You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can't possibly make them all yourself. – Sam Levenson
‘How does it work today?'
It's the first question any self respecting project leader or consultant asks on day 1 of a new initiative. It's critically important to know the ‘state of the nation' before you embark on any sort of effort to make the changes needed to improve results.
After asking this question, you set about the task of learning the current practices and procedures and documenting everything to a fairly low level of detail (along with the most common variations on those practices that you'll almost always find in companies of any size).
In most retail organizations, you'll hear versions of the following:
- For non-promoted periods, our purchasing is mostly automated with a short lead time, but we buy promotions manually with a longer lead time from the vendor.
- Our stores ‘pull' product in non-promoted weeks, but for big events like promotions and shelf resets, we ‘push' the product out to them .
- The system will recommend orders, but our analysts review all of the recommendations beforehand and have the ability to cancel or modify them before they go out to the suppliers.
After a few weeks, you've become a pseudo expert on the current state landscape and have everything documented. Now it's time to turn this retailer from a reactionary firefighter into a consumer driven enterprise.
And that's when you make the biggest mistake of your life.
After summarizing all the current state practices with bullet points, you save the document with the title ‘Future State Requirements'. You don't know it at the time, but you've just signed yourself up for years of hell with no light at the end of the tunnel. If it's any consolation, you're definitely not alone.
Common practices, whether within your organization or throughout your industry as a whole, represent ‘the way everybody does it'. This does not equate with ‘that's the only way it can be done.'
At the time, it seems like the path of least resistance: We'll try to do this in such a way that we don't disrupt people's current way of doing things, so they will more easily adopt the future state. But if you're moving from a ‘reactive firefighting' current state to a ‘demand driven' future state, then disruption cannot be avoided. You might as well embrace that fact early, rather than spending years of time and millions of over-budget dollars trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
So how could such a catastrophe be avoided? All you really need to do is dig a little deeper on the ‘common practices'. The practices themselves shouldn't be considered requirements, but their reason for existing should. For example, look at the three ‘common practices' I mentioned above:
‘For non-promoted periods, our purchasing is mostly automated with a short lead time, but we buy promotions manually with a longer lead time from the vendor.'
Why does this practice exist? Because, generally speaking, the sales volume (and corresponding order volume from the vendor) for a promoted week can be several times higher than a non-promoted week.
So what's the actual requirement? The vendor needs visibility to these requirements further in advance to make sure they're prepared for it. Cutting promotional orders in advance is the currently accepted way of skinning that cat – but it's by no means the only way.
‘Our stores ‘pull' product in non-promoted weeks, but for big events like promotions and shelf resets, we ‘push' the product out to them.'
Why does this practice exist? More often than not, it's because the current processes and systems currently in place treat ‘regular planning' and ‘promotion planning' as distinct and unrelated processes.
What's the actual requirement? To plan all consumer demand in an integrated fashion, such that the forecast for any item at any location represents what we truly think will sell, inclusive of all known future events such as promotions.
‘The system will recommend orders, but our analysts review all of the recommendations beforehand and have the ability to cancel or modify them before they go out to the suppliers.'
Why does this practice exist? Usually, it's because the final order out to the supplier is the only ‘control lever' available to the analyst.
What's the actual requirement? To be able to exert control over the plan (items, locations, dates and quantities) that leads to order creation, allowing the actual ordering step to be an administrative ‘non event'.
So, once you've identified the true requirements, what's next? A lot of hard work. Just from the 3 examples above, you can see that there are several change management challenges ahead. But at least it's hard work that you can see and plan for ahead of time.
Woe to those who choose what they think is the easy path at the outset only to suffer the death of a thousand surprises after it's far too late.