Questions and Answers

Questions

Did you know that most, if not all, organizations and innovations started with a question, or series of questions?

Reed Hastings concocted Netflix by asking a simple question to himself…”what if DVD’s could be rented through a subscription-type service, so no one ever had to pay late fees?” (Rumor was that this was just after he’d been hit with a $40 late fee).

Apple Computer was forged by Woz and Jobs asking, “Why aren’t computers small enough for people to have them in their homes and offices?”

In the 1940’s, the Polaroid instant camera was conceived based on the question of a three year old. Edwin H. Land’s daughter grew impatient after her father had taken a photo and asked, “Why do we have to wait for the picture, Daddy?”

Harvard child psychologist Dr. Paul Harris estimated that between the ages of two to five, a child asks about 40,000 questions. Yup, forty thousand!

Questions are pretty important. They lead to thinking, reflection, discovery and sometimes breakthrough ideas and businesses.

The problem is that we’re not five years old anymore and, as a result, we just don’t seem to ask enough questions – especially the “why” and “what if” kinds of questions. We should.

Turns out our quest for answers and solutions would be much better served by questions. To demonstrate the power of questions, let’s consider the evolution of solutions to develop a forward looking, time-phased forecast of consumer demand by item/store.

Early solutions realized that at item/store level a significant number of products sold at a very slow rate. Using just that items sales history, at that store, made it difficult to determine a selling pattern – how the forecasted demand would happen over the calendar year.

To solve this dilemma, many of the leading solutions used the concept of the “law of large numbers” – whereby they could aggregate a number of similar products into a grouping of those products to determine a sales pattern.

I won’t bore you with the details, but that is essentially the essence behind the thinking that, for the retail/store, the forecast pattern would need to be derived from a higher level forecast and then each individual store forecast would be that stores contribution to the forecast, spread across time using the higher level forecast’s selling pattern.

It’s the standard approach used by many solutions, one who’s even labelled it as multi-level forecasting. Most retail clients who are developing a time-phased forecast at item/store are using this approach.

Although the approach does produce a time-phased item/store forecast, it has glaring and significant problems – most notably in terms of complexity, manageability and reasonableness of using the same selling pattern for a product across a number of stores.

To help you understand, consider a can of pork and beans at a grocery retailer. At what level of aggregation would you pick so that the aggregate selling pattern could be used in every store for that product? If you think about it for a while, you’ll understand that two stores even with a few miles of each other could easily have very different selling patterns. Using the same pattern to spread each stores forecast would yield erroneous and poor results. And, in practice, they do.
Not only that, but you need to manage many different levels of a system calculated forecast and ensuring that these multi-level forecasts are synchronized amongst each level – which requires more system processing. Trying to determine the appropriate levels to forecast in order to account for the myriad of retail planning challenges has also been a big problem – which has tended to make the resulting implementations more complex.

As an example, for most of these implementations, it’s not uncommon to have 3 or more forecasting levels to “help” determine a selling pattern for the item/store. Adding to the issue is that as the multi-level implementation becomes more complex, it’s harder for planners to understand and manage.

Suffice it to say, this approach has not worked well. It’s taken a questioner, at heart, to figure out a better, simpler and more effective way.

Instead of the conventional wisdom, much like our 3 year old above, he asked some simple questions…

“What if I calculated a rolling, annual forecast first?” “Couldn’t I then spread that forecast into the weekly/daily selling pattern?”

As it turns out, he was right.

Then, another question…

“Why do I have to create a higher level forecast to determine a pattern?” Couldn’t I just aggregate sales history for like items, in the same store, to determine the selling pattern?”

Turns out, he could.

Finally, a last question…

“Couldn’t I then multiple the annual forecast by the selling pattern to get my time-phased, item/store forecast?”

Yes, indeed he could.

Now, the solution he developed also included some very simple and special thinking around slow selling items and using a varying time period to forecast them – fast sellers in weekly periods, slower sellers monthly and even slower sellers in quarterly or semi-annual periods.

The questions he asked himself were around the ideas of “Why does every item, at the retail store, need to be forecast in weekly time periods?”

Given the very slow rate of sales for most item/stores the answer is they don’t and shouldn’t.

The solution described above was arrived at by asking questions. It works beautifully and if you’re interested in learning more and perhaps asking a few questions of your own, you know how to find me.

So, if you’re a retailer and are using the complicated, hard-to-manage, multi-level forecasting approach outlined above, perhaps you should ask a question or two as well…

1. “Why are we doing it like this?”
2. “Who is using the new approach and how’s it working?”

They’re great questions and, as you now know, questions will lead you to the answers!

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.