Princess Auto’s Flowcasting journey featured in Canadian Retailer magazine

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Our client Princess Auto Ltd. is the subject of a feature article in the inaugural Supply Chain issue of Canadian Retailer magazine (published by the Retail Council of Canada). Click here to learn about how they are using the Flowcasting planning process to significantly improve in-stocks and profits while unleashing a new omnichannel fulfilment model. You can also download a PDF copy here.

 

A beautiful mind

Do you remember the movie “A Beautiful Mind”?

The film is based on mathematician Dr. John Nash’s life, and, during one part, attempts to explain how Nash got the idea for his equilibrium theory as a part of game theory. In the scene Dr. Nash is at a bar with three pals, and they are all enraptured by a beautiful blond woman who walks in with her friends.

While his friends banter about which of them would successfully woo the woman, Dr. Nash concludes they should do the opposite – Ignore her. “If we all go for her,” he says, “we block each other and not a single one of us is going to get her. That’s the only way we win.”  That’s the moment when he formulated his idea.

The idea that pops into Dr. Nash’s head at that moment is very instructive in the innovation process.  Often, real innovation happens because you are in a situation and you’re paying attention, or listening, and you just connect the dots.  It’s the subconscious mind at work, finally coming to grips with something you’ve likely been pondering for a while.

It’s a great film and a beautiful story.

Here’s another beautiful story of essentially the same approach that was used to create the breakthrough thinking and solution in demand planning at store level – which, as we know, drives the entire Flowcasting process.

In retail, forecasting at store level, systemically, has been a major challenge for a long time.  Not only do most retailers have millions of store/item combinations, they also need to deal with virtually every imaginable sales pattern.  But, by far, the largest challenge, is the large number of slow selling items – accounting for 50%+ of virtually any retailers assortment.

The main issues with slow selling items is twofold: finding a selling pattern amongst sparse data, and ensuring that the forecast reflected the somewhat random nature of the actual sales.

The hero in our true story is named Darryl.  Darryl is the architect of the RedPrairie Flowcasting solution (now part of JDA) and, specifically, the profile-based, randomized integer forecasting approach that has simplified retail store level forecasting to a beautiful, elegant, intuitive process that does something incredible – it works and is very low touch.

The baseline forecasting process works like this:

FcstApproach2

In Darryl’s approach, unlike that of other attempts, he first calculates an annual forecast by item/store.  Then simple user defined sales thresholds automatically doing the following:

  1. Determine what time period to use to forecast in (weeks, months, quarters, semi-annual)
  2. Determine which level of already pre-aggregated history to use to spread the annual forecast in the time period
  3. Determine whether to convert the forecast into integers – which he randomizes by store/item, ensuring that the same item across many stores will not have an integer forecast in the same week

How did he think of this?  Well, similar to Dr. Nash, he found himself in a situation where someone said something very interesting and it sparked his thinking and helped him connect the dots.

Rumour has it that Darryl was walking around a Canadian Tire store years ago and was talking to the owner of the store.  They approached a section of the store and the owner grabbed a particular product and said something like, “I don’t know when we’ll sell these, all I know is that we’ll sell two every quarter”!

BOOM!  The idea for a different time period for forecasting by item/store popped into Darryl’s head and this event triggered the thinking and eventual development of the baseline forecasting process.

This is a significant development – so much so that it has been patented and is now available with the JDA product solution set.  What it has done is obsolete the need for multi-level forecasting approaches that, to date, have been the norm in attempting to create store/item level forecasts.

This approach is simple, intuitive, elegant and is computationally blazingly fast – another key requirement in retail store level forecasting.

Oh, and it also works.  We implemented this exact approach during our very successful implementation of Flowcasting at Princess Auto.  The solution is forecasting items in all varying time periods and is creating store/item forecasts for products that sell from 1 unit a year at store level, to over 25,000 units a year.

Even more important is that the people that would become demand planners (with no prior knowledge or experience in demand planning) would understand and become proficient using this approach.  Just another benefit of simplicity.

John Nash looks like any other bloke.  But, without a doubt, he’s got a beautiful mind.

The hero in our story, Darryl is just like John.  If you met him, you’d immediately think he’s another Vermont farmer who’s good with hydraulics.  But behind those coveralls and hay-stained hands is…

A beautiful mind.

Virtual Reality for the Retail Supply Chain

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Whenever we discuss Flowcasting, we always describe it as ‘a valid simulation of reality inside a system’. This term originated with our longtime colleague Darryl Landvater and it is the most concise and accurate way to describe what Flowcasting really is that we’ve heard.

In fact, we use that term so much that I think we sometimes assume its meaning is self evident.

It’s not.

Over the last 11 years since Flowcasting the Retail Supply Chain was first published, I’ve noticed that, more and more, the terms ‘Flowcasting’ and ‘valid simulation of reality’ have been treated somewhat like ink blots, with some folks (intentionally or otherwise) using them to mean whatever they want them to mean.

To set the record straight, a true ‘valid simulation of reality’ for the retail supply chain has some very specific characteristics, all of which must be present. To the extent that they are not, the value of the plan suffers – as do the results.

Before diving into the nitty gritty details, consider this: Virtually all retailers have a data warehouse that captures daily sales summaries for every product in every location, all upstream product movements, every on hand balance and certain attributes of every product and every location. This data is usually archived over several years and the elemental level of information is kept intact so that rollups, reports and analysis of that data can be trusted and flexibly done.

Think of a valid simulation of reality for the retail supply chain as a data warehouse – with a complete set of the exact same data elements at the same granular level of detail – except that all of the dates are in the future instead of the past.

However, it must also be said that ‘valid’ does not mean ‘perfect’. Unlike the historical data warehouse that remains fixed after each day goes into the books, the future simulation can and will change over time based on what happened yesterday and new assumptions about the future. Updating the simulation daily at all levels is the key to ensuring it remains valid.

Now let’s get into some of the specifics. A valid simulation of reality has 4 dimensions:

  • Information about the physical world as of this moment
  • Forecasts of expected demand over the next 52 weeks for each individual product at each individual point of consumption (could be a retail store or a virtual store)
  • A simulation of future product movements driven by the forecasts and future planned changes to the physical world
  • Rollups of the elemental data to support aggregate planning in the future

While it may seem that meeting all of these requirements is onerous, it is actually quite simple compared to trying to do things several different ways to account for variations in how products sell or are replenished.

Current information about the physical world includes things like:

  • Master information about products (e.g. cube, weight, pricing, case packs, introduction and discontinuation dates) and locations (stores, DCs, supplier ship points)
  • Relatively accurate on hand balances
  • Planogram details such as store assortment, facings and depth
  • Source to destination relationships with lead-times that are representative of physical activity and travel times

This information is ‘table stakes’ for getting to a valid simulation of the future and is readily available for most retailers. High levels of accuracy for these items (even store on hands) is achievable – so long as the processes that create this information have some discipline – because they are directly observable in the here and now.

Forecasts of demand over the next 52 weeks must:

  • Include every item at every selling point
  • Model demand realistically for slow selling items (i.e. integer values as opposed to small decimals that will model an inventory ‘sawtooth’ that won’t actually happen)
  • Include all known positive and negative future influences for each individual item at each individual selling location (e.g. promotions, assortment changes, trends)
  • Allow for ‘uncertainty on the high side’ for promotions to be modeled independently from the true sales expectation so as not to bias the forecast, especially for promotions
  • Account for periods where inventory is planned to be unavailable at store level (e.g. sales forecast for a discontinued item should continue while the item is in stock and drop to zero when it’s projected to run out in the future)

The rule here is simple: if the item at a location is selling (no matter how slowly or for how long) it must have a sales forecast and that sales forecast must be an unbiased and reasonable representation of what future sales will look like.

A simulation of future product movements driven by the forecasts and future planned changes to the physical world means that:

  • Replenishment and ordering constraints are respected in the plan (e.g. rounding up to case packs if that’s how product ships, rounding at lane level if truckload minimums across all products on a lane are required)
  • Activity calendars are respected (e.g. an arrival of stock is not scheduled when a location is not open for receiving, a shipment is not scheduled during known future shutdown)
  • Carryover targets are respected for seasonal items (e.g. before the season even begins, the planning logic suppresses shipments at the end of the season so as to intentionally run out of stock at the stores and DCs)
  • Future changes to stocking requirements (e.g. changing the number of facings for an item or adding/subtracting it from the store assortment) are known in advance and the effect is visible in the plan on the future day when it will take effect
  • Future changes to network and sourcing relationships (e.g. changing a group of stores to be served by a different DC starting 2 months from now) are known in advance and the effect is visible in the plan on the future day when it will take effect
  • Future price changes (whether temporary or permanent) are known in advance and the effect is visible in the plan on the future day when it will take effect
  • Pre-distributions of promotional stock are scheduled in advance to allow display setup time ahead of the sale
  • Except in rare cases, the creation and release of orders or stock transfers at any location is a fully automated, administrative ‘non event’ that requires no human intervention

Here it can be tempting to take shortcuts that seem ‘easier':

  • ‘We don’t bother forecasting or planning slow moving items at store level. We just wait for a reorder point to trigger.’
  • ‘For items we only buy once from a vendor, we just manually buy it into the DC and push it all out to the stores.’
  • ‘We know our inventory isn’t very accurate for some items at store level, so we just get the store to order those items manually based on a visual review of available stock.’

In order to have a valid simulation of reality that supports higher levels of planning beyond immediate replenishment (see next section below), you need a system and process that can model these things in a way that is representative of what is actually going to happen.

If an item/location is selling/sellable, then it must have a forecast for those sales.

There is actually no such thing as ‘push’ in retail (unless you are able to ‘push’ product into a customer’s cart against their will and get them to pay for it).

Rollups of the elemental data to support aggregate planning in the future means:

  • You can do proper capacity planning with a complete view of the future because a common process is being used at the elemental level, cube/weight data is accurate and so-called shortcuts are not being taken at the elemental level
  • S&OP is possible because the elemental plans are complete, have future pricing changes applied – instead of looking in the mirror with ‘budget vs actual’, senior leaders and decision makers can look through the windshield and compare ‘budget vs operational plan

While all of these elements that define ‘valid simulation of reality’ may seem intuitive and reasonable, it doesn’t stop some people from saying things like:

  • ‘A lot of items, especially slow movers, can’t be forecasted, so the whole idea kinda falls apart right there.’
  • ‘That’s a great theory, but it’s actually not possible to use a pull-based system for every item.’
  • ‘Just because of sheer volume, it’s impossible to manage every product at every location in this way.’

Again, as mentioned previously, a single process framework that can be used for all possible scenarios is actually much simpler to implement and maintain over the long run.

Plus, well… it’s already been done, which kinda deflates the whole ‘it’s impossible’ argument.

The EACH Supply Chain

It’s no secret that retail is undergoing some pretty big changes and will undoubtedly see even more significant shifts in the coming years. While most people are extolling the impact of digitization on retail, there is, in my opinion, a very fundamental and profound shift underway.

The shift is to the EACH supply chain.

Supply chain efficiency is about density. Filling up trucks, planes and trains. Delivering bigger orders. Driving the unit handling cost down. Makes sense and for any retailer, having a reasonable and competitive cost structure is important.

The world, however, is changing. Two major shifts are driving us towards the EACH supply chain – customer expectations and product proliferation/marketing.

Most retail supply chain professionals gained their supply chain knowledge in the world of logistics. It was about moving boxes and cases between facilities. Many, even to this day, don’t really consider the store part of the supply chain. They’ve been conditioned to be content once the product leaves a facility, destined to a store. And measures, to date, reflected that. Fill rates were measured and reported on based on if orders left a facility on time and in full.

It’s only relatively recently that retail supply chain executives began to measure store in-stock and, sometimes, on-shelf availability. Try to find a retailer that measures and reports on store inventory accuracy? It’s a tough search. Yet, having an accurate on-hand balance at store level is becoming more and more a necessity – not only to deliver an excellent customer experience but, importantly, to enable the supply chain to perform, particularly in an omni-channel world.

Retail supply chain thinking, however, needs to extend beyond the store. It needs to, and does, include the customer. The customer is now empowered – armed with finger-tip product and delivery knowledge and their expectations are on the rise.

Customers buy in EACHes, not cases – whether in store, or online and, as we all know, online volume is increasing and that trend will likely continue. Meaning, of course, that the retail supply chain needs to be re-thought and re-architected to deliver in EACH.

When omni-channel was in its infancy, many retailers set up a dedicated distribution centre (DC) to process and fulfill online orders. DC’s, however, traditionally don’t deal with EACHes very well. Combine that with the cost of home delivery and omni-channel fulfillment has been, to date, a losing proposition for most retailers.

Retailers have traditionally set their shelf configurations to hold more than a case quantity and have set their replenishment strategy such that once the on hand balance reaches a minimum level, then an additional case can be ordered to, hopefully, flow directly to and fit on the shelf.

The problem is that all these cases take up too much space and inventory and, often, the arrival of a case of a specific product results in enough inventory to last for weeks and sometimes months. What retailers are beginning to realize is that if they can flow product closer to the EACH rate in which they are demanded, more products can fit on the shelf and be available in the store for presentation to customers.

It’s hard enough for retailers to encourage and entice customers to shop in store and one way is to increase the breadth of assortment – along, of course, with making the shopping experience unique, entertaining and fun.

Marketing and advertising is also evolving to an EACH philosophy and that’s also pressuring the retail supply chain to be EACH-capable. The proliferation of mobile device ads and offers are targeted specifically to people based on data and learnings from individual consumers shopping and search habits. The result? Further demands in EACHes.

Product proliferation is also necessitating the EACH supply chain. The “endless aisle”, as it’s sometimes called, is upon us, and think about the number of possible products available for purchase from Amazon, or on the web in general – it’s staggering and, again, will only increase.

Amazon, of course, is the poster-child of the EACH supply chain. Think about what they’ve been up to over their 20 years of existence. Making online shopping as easy and seamless as possible, while slowly and steadily moving fulfillment closer and closer to the consumer – reducing times and costs in the process. Inherently they understood and have shaped the thinking towards the EACH supply chain and continue to work to reduce costs and, more importantly, cycle times and customer friction.

As customers shift more of their consumption to online this necessitates thinking and designing the flow of inventory from supply to consumer. What’s emerging as a viable model is for retailers to leverage the store to deliver to the customer – either by encouraging/rewarding for picking up in store, or by delivering from store to home.

On the planning front, Flowcasting should be considered a foundational process to facilitate and enable the EACH supply chain. Given many retailers will evolve to delivering the EACH demand from store level, then it’s logical and sensible to plan the total consumer demand from store level. Some of the sales in the store will be through the cash register, some by customer pick-up and still others by shipping from store to home.

Regardless, it’s still a sale and this sales history would be used, in aggregate, at store level to forecast future consumer demand for that store/supply point. Since Flowcasting re-forecasts and re-plans the entire supply chain daily, shifts in demand are quickly assessed, and translated into meaningful plans for all partners in the retail supply chain.

Retail and retail supply chains are undergoing massive changes. I believe that, at the heart of this transformation, is the shift to the EACH supply chain.

Of course, you may not agree and that’s cool.

After all, as the old saying goes – to EACH their own.

We Can All Agree

 

We rarely think people have good sense unless they agree with us. – Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

agree-givemesomeenglish

My family has a history of heart problems.

Although my blood pressure and cholesterol are both fine, I’m 47 years old, carrying 15-20 extra pounds and I don’t get enough exercise, which compounds that risk.

Family History + Being Middle Aged + Being Overweight + Not Enough Cardio = Increased Risk of Heart Problems

It’s hardly a mystery. Everybody knows this. I agree.

I can do nothing about my family history or my age, but I’ve been about the same weight for the last several years and have not meaningfully or sustainably increased the amount of daily exercise I get on a daily basis.

Ask any smoker if they are aware of all of the various health risks from smoking. They too will agree that smoking is bad. But they still do it.

Clearly, there isn’t a binary choice (i.e. agree or disagree), rather different ‘levels’ of agreement:

  • I agree with what you’re saying.
  • I agree that something needs to change.
  • I agree to change my behaviour.

In business in general (and supply chain in particular), significant improvement in results can only be achieved with process-driven changes to people’s behaviour.

We can all agree that the quality of a retailer’s customer service is directly tied to the accuracy of their store-item level inventory records – especially in an omnichannel world where a customer can demand product from a website and expect to pick it up in their neighbourhood store a couple hours later. It’s not a stretch to further agree that processes, procedures and measurement systems need to be in place to improve and maintain store level on hand accuracy.

And yet many retailers (40% of grocery stores according to a recent study) don’t even use a system on hand balance and those that do are not attacking their accuracy problems.

We can all agree that retail supply chains should be consumer driven to be efficient and profitable. And yet most retailers are using the same ‘old school’ processes for promotions, new product introductions and seasonal sales – ‘buy a ton, push it out to the stores and pray that it sells’.

While ‘agreement in principle’ is certainly necessary, it is clearly far from sufficient. So what is the secret ingredient?

I’ve seen it many times throughout my career in retail. I visit one store and the aisles are uncluttered, the shelves are faced out beautifully and the back room is organized and tidy. Then I visit another store with the same retailer and it looks like it was recently hit by a cyclone – even though both stores have the same systems, processes and training manuals.

The difference is that you have to care.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the store manager with the messy store has no passion. I’m just saying that he doesn’t have passion for retailing.

It’s the same reason I’m a supply chain consultant and not a fitness instructor (at least for now). I agree in principle that I need to exercise and lose weight, but I care deeply about order, organization and process discipline in the retail supply chain.

So where does this passion come from and how can it be cultivated and spread throughout an organization?

God, I really wish I knew. I believe that everyone is born with passion, but not everybody is in a job they’re passionate about.

That said, I know that passion can be infectious enough that a very small group of uber-passionate people can change organizations – not necessarily by making everyone as passionate as they are, but by generating just enough force to overcome the organizational inertia.

And once the boulder starts rolling down the hillside, we can all agree that it’s very difficult to stop.

Secret principles of Amazon, Flowcasting

The recent acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon has sent shock waves throughout the grocery industry and, indeed, the retail industry as a whole.  While I’m quite sure retail is not dead, as some proclaim, I’m convinced it is and will undergo massive change in the years ahead.

Early pundits and supply chain professionals were very quick to scoff at Amazon and their business model. The experts predicted that they would never make money selling things over the internet and delivering directly to your home.  And, for a number of years they were right.  However, a combination of scale, volume and innovation has disproven this, as evidenced by the chart below:

Amazon-profits

Clearly, Amazon is doing well financially and have become a profit machine.  Further evidence of the fruits of their labour can be seen in the following chart, which outlines the change in major retailer’s gross margins over the last few years:

Amazon-margins

The story of success of Amazon is not really about scale and volume to ensure their supply chain costs are competitive.  Sure, that’s important and something they continue to work on, but the success of Amazon is really built on its culture and three fundamental principles that Jeff Bezos has instilled in the organization.  In his own words, they are:

  1. Put the Customer first
  2. Invent
  3. Be patient

Customer First
Amazon, no one can deny, puts the customer first.  Think of all the innovations they have introduced and almost all of them have been designed to improve the customer experience. Bezos takes the view of the customer seriously, and rumour has it that at executive meetings sits an empty chair.

This chair is reserved for the customer. And, when they are debating ideas and concepts, Mr Bezos will turn to the empty chair and ask, “what does the customer think”?, and a customer focused discussion ensues.

Invent
The following number says it all:

Amazon-patents

That’s the number of patents that Amazon has been awarded.  Yup – one thousand, two hundred, and sixty three and counting.

Amazon is an innovation factory and, given the turbulent times and unprecedented change on the horizon, what better organizational capability to have.

If you’re competing against Amazon (and there’s a decent chance you are or will be), here’s a question: how many patents has your organization been awarded?

Be Patient
Again, you would be hard pressed to argue that Amazon is not patient.  They have also been smart and have had the good fortune of convincing their employees and shareholders to be patient as well.

They take the long view and are not driven by short term goals.  Being patient also ensures that they give the innovation machine time to work.  Change takes time.  And Amazon seems like they’ve got all the time in the world – to patiently make sure the innovation works, or they learn something from it.

These are the three principles that Jeff Bezos has believed in and instilled in the very fabric of the Amazon culture.  This is the secret to their success and is, no doubt, difficult to replicate or change an existing culture to embrace.

Parallels of Flowcasting and Amazon
The evolution of Flowcasting has, in many ways, paralleled the principles of Amazon.

Customer First – Flowcasting, as you know, is based on the tenet of “never forecast what you can calculate”, and the entire retail supply chain is driven by a forecast of consumer demand.  Flowcasting is definitely a Customer First philosophy.

Invent – Flowcasting is an innovation on how the retail supply chain works.  A single forecast of consumer demand, by item/store/selling-location can be translated into all product, financial, capacity and resource flows throughout the entire supply chain.  This is not how retailers and their trading partners have worked (or still do for virtually all of them) and is an invention in supply chain planning.

Patience – Flowcasting is only now starting to gain traction, with our client, Princess Auto, being the first retailer to implement the process properly and completely. Did you know that the idea of Flowcasting was conceived about 35 years ago, and improved upon by a small group of folks about 20 years ago?  Andre Martin and core members of the Canadian Tire team (including yours truly) have had the patience to see Flowcasting work as intended.

Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up nicely when describing the importance of principles:

As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few”.

Spot on Ralph.  Spot on.

The E-Commerce Secret Weapon

All the secrets of the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight. – Robin Sloan

TopSecret

The end is nigh! If you still have physical stores with inventory, staff and cash registers, you’re a dinosaur and Amazon is coming to kill you! The future is online!

Okay, the rhetoric hasn’t been quite that sensational, but it wasn’t so long ago that ‘experts’ were on the verge of predicting the demise of retail as we know it.

As people (eventually) came to their senses on this, a new reality began to emerge, hidden in plain sight. It turns out that the decades of investments retailers made in their physical store footprint may not have been a complete waste of money after all. In fact, it’s actually a key competitive advantage that may result in Amazon playing some ‘catch up’ of their own in the not too distant future.

To be sure, the ‘buy online, delivery to home’ channel pioneered by Amazon represented a significant shift in how people buy goods. If you didn’t mind a bit of a wait and some extra delivery costs, you could shop without ever having to leave the house.

Over time, new products and services were added to build density, reduce shipping costs to customers and decrease delivery times for many in stock items. This could only happen cost effectively by positioning inventory closer to customers… kinda like what ‘NARs’ (‘non Amazon retailers’ – trademark pending) have been doing for decades.

For customers, that means brick and mortar retailers with an online presence can offer far more shopping and delivery options than Amazon (at least for now).

Click and Collect (or Buy Online, Pick Up in Store)

One way to look at click and collect is that it’s ‘not quite as convenient as home delivery’. In reality, click and collect isn’t necessarily a ‘convenience compromise’ in the mind of every customer – many (including yours truly) consider it to be a different (and more cost effective) kind of convenience.

This option allows customers to reserve their stock in advance and have store staff traverse the aisles on their behalf. And when customers get to the store to pick up their online order, they have the additional option to grab a few last minute or forgotten items. Or maybe they just want curbside pickup so they can get the items loaded directly into their trunk without even having to park.

And for customers who truly view click and collect as a convenience compromise vis-a-vis home delivery, Walmart now allows them to trade in some of their convenience for savings by giving them a discount for choosing click and collect over home delivery.

Third Party Personal Shoppers

This is a relatively new phenomenon, but companies like Instacart have been partnering with retailers to take orders online, shop local stores and home deliver to customers, offering cool features like chatting so that the personal shoppers can make real time decisions with the customers for substitutions or to take advantage of in store promotions.

Home Delivery from Stores

Because retailers already have inventory geographically close to customers, they have the ability to take advantage of cheaper modes of transit (i.e. ground vs air) to deliver in a 2 day time window.

But they also have the opportunity to make delivery promises in hours rather than days in their more densely populated markets, through the use of local couriers or even their own store employees.

Will all of these delivery options (plus a few others that haven’t been dreamed up yet) be popular and/or profitable? Click and collect seems like a done deal – time will tell for the others.

The point here is that these options are only available to retailers who have a retail store network in place. Far from being outmoded or passe, the ‘brick and mortar’ store network is becoming a critical linchpin in meeting customers’ online shopping expectations.

You never would have imagined it a few years ago, but the popularity of online retailing has actually served to enhance the importance of the old fashioned brick and mortar retail store rather than to diminish it. And as such, planning the supply chain from the store level back using Flowcasting becomes even more critical to a retailer’s success than ever.

 

Flipping your thinking

When students at Segerstrom High School in California attend calculus class, they’ve already learned the day’s lesson beforehand — having watched it on a short online video prepared by their teacher, the night before.

So without a lecture delivered by a teacher, students spend class time doing practice problems in small groups, taking snap quizzes, explaining concepts to the class, and sometimes making their own videos while the teacher moves from student to student to help kids who are having problems.

It’s a new form of learning called Flip – because the idea has flipped traditional education on its head – homework is for the lecture, while the classroom, traditionally reserved for the lecture, is for practice and deeper learning and collaboration.

Flipped learning is catching on in a number of schools across North America, as a younger, more tech-savvy student population – including teachers – now make up the typical classroom.

When it comes to supply chain planning, the concept of flipping applies nicely and most people, and most companies, could benefit greatly by flipping their thinking.

Let’s take CPG manufacturers.  When it comes to demand planning, they have it difficult.  Trying to forecast what their retail and other customers are going to do and want is difficult and it’s not getting any easier.  The empowered consumer, changing and dynamic retailer-led strategies are just two examples of shifts that are making it almost impossible to predict the demand, with any level of reasonableness.  The result?  Additional inventory and buffer stock required to respond, “just in case”.

There are a number of studies that prove this point.  Forecast accuracy has not improved and, in most cases, it’s getting worse.

Supply chain practitioners and experts are responding in the typical fashion.  We need better algorithms, fancier formulas, maybe even artificial intelligence and some big data sprinkled on top in order to find a better forecasting engine.

Sorry folks, that’s not working and as consumers and customers become more demanding and expectations rise, it’s going to get worse.  What’s needed is to flip the thinking and to change the paradigm.

CPG manufacturers, for the most part, are forecasting what should be calculated.  The demand plan they are trying to predict for their customer, should be provided to them in the form of a supplier schedule.  And that schedule should reflect the latest knowledge about the consumer, and any and all associated strategies and tactics that will entice the consumer’s buying patterns and/or product flows.

Forecasting consumer demand is, as has been proven, simpler and easier that trying to predict dependent demand – that is, the resulting demand on DC’s and plants based on ordering rules, lead times, and other constraints that tend to “pollute” the dependent demand plan.

When it comes to demand planning, Joe Orlicky had it right some 40 years ago: you should never forecast what can be calculated.

Of course, what we’re talking about is a retailer using the Flowcasting process to plan all flows from supplier to consumer – factoring in any and all constraints that translate the consumer forecast into the purchase projection from retailer to supplier.

Why is this so much better than the traditional approaches?  First, the entire retail supply chain (or any industrial supply chain) is driven by only one forecast – consumer demand.  All other demands can and should be calculated.  The effect is to dramatically simplify planning.  The retailer and manufacturer are working to a single, shared forecast of what’s expected to sell.

Second, the entire supply chain can be re-planned quickly and effortlessly – making the supply chain agile and dynamic.  Changes are and can be viewed almost in real-time and the changes are automatically translated for all partners in the supply chain – in units, cube, weight, dollars, capacity or any language needed throughout the supply chain.  The result is that the entire supply chain is working to a single set of numbers.

Third, when you embrace the idea of Flowcasting as it relates to planning, you get so much more than a better forecast.  Unlike traditional approaches that are trying to mathematically predict the demand, the supplier schedules that are a resultant of the Flowcasting process, calculate the demand by aggregating product flows.

Therefore, trading partners can see, well into the future, projected product flows between any two locations and this provides tremendous insight and flexibility to improve and smooth flows, as well as proactively put in place solutions to potential flow issues before they happen.  The retailer and manufacturer can actually work, using the same system and process, as if they were one company – all oriented to delight and deliver to the consumer, in the most profitable manner possible.

Finally, in addition to providing product flows the approach also produces projections of sales, inventory, purchases, receipts and, as mentioned, flows in any language of the business – units, cube, weight and capacities for operations folks and dollars for financial folks and Management in order to get better control of the business and ensure that plans stay on track.

If you’re planning the retail supply chain, you get so much more when you forecast less.

So, what is the path forward for manufacturers?

They need to flip their thinking and understand that they are trying to forecast what should be calculated – and that this practice will soon be obsolete.

Next, they should engage and work with their key retail and other customers to help educate their customers that a process like Flowcasting not only helps them (in the form of a supplier schedule and complete visibility), it provides even more value to the retail customer.  In fact, to date, it’s the only planning approach that consistently delivers in-stock levels of 98%+, even during promotions – crushing the industry averages of around 92%.

Once they are successful, a CPG manufacturer, over time, can be working with their top retail customers and receiving valid, up-to-date, supplier schedules that in most companies account for 70-85% of their volume.  The additional demands can then be forecasted using the latest approaches – demand sensing, etc.

Imagine, for a moment, what that would mean to the retail industry and the CPG manufacturers in general.  The impact would be enormous – from increased sales and profits, to significant reductions in inventory and working capital.  Not to mention the impact to consumers and customer loyalty.

Is all this possible?

Sure, but to make it happen the first step is to flip your thinking.

I’m From Missouri

 

“I am from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.” – William Duncan Vandiver, US Congressman, speech at 1899 naval banquet

missouri

“How are you going to incorporate Big Data into your supply chain planning processes?”

It’s a question we hear often (mostly from fellow consultants).

Our typical response is: “I’m not sure. What are you talking about?”

Them: “You know, accessing social media and weather data to detect demand trends and then incorporating the results into your sales forecasting process.”

Us: “Wow, that sounds pretty awesome. Can you put me in touch with a retailer who has actually done this successfully and is achieving benefit from it?”

Them: <crickets>

I’m not trying to be cheeky here. On the face of it, this seems to make some sense. We know that changes in the weather can affect demand for certain items. But sales happen on specific items at specific stores.

It seems to me that for weather data to be of value, we must be able to accurately predict temperature and precipitation far enough out into the future to be able to respond. Not only that, but these accurate predictions need to also be very geographically specific – markets 10 miles from each other can experience very different weather on different days.

Seems a bit of a stretch, but let’s suppose that’s possible. Now, you need to be able to quantify the impact those weather predictions will have on each specific item sold in each specific store in order for the upstream supply chain to respond.

Is that even possible? Maybe. But I’ve never seen it, nor have I even seen a plausible explanation as to how it could be achieved.

With regard to social media and browsing data, I have to say that I’m even more skeptical. I get that clicks that result in purchases are clear signals of demand, but if a discussion about a product is trending on Twitter or getting a high number of page views on your e-commerce site (without a corresponding purchase), how exactly do you update your forecasts for specific items in specific locations once you have visibility to this information?

If you were somehow able to track how many customers in a brick and mortar store pick up a product, read the label, then place it back on the shelf, would that change your future sales expectation?

Clearly there’s a lot about Big Data that I don’t know.

But here’s something I do know. A retailer who recently implemented Flowcasting is currently achieving sustained daily in-stock levels between 97% and 98% (it was at 91% previously – right around the industry average). This is an ‘all in’ number, meaning that it encompasses all actively replenished products across all stores, including seasonal items and items on promotion.

With some continuous improvement efforts and maybe some operational changes, I have no doubt that they can get to be sustainably above 98% in stock. They are not currently using any weather or social media Big Data.

This I have seen.