About Jeff Harrop

Jeff Harrop

Sides of a Coin

Most controversies would soon be ended, if those engaged in them would first accurately define their terms, and then adhere to their definitions. – Tryon Edwards

simple: easy to understand, deal with, use, etc.

simplistic: characterized by extreme simplism; oversimplified

complex: composed of many interconnected parts; compound; composite

complicated: difficult to analyze, understand, explain, etc.

Such small distinctions.

Such calamity when those distinctions are not properly acknowledged, particularly when applied to the retail supply chain.

Let’s start here:

  • Problems that are complex can usually broken down into smaller problems, each of which can be simple
  • Problems that are complicated are often intractable – they can’t easily be broken into chunks and require some sort of breakthrough to be solved (think peace in the Middle East)
  • Problems that are simple – well, they’re not really problems at all, are they?

Now here’s where – in my experience at least – retailers start running into trouble.

Problem #1: Seeing complexity as complication

If you’ve ever read articles about the challenges of planning the retail supply chain, you’ve probably seen a diagram or two that looks something like this (if not worse):

The implication is clear: The retail supply chain is a vast, sophisticated web of relationships between and among various entities. Not only that, but the problem becomes more mind boggling the closer you get to the customer, as depicted below:

I mean, look at all those arrows!

To be sure, the retail supply chain planning problem is large in terms of the number of items, locations and source/destination relationships. The combinations can get into the tens – if not hundreds – of millions.

But is it truly an enormous and complicated problem or merely an enormous number of simple problems?

In contradiction to the popular proverb, sometimes it’s necessary to focus on the trees, not the forest.

How you consider the problem will in large part determine your level of success at solving it. Complication is often a self inflicted wound (more on that later).

Problem #2: Seeing simplistic as simple

Just as overcomplication leads to trouble, so does oversimplification.

Best summed up by Albert Einstein:

People love this quote because they feel it very neatly sums up Occam’s Razor. Then they further reduce it to a design philosophy like “the simpler, the better”.

But the real power in that quote doesn’t reside in the first part (“Everything should be made as simple as possible.”), rather in the second: But not simpler.

In a retail planning construct, I’ve most often seen this line crossed when the topic is forecasting for slow selling item/stores. Demand forecasting as a discipline originated in manufacturing where volumes are high and SKU counts are low. As a consequence, most mature forecasting methods are designed to predict time series with continuous demand.

When you look at retail consumer demand at item/store level, a significant portion of those demand streams (often more than 70% for hardlines and specialty retailers) sell fewer than one unit per week.

So we have intermittent demand streams and tools that only really work well with continuous demand streams. So what’s the solution?

One of the most common responses to that question is: “Screw it. It’s not even worth forecasting those items. Just set a minimum and maximum stock value for ordering and move on.”

That position is certainly not difficult to understand, but is this really keeping it simple or being overly simplistic?

Here are some follow-up questions:

  • What if a particular item is fast selling at some locations and slow selling at others? Would you forecast it at some locations but not at others? How would a demand planner manage that?
  • If not every item in every location is being forecasted, then how do plan future replenishment volumes? Not just at the stores, but at DCs as well?
  • If not every item is forecasted, then it’s not possible to do rollups for reporting and analysis, so how do you fill in the gaps?

Because a simplistic solution was proposed that only addresses part of a complex problem, we have created a problem that is complicated.

This is akin to looking at a single tree without even recognizing that there are other trees nearby, let alone seeing a forest.

Things are only as complicated as you choose to make them, but they also may not be as simple as they seem.

Store Inventory Accuracy and Deming’s 14 Points

Our system of make-and-inspect, which if applied to making toast would be expressed: “You burn, I’ll scrape.” – W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993)

What would Dr. Deming make of retail store inventory accuracy?

Impossible to know for a couple of reasons. First, he died nearly thirty years ago. Second, the bulk of his career was devoted to the attainment of total quality management in manufacturing. That said, the spirit of his famous 14 Points for Management first published in his 1982 book Out of the Crisis applies to – well, pretty much every facet of every business and store inventory accuracy is no exception.

Point 1: Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs.

“Defects are not free. Somebody makes them, and gets paid for making them.”


If there’s one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught retailers, it’s that when your system on hand records don’t match the physical stock in the store, it’s a real problem for customer service and productivity. When your sales primarily come from walk-in business, there’s really no reliable way of knowing how many customers walked out unsatisfied or made a substitution as a result of an empty shelf.

When you assign online pickup orders to be picked at a store because the system on hand balance shows stock, the curtain is unceremoniously ripped away. How many orders couldn’t be fulfilled because the available stock in the system couldn’t be found in the store? How much wasted time was spent fruitlessly trying to find the stock to pick the orders? 

Retailers don’t measure their inventory accuracy. They must.

Retailers don’t adequately research the process and transactional errors that cause their inventory to become inaccurate in the first place. They must. 

Before any of that can happen, management needs to actually care about inventory accuracy.

Point 2: Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.

“To manage one must lead. To lead, one must understand the work that he and his people are responsible for.”

Inaccurate stock records don’t “just happen”. They are the result of one of two things:

  1. People aren’t following the correct processes for managing stock
  2. People are correctly following flawed processes for managing stock

In either case, the responsibility falls on management to correct these issues. This can’t be accomplished without diving deep to understand the processes and behaviours that are causing errors.

Point 3: Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.

“Inspection does not improve the quality, nor guarantee quality. Inspection is too late. The quality, good or bad, is already in the product.”

This is one that retailers generally don’t understand. At all. Most “inventory accuracy” programs focus on trying to optimize counting frequency. Items with historically poor inventory accuracy are cycle counted and corrected more frequently than items with fewer historical errors, with little investigation as to why those errors are happening in the first place. This approach is really “problem solving theatre” – there are process issues that are causing the errors and constantly repairing the output without addressing the root causes of why the records became inaccurate in the first place will never lead to sustained inventory accuracy.

Point 4: End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.

“The result of long-term relationships is better and better quality, and lower and lower costs.”

Are you buying products from suppliers that make it more difficult to keep stock accurate in stores? Do they wrap several different items in nearly identical packaging to save money at the expense of confusing store staff and customers? Are the barcodes applied with easily removeable (and switchable) stickers? Are the barcodes easy to find and scan at the checkout?

This is often small potatoes when compared to the in store process and behavioural issues, but every little bit helps. Missed sales caused by inaccurate stock affects the supplier too, so to the extent that they can work with retailers to avoid being part of the problem, everyone will benefit.

Point 5: Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.

“Putting out fires is not improvement of the process. Neither is discovery and removal of a special cause detected by a point out of control. This only puts the process back to where it should have been in the first place.”

Focusing on inaccurate stock records is trying to manage the output. Inaccurate inventory is caused by processes that result in inaccurate transactions which in turn result in inaccurate on hand balances.

If you research a variance and determine it was because Mary made a mistake at the checkout, what you’ve found is an explanation for that particular error, not a root cause.

Why did Mary make that mistake? Was it a specific one-off event that won’t likely ever be repeated? Has she been properly trained on proper checkout procedures? Are the checkout procedures themselves flawed? Has management instructed Mary to focus on speed over accuracy? Are other cashiers making similar mistakes for the same reasons?

Point 6: Institute training on the job.

“People don’t like to make mistakes.”

The retail industry in general is notorious for high turnover in front line staff – you know, the people who actually transact stock movements within the store. As a result, it can be tempting to skimp on training new people for fear that your investment won’t be returned. When new people have questions, they need to go to a manager for instruction on what to do. More often than not, busy managers will provide shortcut solutions that are designed to get the problem off their plates as quickly as possible.

Is saving money on training actually saving money?

Point 7: Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.

“It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best.”

Training is a good start, but it’s not enough to sustain inventory accuracy. Do people understand why inventory accuracy is important to customers and fellow team members and how their role can impact it?

Point 8: Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.

“Where there is fear, you do not get honest figures.”

Poor inventory accuracy should not be seen as a reflection of people’s performance, rather the performance of the process. If inventory discrepancies discovered in cycle counts result in witch hunts that are used to find culprits and lay blame, people will quickly learn “the right amount” of error they can report to avoid suspicion on the low end and recriminations on the high end. The true problems will remain buried under rosy reports that everyone can reference to argue that a problem doesn’t exist.

Point 9: Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.

“Quality is everyone’s responsibility.”

Contributors to inaccurate inventory records can be found anywhere and processes (both internal and external to the store) can be the cause. Is an inventory accuracy lens being used when designing new processes and procedures in Loss Prevention, Merchandising, Sourcing, DC Picking, Store Receiving and Stock Management?

Point 10: Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

“Hopes without a method to achieve them will remain mere hopes.”

There may well be some store employees who are deliberately trying to sabotage the business, but they are in a very small minority. Telling people “We need you to keep your stock more accurate” without first investing in education, training and the proper tools is like giving them a mule and telling them to go out and win the Kentucky Derby. 

Point 11: 11a. Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership. 11b. Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

Don’t let this one fool you. Deming was all about data collection and measurement of results. It’s what you do with the data that counts. Stock variance reports can alert management to where the problems may lie, but the only path to a solution is to dig in and understand the process in detail. Once a process change is made that you feel should have solved the problem, future rounds of data collection will tell you whether or not you were successful. If you weren’t successful, you need to dig in again, because there is something you missed.

Point 12: 12a. Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality. 12b. Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective.

“When one understands who depends on me, then I may take joy in my work.”

See Points 6 and 7 above. The impact to customers and fellow team members of doing things that cause stock to become inaccurate is easy to explain. People want to do a good job, but they need to be given the right education, training and tools.

13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.

“Learning is not complusary. Neither is survival.”

When it comes to store inventory accuracy, there’s never a point at which you are finished. There will always be new causes of errors and processes that need improving.

14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.

“Long-term commitment to new learning and new philosophy is required of any management that seeks transformation. The timid and the fainthearted, and people that expect quick results, are doomed to disappointment.”

Store perpetual inventory has been around for decades. So have the process gaps, bad habits and lack of care that makes inventory records inaccurate. There are a lot of people involved and a lot of moving parts that will make it difficult to attain and sustain high levels of inventory accuracy at stores. It will take effort. It will cost some money. It won’t be easy.

But living with the impacts of poor on hand accuracy is no walk in the park either. It’s taking MORE effort, costing MORE money and making things MORE difficult on a daily basis. 

Your Sales Plan is NOT a Forecast!

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be. – William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

A Ferrari has a steering wheel. A fire truck also has a steering wheel.

A Ferrari has a clutch, brake and accelerator. A fire truck also has a clutch, brake and accelerator.

Most Ferraris are red. Most fire trucks are also red.

A new Ferrari costs several hundred thousand dollars. A new fire truck also costs several hundred thousand dollars.

Ergo, Ferrari = Fire Truck.

That was an absurd leap to make, I know, but no more absurd than using the terms “sales plan” and “sales forecast” interchangeably in a retail setting. Yes, they are each intended to represent a consensus view of future sales, but that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. They differ significantly with regard to purpose, level of detail and frequency of update.

Purpose

The purpose of the sales plan is to set future goals for the business that are grounded in strategy and (hopefully) realism. Its job is to quantify and articulate the “Why” and with a bit of a light touch on the “What” and the “How”. It’s about predicting what we’re trying to make happen.

The purpose of the operational sales forecast is to subjectively predict future customer behaviour based on observed customer demand to date, augmented with information about known upcoming occurrences – such as near term weather events, planned promotions and assortment changes – that may make customers behave differently. It’s all about the “What” and the “How” and its purpose is to foresee what we think is going to happen based on all available information at any one time.

Level of Detail

The sales plan is an aggregate weekly or monthly view of expected sales for a category of goods in dollars. Factored into the plan are category strategies and assumptions (“we’ll promote this category very heavily in the back half” or “we will expand the assortment by 20% to become more dominant”), but usually lacking in the specific details which will be worked out as the year unfolds.

The operational sales forecast is a detailed projection by item/location/week in units, which is how customers actually demand product. It incorporates all of the specific details that flow out of the sales plan whenever they become available.

Frequency of Update

The sales plan is generally drafted once toward the end of a fiscal year so as to get approval for the strategies that will be employed to drive toward the plan for the upcoming year.

The operational sales forecast is updated and rolled forward at least weekly so as to drive the supply chain to respond to what’s expected to happen based on everything that has happened to date up to and including yesterday.

“Reconciling” the Plan and the Forecast

Being more elemental, the operational forecast can be easily converted to dollars and rolled up to the same level at which the sales plan was drafted for easy comparison.

Whenever this is done, it’s not uncommon to see that the rolled up operational forecast does not match the sales plan for any future time period. Nor should it. And based on the differences between them discussed above, how could it?

This should not be panic inducing, rather a call to action:

“According to the sales plan that was drafted months ago, Category X should be booking $10 million in sales over the next 13 weeks.”

“According to the sales forecast that was most recently updated yesterday to include all of the details that are driving customer behaviour for the items in Category X, that ain’t gonna happen.”

Valuable information to have, is it not? Especially since the next 13 weeks are still out there in a future that has yet to transpire.

Clearly assumptions were made when the sales plan was drafted that are not coming to pass. Which assumptions were they and what can we do about them?

While a retailer can’t directly control customer behaviour (wouldn’t that be grand?), they have many weapons in their arsenal to influence it significantly: advertising, pricing, promotions, assortment, cross-selling – the list goes on.

The predicted gap between the plan and the forecast drives tactical action to close the gap:

Maybe it turns out that the tactics you employ will not close the gap completely. Maybe you’re okay with it because the category is expected to track ahead later in the year. Maybe another category will pick up the slack, making the overall plan whole. Or maybe you still don’t like what you’re seeing and need to sharpen your pencil again on your assumptions and tactics.

Good thing your sales plan is separate and distinct from your sales forecast so that you can know about those gaps in advance and actually do something about them.

Your Forecast is Wrong (and That’s Okay)

Just because you made a good plan, doesn’t mean that’s what’s gonna happen. – Taylor Swift

I was 25 years old the first time I met with a financial advisor. I was unmarried, living in a small midtown Toronto apartment and working in my first full time job out of university. 

I can’t say I remember all of the details, but we did go through all of the standard questions:

  • Will I be getting married? Having kids? How many kids?
  • How do I see my career progressing?
  • When might I want to retire?
  • What kind of a lifestyle do I want to have in retirement?

On the basis of that interview, we developed a savings plan and I started executing on it.

The following is an abridged list of events that have happened since that initial plan was created a quarter century ago, only a couple of which were accounted for (vaguely) in my original plan:

  • I left my stable job to pursue a not-so-stable career in consulting
  • I moved from my first apartment to a slightly larger apartment
  • I got married
  • We moved into an even bigger apartment
  • We had a kid
  • We moved into a house
  • We had two more kids
  • I co-authored a book
  • My wife went back to school for her Masters
  • The 2008 financial crisis happened
  • The Canadian government made numerous substantial changes to personal and corporate tax rules and registered savings programs
  • We sold our house and built a new house
  • Numerous cars were bought, many of which died unexpectedly
  • COVID-19 happened

You get the idea. Many of these events (and numerous others not listed) required a re-evaluation of our goals, a change in the plan to achieve those goals or both.

The key takeaway from all of this is obvious: That because the original plan bears no resemblance to what it is today, planning for an unknown and unknowable future is a complete waste of time. 

At this point, you may be feeling a bit bewildered and thinking that this conclusion is – to put it kindly – somewhat misinformed. 

I want you to recall that feeling of bewilderment whenever you hear or read people saying things (in a supply chain context) like “You shouldn’t be forecasting because forecasts are always wrong” or “Forecasting is a waste of time because you can’t predict the future anyhow”.

This viewpoint seems to hinge on the notion that a forecast is not needed if your minimum stock levels are properly calculated. To replenish a location, you just need to wait until the actual stock level is about to breach the minimum stock level and automatically trigger an order. No forecasting required!

Putting aside the fact that properly constructed and maintained forecasts drive far more than just stock replenishment to a location, a bit of trickery was employed to make the argument.

Did you catch it?

It’s the “minimum stock levels are properly calculated” part.

In order for the minimum stock level for an item at a location at any point in time to be “properly calculated”, it would by necessity need to account for (at a minimum):

  • The expected selling rate
  • Expected trends
  • Selling pattern (upcoming peaks and troughs)
  • Planned promotional and event impacts
  • Planned price changes
  • Etc.

Do those elements look at all familiar to you? A forecast by any other name is still a forecast.

The simple fact is that customers don’t like to wait. They’re expecting product to be available to purchase at the moment they make the purchase decision. Unless someone has figured out how to circumvent the laws of time and space, the only way to achieve that is to anticipate customer demand before it happens.

It’s true that any given prediction will be “wrong” to one degree or another as the passage of time unfolds and the correctness of your assumptions about the future are revealed. That’s not just a characteristic of a business forecasting process – it’s a characteristic of life in general. Casting aspersions on forecasting because of that fact is tantamount to casting aspersions upon God Himself.

It’s one thing to recognize that forecasts have error, it’s quite another to argue that because forecasts have error, the forecasting process itself has no value.

Forecasting is not about trying to make every forecast exactly match every actual. Rather it’s a voyage of discovery about your assumptions and continuously changing course as you learn.

Killing Your Sales With Stock

Can one desire too much of a good thing? – William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Here is one of the most widely accepted logical propositions in retail:

  1. Customers can’t buy product that’s out of stock in the store.
  2. Inventory doesn’t sell when it’s sitting in the warehouse.
  3. Ergo, the more stock you have in your stores, the better it is for sales

It makes some sense, so long as you don’t think about it too hard.

While this thought process can manifest in good ways – reorganizing the supply chain to flow product quickly through a stockless DC based on what’s needed at the store, for example – it can (and often does) result in behaviour that can actually harm sales and productivity.

The old “You can’t sell it out of the warehouse!” chestnut is most often trotted out when the warehouse is packed and they need to make room.

Tell me if this chain of events sounds familiar:

  • The warehouse is running out of space
  • The decision is made to clear out some stock
  • Products are identified that are the biggest contributors to the capacity issue (i.e. they’re taking up a lot of space and not being drawn out as quickly as everyone would like)
  • Push it out to the stores!

A couple weeks later, you run some reports:

  • Warehouse picking efficiency has skyrocketed as a result of shipping out oodles of pallets out to the stores – SUCCESS!
  • Warehouse is unclogged and has sufficient space to maneuver for the next few weeks – SUCCESS!
  • Stores now have all kinds of stock to support sales – SUCCESS!

If we just stop there, we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves. Unfortunately, there’s usually a bit more to the story:

  • The store receives way more stock that can fit on the shelf, so they need to put it somewhere – stores don’t have the luxury of being able to push product out the door to unwilling recipients.
  • Where the stock ultimately ends up is scattered throughout the store – on promotional end caps, in the back room, on overhead storage racks, shoved into a corner in receiving, sometimes even in offsite storage – solving a capacity issue in one location has just created capacity issues in dozens of other locations.

In the best case scenario after this has happened, stores are extremely disciplined and organized in their stock management and can always replenish the shelf from their overstock once it starts to get empty. But protecting sales comes at a significant cost. After the initial receipt of the overstock goods, the product will need to be moved around many times again before it leaves the store:

  • Shelf gets empty, go to the back room and bring out some more, fill the retail displays, bring what didn’t fit back to the back room again, repeat.
  • The overstock product is finally cleared out of the back room, but now you need to start taking down secondary displays as they deplete to replenish the home and fill them up with something more deserving that should have been there in the first place.

In the second best case scenario, the stock is within the 4 walls of the store – somewhere. When the shelf is empty, the vast majority of your customers will seek out a staff member to find the product and wait patiently while said staff member recruits other staff members to go on a costly scavenger hunt that hopefully… eventually… turns up the stock that the customer is waiting for. Crisis averted! Sale retained! But again, at a steep cost.

In the worst case (and most common) scenario, the customer sees an empty shelf and just leaves the store without alerting anyone to his/her dissatisfaction. A couple days later, a staff member walks by, sees the empty shelf and thinks “I’m sure the replenishment system will take care of that.” But it won’t. According to the stock ledger, the store has tons of stock to sell. After a couple more weeks of lost sales, someone realizes that they need to try to find the stock somewhere within the store. After an hour of searching, they give up and just write the stock off in the hopes that more will be sent to fill the hole in the shelf, further exacerbating the overstock problem until it turns up months later during the physical count.

And in all of the above scenarios, the management of overstock is consuming finite store resources that could negatively impact sales for all products in the store, not just the problem children.

So there you have it – rather than an enabler, inventory can be an impediment to sales. Even though inventory is in the store, it might as well be on Mars if it’s not accessible to the customer.

In an ideal world, you would set up your processes, systems and constraints in such a way that product can flow into the back door of the store in such a way that what’s coming in can largely flow directly to the shelf with minimal overstock. it’s not super easy to accomplish this, but it’s not advanced calculus either.

But in the event that you do end up with overstock in your supply chain, the best place to have it is upstream where the product is not yet fully costed, better processes and tools exist to manage it and you still have options to dispose of it or clear it out as cost effectively as possible – you know, postponement and all that.

Arbitrarily pushing stock out to the stores in the hopes that they’ll figure out what to do with it is about the worst thing you can do.

Agile or Waterfall?

 

Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless. – Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931)

samagile

So, which is a better approach to project management? Agile or Waterfall?

The answer is simple: Agile is better. It’s newer, it sounds cooler and it has better terminology (scrums and sprints – that’s awesome!).

Still not convinced? Then check out some of these dank memes that pop up when you to a Google search on “agile or waterfall”.

In just a few simple pictures, you can plainly see that the Agile approach is easier…

Agile Methodology vs Waterfall Model: Pros and Cons

…less risky…

comparison of agile vs waterfall | Waterfall project management, Project  management, Agile

…quicker to achieve benefits…

…all with a greater likelihood of success.

2019 UPDATE] Agile Project Success Rates 2X Higher Than Waterfall
So if it’s been settled for the ages, then why am I writing this piece? And why are you detecting a very slight hint of sarcasm in my tone thus far?

The Agile framework has its roots in software development and in that context, I have no doubt about its superiority. That’s because new software is (generally speaking) easy to modularize, easy to test and easy to change when you find errors, vulnerabilities or awkwardness for the user all with very little risk or significant capital outlay.

I’m certainly no expert, but intuitively, Agile project management seems to be exactly the right tool for that kind of job.

Where I take issue is when I hear it being bandied about as an outright replacement for all previous project management methods because it’s trendy, regardless of whether or not it’s the right fit.

Some Dude: “We’re embarking on an Agile transformation!”

Me: “That sounds great! What do you mean exactly?”

Same Dude: “It means we’ll be more agile!”

Me: “Uh, okay.”

Building a new skyscraper is a project that consumes time, materials and resources and is expected to achieve a benefit upon completion.

You can’t approach such a project with the mindset that “we’ll buy some land, start building upwards and make adjustments as we go”. When you get up to the 20th storey, it’s not so easy to make a decision at that point to go up another 20 storeys (did you put in a foundation at step 1 to support that?). Everything needs to be thoroughly thought through and planned in a significant amount of detail before you even purchase the land, otherwise the project will fail. Yes, there are opportunities to make small changes along the way as needs arise, but you really do need to be following a “grand plan” and you can’t start renting it out until it’s done.

Similarly, if you had a medical condition requiring several complex surgeries to be performed over several months, would you opt instead for a surgeon who says “I’ll just cut you open, start messing around in there and quickly adapt as I go – we can probably shave 20% off the total time”?

This brings me to supply chain planning in retail. On the face of it, the goal is to get people out of spreadsheets and into a functional planning system that can streamline work and improve results. It would seem that an Agile approach might fit the bill.

But building out a new planning capability for a large organization is much more like building a skyscraper than coding a killer app. Yes, the numbers calculated in a planning system are just data that can be easily changed, but that data directly drives the deployment of millions of dollars in physical assets and resources. It requires:

  • Tons of education and training to a large pool of people, grounded in principles that they will initially find unfamiliar. The unlearning is much harder than the learning.
  • A thorough understanding of what data is needed, where it resides and what needs to be done to improve quality and fill gaps.
  • A thorough understanding of how the new planning process and system will fit in with existing processes and systems in the organization that won’t be changing.

All of this needs to happen before you “flip the switch” to start moving goods AND the business has to keep running at the same time. A former colleague described projects of this nature as “performing open heart surgery while the patient is running a marathon”.

After this foundation is in place and stabilized, there are opportunities aplenty to apply Agile techniques for continuous improvement, analysis and a whole host of other things. But there needs to be a firm base on which to build. Even constructing a killer app with the Agile approach still requires a programming language to exist first.

So what am I saying here? That large scale organizational change programs are complex, risky, take a lot of time and require significant upfront investment before benefits can be realized?

Yeah, pretty much.

Sorry.

 

The Potemkin Village

 

The problem with wearing a facade is that sooner or later life shows up with a big pair of scissors. – Craig D. Lounsbrough

Potemkin Village

Russia had recently annexed Crimea from the Ottoman Empire and after a long war, the region of New Russia now found itself under the rule of Empress Catherine II (a.k.a. Catherine the Great).

In 1787, Catherine embarked on a 6 month journey down the Dnieper River to New Russia to survey her new territory. Accompanying her on this journey was her boyfriend, Grigory Potemkin.

Unbeknownst to Catherine, the region had been devastated by the war. According to folklore, Potemkin – in an effort to placate Catherine – sent ahead an “advance team” to erect a fake village bustling with people before Catherine’s flotilla sailed by. After she had passed, the village would be taken down, rushed further downstream and reassembled to give Catherine the false impression that New Russia was a vibrant and welcome addition to her empire and that all of the treasure and bloodshed to obtain it was not in vain.

It’s been over 230 years, but the tradition of the Potemkin Village is alive and well today.

Don’t believe me?

Try visiting a retail store on a day when the store manager (Grigory) has just been informed that the bigwigs from home office (Catherine) will be stopping by for a visit. In all likelihood, an advance communication went to the store telling them that they don’t need to do anything to prepare in advance and they should just carry on as usual – the bigwigs don’t want to get in the way.

Yeah, right.

A flurry of activity soon ensues. The receiving area and back room are cleaned up and all stock is run out to the floor. Shelves and pegs are filled up, faced up and looking neat. Any aisle clutter is either put away or hidden. This is the kind of stuff that should be happening daily if people had the time – and yet, oddly, the time can be found to do two weeks’ worth of work in 3 days ahead of a VIP visit.

Sidebar: I once worked at a retailer (who shall remain nameless) with hundreds of stores each stocking thousands of products. But there was one store in particular that had its own unique set of stocking policies and ordering rules. This same store was always the top priority location when stock was low in the DC and needed to be rationed. What made this store so special? It happened to be located near the CEO’s home and he was known to shop there frequently. Not making that up.

Okay, back to the VIP visit. The big day arrives and the store is looking fantastic. The VIP entourage arrives and the store manager is waiting at the entrance to give the grand tour. Pleasantries are exchanged. How have sales been? Lots of customers in today! Any issues we need to know about?

Then comes the much anticipated Walking of the Aisles. The VIPs are escorted throughout the store, commenting on the attractiveness of the displays, asking questions and making suggestions….

Then someone in the entourage sees a shelf tag with no stock above it. “Why don’t you have stock? That’s sales we could be losing!”

The sheepish store manager replies: “I dunno. The ordering is centralized at headquarters. We just run product to the shelf when it arrives. We actually haven’t had that item in weeks and I can’t get a straight answer as to why not.”

“We need to support the stores better than this!”, exclaims one of the VIPs. “I’ll get this straightened out!”. Out comes the cell phone to snap a picture of the shelf tag below the void where stock should be. And for good measure, a few more pics of other holes in the same aisle.

A couple of taps and the pics are on their way to whichever VP is in charge of store replenishment with the subject line: “please look into this” (no time for proper capitalization or punctuation).

Ten minutes later, a replenishment analyst receives an email from her manager with the subject line: “FW: FW: FW: FW: please look into this”.

Another sidebar: I happened to be shadowing a replenishment analyst for another retailer for the purpose of learning her current state processes when one of those emails with pictures came in. There were 6 or 7 pictures of empty shelf positions and she researched each one. For all but one of the items, the system showed that there was stock in the store even though there was apparently none on the shelf. The last one was indeed stocked out, but a delivery was due into the store on that very same day. Was this a good use of her time?

Look, I know the tone of this piece is probably a bit more snarky than it needs to be. And although this whole scenario is clearly absurd when laid out this way, I’m not projecting malice of intent on anyone involved:

  • The VIP spotted a potential customer service failure and wanted to use her power to get it rectified. It never occurred to her that the culprit might be within the 4 walls of the store because: a) the store looked so nice and organized when she arrived; and b) the organization doesn’t measure store inventory accuracy as a KPI. If shrink is fairly low, it’s just assumed that stock management is under control.
  • In all likelihood, the store manager truly has no idea how replenishment decisions are made for his store. And while there’s a 4 inch thick binder in the back office with stock management procedures and scanning codes of conduct, nobody has actually properly connected the dots between those procedures and stock record accuracy more generally.
  • The replenishment analyst wants to help by getting answers, but she can’t control the fact that the wrong question is being asked.

The problem here is that there are numerous potential points of failure in the retail supply chain, any of which would result in an empty shelf position for a particular item in a particular store on a particular day. Nothing a senior manager does for 20-30 minutes on the sales floor of a store will do anything to properly identify – let alone resolve – which process failures are contributing to those empty shelves.

Jumping to the conclusion that someone on the store replenishment team must have dropped the ball is not only demoralizing to the team, it’s also a flat-out wrong assumption a majority of the time.

If you happen to be (or are aspiring to be) one of those VIPs and you truly want the straight goods on what’s happening in the stores, you need to change up your game:

  • Every so often, visit a store unannounced – completely unannounced and spend some time in the aisles by yourself and soaking in the true customer experience for awhile before speaking to store management.
  • When it’s time to get a feel for what can be done to keep the shelves full, put down the phone and pick up a handheld reader. Just because the stock isn’t on the shelf right now, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t elsewhere in the store or on its way already.
  • Spend the time you would normally spend on pleasantries and somewhat meaningless measures on a deep dive into some of those shelf holes with the store manager in tow:
    • Shelf is empty, but the system says there’s 6 in the store? Let’s go find it!
    • Truly out of stock with 0 reported on hand and none to be found? Let’s look at  what sales have been like since the last delivery.
    • Can’t figure out why the replenishment system doesn’t seem to be providing what’s needed? Work through the calculations and see if there’s something wrong with the inputs (especially the on hand balance).

Will looking past the facade of the Potemkin Village solve the problems that it’s been hiding? Probably not. But you need to start somewhere.

In the words of George Washington Carver: “There is no shortcut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation – veneer isn’t worth anything.”

Keep Calm And Blame It On The Lag

 

A good forecaster is no smarter than everyone else, he merely has his ignorance better organized. – Anonymous

stopwatch

I’ve written on the topic of forecast performance measurement from many different angles, particularly in the context of forecasting sales at the point of consumption in retail.

Over the years, I’ve opined that:

  • Forecast accuracy (in the traditional sense) is a useless measure
  • Reasonableness is more important than accuracy, given that forecasts are, by their nature, forgiving planning elements
  • The outsized importance placed on forecast accuracy in supply chain planning is a myth
  • Accuracy and precision must be considered simultaneously
  • Forecasts should be judged against what is a reasonable expectation for accuracy
  • Forecasting at higher levels of aggregation to achieve higher levels of “accuracy” is a waste of time

After going back and re-reading all of that stuff, they are all really just different angles and approaches for delivering the message “popular methods of comparing forecasts and actuals may not be as useful as you think, especially in a retail context”.

But in all of this time there is one key aspect of forecast measurement that I have not addressed: forecast lags. In other words, which forecast (or forecasts) should you be comparing to the actual?

Assuming, for example, that you have a rolling 52 week forecasting process where forecasts and actuals are in weekly buckets, then for any given week, you would have 52 choices of forecasts to compare to a single actual. So which one(s) do you choose?

Let’s get the easy one out of the way first. Considering that the forecast is being used to drive the supply chain, the conventional wisdom is that the most important lag to capture for measurement  is the order lead time, when a firm commitment to purchase must be made based on the forecast. For example, if the lead time is 4 weeks, you’d capture the forecast for 4 weeks from now and measure its accuracy when the actual is posted 4 weeks later.

Nope. To all of that.

While it’s true that measuring the cumulative forecast error over the lead time can be useful for determining safety stock levels, it’s not very useful for measuring the performance of the forecasting process itself, for a couple of reasons:

  1. It is a flagrant violation of demand planning principle. Nothing on the supply side of the equation (inventory levels, lead times, pack rounding, purchasing constraints, etc.) has anything to do with true demand. Customers want the products they want, where they want them and when they want them at a price they’re willing to pay, period. The amount of time it happens to take to get from the point of origin to a customer accessible location is completely immaterial to the customer.
  2. A demand planner’s job is to manage the entire continuum of forecasts over the forecast horizon. If they know about something that will affect demand at any point (or at all points) over the next 52 weeks, the forecasts should be amended accordingly.

Suppose that you’re a demand planner who manages the following item/location. The black line is 3 years’ worth of demand history and a weekly baseline forecast is calculated for the next 52 weeks.


Because you’re a very good demand planner who keeps tabs on the drivers of demand for this product, you know that:

  • The warm weather that drives the demand pattern for this item/location has arrived early and it looks like it’s going to stay that way between now and when the season was originally expected to start.
  • There are 2 one week price promotions coming up that have just been signed off and all of the pertinent details (particularly timing and discount) are known.
  • For the last 3 years, there have been 3 similar products to this one being offered at this location. A decision has just been made to broaden the assortment with 2 additional similar products half way through the selling season.

On that basis, I have 2 questions:

  1. How does the baseline forecast need to change in order to incorporate this new information?
  2. How would your answer to question 1 change if you also knew that the order-to-delivery lead time for this item/location was 1 week? 2 weeks? 12 weeks?

Hint: Because it was established at the outset that “you’re a very good demand planner who keeps tabs on the drivers of demand for this product”, the answer to question 2 is: “Not at all.”

So if measuring forecast error at the lead time isn’t the right way to go, then what lag(s) should be captured for measurement?

As with all things forecasting related, there is no definitive answer to this question. But as a matter of principle, the lags chosen to measure the performance of a demand planning process should based on when facts become “knowable” that could affect future demand and would prompt a demand planner to “grab the stick” and override a baseline forecast modeled based on historical patterns.

In some cases, upstream processes that create or shape demand can provide very specific input to the forecasting process.

For example, it’s common for retailers to have promotional planning processes with specific milestones, for example:

  • Product selection and price discounts are decided 12 weeks out
  • Final design of media to support the ad is decided 8 weeks out
  • Last minute adds, deletes and switches are finalized 3 weeks out

At each of those milestones, decisions can be made that might impact a demand planner’s expectation of demand for the promotion, so in this case, it would be valuable to store forecasts at lags 3, 8 and 12. Similar milestone schedules generally exist for assortment decisions as well.

In other cases, what’s “knowable” to the demand planner can be subject to judgment. For example, if actuals come in higher than forecast for 3 weeks in a row, is that a trend change or a blip? How about 4 weeks in a row?

Lags that are closer in time (say 0 through 4) are often useful in this regard, as they can show error trends forming while they are still fresh.

Unless tied to a demand shaping process with specific milestones as described above, long term lags are virtually useless. Reviewing actuals posted over the weekend and comparing it to a forecast for that week that was created 6 months ago might be an interesting academic exercise, but it’s a complete waste of time otherwise.

The key of measuring is to inform so as to improve the process over the long term.

With the right tools and mindset, today’s “I wish I knew that ahead of time” turns into tomorrow’s knowable information.

The Great Lever of Power

I shan’t be pulling the levers there, but I shall be a very good back-seat driver. – Margaret Thatcher

lever

A number of years ago, I saw a television interview with President Ronald Reagan after he left office. In that interview, he reminisced on his political career, including when he first stepped into the Oval Office in 1981.

I can’t find any transcripts or direct quotes from that interview, but I do distinctly remember him saying something to the effect of: “Before I assumed the presidency, I imagined a great lever of power on the Resolute Desk. When I took office, I learned that the lever actually existed – but it wasn’t connected to anything.” (If anyone out there has the exact quote, please share!)

I think of that whenever I hear senior leaders in retail say things like “our inventory is too high – we need to get it under control”.

What often follows this declaration is a draconian set of directives to “bring the inventory down”:

  • “Look at all of our outstanding purchase orders and cancel anything that’s not needed”
  • “We can’t sell excess stock out of the DCs, so return as much as possible and push the rest out to the stores where it can sell”

[One quarter later…]:

  • “Oh shit, our in-stock has nosedived and we’re losing sales! Buy! Buy! Buy!”

Rinse and repeat.

It has been described to me as a “swinging pendulum” in terms that would lead one to believe that these inventory imbalances are cyclical in nature, like the rate of inflation in the economy. When it gets too high, the central bank steps in with an interest rate hike to steer it to an acceptable range.

A couple of problems with that:

  1. The behaviour of consumers drives the inflation rate and this behaviour can’t be directly controlled. In contrast, the processes that drive inventory flow are internal to the retailer and, as such, are directly controllable.
  2. The pendulum swings themselves are caused by management’s efforts to control the pendulum swings – that popping sound you heard was my head exploding

I should note that I rarely hear “We need to review our inventory management policies and processes to determine what’s causing our inventory levels to be higher than expected, so that we can improve the process to ensure that we can flow stock better in the future without sacrificing in stock.”

Inventory is not an “input variable” that can be directly manipulated by management and brought to “the right level” in the aggregate. It is an output of policies and processes being executed day in, day out for every item at every location over a period of time. Believing that inventory levels can be directly controlled with blunt instruments is like believing that you can directly impact your gross margin without changing the price or the cost (or both).

It may sound trite, but if management doesn’t like the output of the process, then they must necessarily be taking issue with the process inputs or the process itself (both of which, by the way, are owned by management).

On the input side:

  • Are your stocking policies excessive compared to variability in demand?
  • Are you purchasing in higher quantities or with higher lead times than you used to (e.g. container loads from overseas versus pallets from a domestic source)?
  • Are you buffering poor inbound performance from suppliers with more safety stock?

On the process side:

  • Are demand planners striving to predict what will happen in an unbiased way or are they encouraged to be optimistic?
  • Are people buying first and figuring out how to sell it later?
  • Is your inventory higher because your sales have been increasing?

Management does not “own results”.

Management owns the processes that give rise to the results. If you make the determination that “inventory is too high” and you don’t know why, then you’re not doing your job.

Or to put it another way:

The aim of leadership should be to improve the performance of man and machine, to improve quality, to increase output, and simultaneously to bring pride of workmanship to people. Put in a negative way, the aim of leadership is not merely to find and record failures of men, but to remove the causes of failure: to help people to do a better job with less effort. – W. Edwards Deming