distribution. It turns out that the number of days until there are no units left in stock has the distribution shown in Figure 2.

Probabilistic demand forecast 2

Figure 2: Distribution of the number of days until all three units are gone

 

The average number of days is 74, which would be a point forecast, but there is a lot of variation around the average. From the perspective of inventory management, it is notable that there is a 25% chance that all the units will be gone after 32 days. So if you decided to order more when you were down to only three on the shelf, it would be good to have the supplier get them to you before a month has passed. If they couldn’t, you’d have a 75% chance of stocking out – not good for a critical part.

The analysis behind Figure 2 involved making some assumptions that were convenient but not necessary if they were not true. The results came from a method called “Monte Carlo simulation”, in which we start with three units, pick a random demand from the distribution in Figure 1, subtract it from the current stock, and continue until the stock is gone, recording how many days went by before you ran out. Repeating this process 100,000 times produced Figure 2.

Applications of Monte Carlo simulation extend to problems of even larger scope than the “when do we run out” example above. Especially important are Monte Carlo forecasts of future demand. While the usual forecasting result is a set of point forecasts (e.g., expected unit demand over the next twelve months), we know that there are any number of ways that the actual demand could play out. Simulation could be used to produce, say, one thousand possible sets of 365 daily demand demands.

This set of demand scenarios would more fully expose the range of possible situations with which an inventory system would have to cope. This use of simulation is called “stress testing”, because it exposes a system to a range of varied but realistic scenarios, including some nasty ones. Those scenarios are then input to mathematical models of the system to see how well it will cope, as reflected in key performance indicators (KPI’s). For instance, in those thousand simulated years of operation, how many stockouts are there in the worst year? the average year? the best year? In fact, what is the full probability distribution of the number of stockouts in a year, and what is the distribution of their size?

Figures 3 and 4 illustrate probabilistic modeling of an inventory control system that converts stockouts to backorders. The system simulated uses a Min/Max control policy with Min = 10 units and Max = 20 units.

Figure 3 shows one simulated year of daily operations in four plots. The first plot shows a particular pattern of random daily demand in which average demand increases steadily from Monday to Friday but disappears on weekends. The second plot shows the number of units on hand each day. Note that there are a dozen times during this simulated year when inventory goes negative, indicating stockouts. The third plot shows the size and timing of replenishment orders. The fourth plot shows the size and timing of backorders.  The information in these plots can be translated into estimates of inventory investment, average units on hand, holding costs, ordering costs and shortage costs.

Probabilistic demand forecast 3

Figure 3: One simulated year of inventory system operation

 

Figure 3 shows one of one thousand simulated years. Each year will have different daily demands, resulting in different values of metrics like units on hand and the various components of operating cost. Figure 4 plots the distribution of 1,000 simulated values of four KPI’s. Simulating 1,000 years of imagined operation exposes the range of possible results so that planners can account not just for average results but also see best-case and worst-case values.

Probabilistic demand forecast 4

Figure 4: Distributions of four KPI’s based on 1,000 simulations

 

Monte Carlo simulation is a low-math/high-results approach to probabilistic forecasting: very practical and easy to explain. Advanced probabilistic forecasting methods employed by Smart Software expand upon standard Monte Carlo simulation, yielding extremely accurate estimates of required inventory levels.

 

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    Goldilocks Inventory Levels

    You may remember the story of Goldilocks from your long-ago youth. Sometimes the porridge was too hot, sometimes it was too cold, but just once it was just right. Now that we are adults, we can translate that fairy tale into a professional principle for inventory planning: There can be too little or too much inventory, and there is some Goldilocks level that is “just right.” This blog is about finding that sweet spot.

    To illustrate our supply chain fable, consider this example. Imagine that you sell service parts to keep your customers systems up and running. You offer a particular service part that costs you $100 to make but sells for a 20% markup. You can make $20 on each unit you sell, but you don’t get to keep the whole $20 because of the inventory operating costs you bear to be able to sell the part. There are holding costs to keep the part in good repair while in stock and ordering costs to replenish units you sell. Finally, sometimes you lose revenue from lost sales due to stockouts.  

    These operating costs can be directly related to the way you manage the part in inventory. For our example, assume you use a (Q,R) inventory policy, where Q is the replenishment order quantity and R is the reorder point. Assume further that the reason you are not making $30 per unit is that you have competitors, and customers will get the part from them if they can’t get it from you.

    Both your revenue and your costs depend in complex ways on your choices for Q and R. These will determine how much you order, when and therefore how often you order, how often you stock out and therefore how many sales you lose, and how much cash you tie up in inventory. It is impossible to cost out these relationships by guesswork, but modern software can make the relationships visible and calculate the dollar figures you need to guide your choice of values for Q and R. It does this by running detailed, fact-based, probabilistic simulations that predict costs and performance by averaging over a large number of realistic demand scenarios.  

    With these results in hand, you can work out the margin associated with (Q,R) values using the simple formula

    Margin = (Demand – Lost Sales) x Profit per unit sold – Ordering Costs – Holding Costs.

    In this formula, Lost Sales, Ordering Costs and Holding Costs are dependent on reorder point R and order quantity Q.

    Figure 1 shows the result of simulations that fixed Q at 25 units and varied R from 10 to 30 in steps of 5. While the curve is rather flat on top, you would make the most money by keeping on-hand inventory around 25 units (which corresponds to setting R = 20). More inventory, despite a higher service level and fewer lost sales, would make a little less money (and ties up a lot more cash), and less inventory would make a lot less.

     

    Margins vs Inventory Level Business

    Figure 1: Showing that there can be too little or too much inventory on hand

     

    Without relying on the inventory simulation software, we would not be able to discover

    • a) that it is possible to carry too little and too much inventory
    • b) what the best level of inventory is
    • c) how to get there by proper choices of reorder point R and order quantity Q.

     

    Without an explicit understanding of the above, companies will make daily inventory decisions relying on gut feel and averaging based rule of thumb methods. The tradeoffs described here are not exposed and the resulting mix of inventory yields a far lower return forfeiting hundreds of thousands to millions per year in lost profits.  So be like Goldilocks.  With the right systems and software tools, you too can get it just right!    

     

     

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    Fact and Fantasy in Multiechelon Inventory Optimization

    For most small-to-medium manufacturers and distributors, single-level or single-echelon inventory optimization is at the cutting edge of logistics practice. Multi-echelon inventory optimization (“MEIO”) involves playing the game at an even higher level and is therefore much less common. This blog is the first of two. It aims to explain what MEIO is, why standard MEIO theories break down, and how probabilistic modeling through scenario simulation can restore reality to the MEIO process. The second blog will show a particular example.

     

    Definition of Inventory Optimization

    An inventory system is built on a set of design choices.

    The first choice is the policy for responding to stockouts: Do you just lose the sale to a competitor, or can you convince the customer to accept a backorder? The former is more common with distributors than manufacturers, but this may not be much of a choice since customers may dictate the answer.

    The second choice is the inventory policy. These divide into “continuous review” and “periodic review” policies, with several options within each type. You can link to a video tutorial describing several common inventory policies here.  Perhaps the most efficient is known to practitioners as “Min/Max” and to academics as (s, S) or “little S, Big S.” We use this policy in the scenario simulations below. It works as follows: When on-hand inventory drops to or below the Min (s), an order is placed for replenishment. The size of the order is the gap between the on-hand inventory and the Max (S), so if Min is 10, Max is 25 and on-hand is 8, it’s time for an order of 25-8 = 17 units.

    The third choice is to decide on the best values of the inventory policy “parameters”, e.g., the values to use for Min and Max. Before assigning numbers to Min and Max, you need clarity on what “best” means for you. Commonly, best means choices that minimize inventory operating costs subject to a floor on item availability, expressed either as Service Level or Fill Rate. In mathematical terms, this is a “two-dimensional constrained integer optimization problem”. “Two-dimensional” because you have to pick two numbers: Min and Max. “Integer” because Min and Max have to be whole numbers. “Constrained” because you must pick Min and Max values that give a high-enough level of item availability such as service levels and fill rates. “Optimization” because you  want to get there with the lowest operating cost (operating cost combines holding, ordering and shortage costs).

     

    Multiechelon Inventory Systems

    The optimization problem becomes more difficult in multi-echelon systems. In a single-echelon system, each inventory item can be analyzed in isolation: one pair of Min/Max values per SKU. Because there are more parts to a multiechelon system, there is a bigger computational problem.

    Figure 1 shows a simple two-level system for managing a single SKU. At the lower level, demands arrive at multiple warehouses. When those are in danger of stocking out, they are resupplied from a distribution center (DC). When the DC itself is in danger of stocking out, it is supplied by some outside source, such as the manufacturer of the item.

    The design problem here is multidimensional: We need Min and Max values for 4 warehouses and for the DC, so the optimization occurs in 4×2+1×2=10 dimensions. The analysis must take account of a multitude of contextual factors:

    • The average level and volatility of demand coming into each warehouse.
    • The average and variability of replenishment lead times from the DC.
    • The average and variability of replenishment lead times from the source.
    • The required minimum service level at the warehouses.
    • The required minimum service level at the DC.
    • The holding, ordering and shortage costs at each warehouse.
    • The holding, ordering and shortage costs at the DC.

    As you might expect, seat-of-the-pants guesses won’t do well in this situation. Neither will trying to simplify the problem by analyzing each echelon separately. For instance, stockouts at the DC increase the risk of stockouts at the warehouse level and vice versa.

    This problem is obviously too complicated to try to solve without help from some sort of computer model.

     

    Why Standard Inventory Theory is Bad Math

    With a little looking, you can find models, journal articles and book about MEIO. These are valuable sources of information and insight, even numbers. But most of them rely on the expedient of over-simplifying the problem to make it possible to write and solve equations. This is the “Fantasy” referred to in the title.

    Doing so is a classic modeling maneuver and is not necessarily a bad idea. When I was a graduate student at MIT, I was taught the value of having two models: a small, rough model to serve as a kind of sighting scope and a larger, more accurate model to produce reliable numbers. The smaller model is equation-based and theory-based; the bigger model is procedure-based and data-based, i.e., a detailed system simulation. Models based on simple theories and equations can produce bad numerical estimates and even miss whole phenomena. In contrast, models based on procedures (e.g., “order up to the Max when you breach the Min”) and facts (e.g., the last 3 years of daily item demand) will require a lot more computing but give more realistic answers. Luckily, thanks to the cloud, we have a lot of computing power at our fingertips.

    Perhaps the greatest modeling “sin” in the MEIO literature is the assumption that demands at all echelons can be modeled as purely random Poisson processes. Even if it were true at the warehouse level, it would be far from true at the DC level. The Poisson process is the “white rat of demand modeling” because it is simple and permits more paper-and-pencil equation manipulation. Since not all demands are Poisson shaped, this results in unrealistic recommendations.

     

    Scenario-based Simulation Optimization

    To get realism, we must get down into the details of how the inventory systems operate at each echelon. With few limits except those imposed by hardware such as size of memory, computer programs can keep up any level of complexity. For instance, there is no need to assume that each of the warehouses faces identical demand streams or has the same costs as all the others.

    A computer simulation works as follows.

    1. The real-world demand history and lead time history are gathered for each SKU at each location.
    2. Values of inventory parameters (e.g., Min and Max) are selected for trial.
    3. The demand and replenishment histories are used to create scenarios depicting inputs to the computer program that encodes the rules of operation of the system.
    4. The inputs are used to drive the operation of a computer model of the system with the chosen parameter values over a long period, say one year.
    5. Key performance indicators (KPI’s) are calculated for the simulated year.
    6. Steps 2-5 are repeated many times and the results averaged to link parameter choices to system performance.
    7.  

    Inventory optimization adds another “outer loop” to the calculations by systematically searching over the possible values of Min and Max. Among those parameter pairs that satisfy the item availability constraint, further search identifies the Min and Max values that result in the lowest operating cost.

    Fact and Fantasy in Multiechelon Inventory Optimization

    Figure 1: General structure of one type of two-level inventory system

     

    Stay Tuned for our next Blog

    COMING SOON. To see an example of a simulation of the system in Figure 1, read the second blog on this topic

     

     

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