Supply chain planning

Three Questions People Are Afraid to Ask….

by Lora Cecere on October 29, 2014 · 0 comments

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which there is a desire for harmony within the group, but the result is an irrational or dysfunctional outcome.  Wikipedia

You know the drill. The meeting is on everyone’s calendar. It has been set up by the CEO or a board member’s assistant months in advance. The room is big, the PowerPoint deck is large, and the coffee cups are arranged in neat rows on the counter of the side of the room. There is an abundance of pastries flowing from the basket, and the stage is set for an impactful meeting. Even though things seem to be going well (all of the meeting details are well-executed and the speaker is giving an energized presentation), the room is eerily quiet. The speaker is speaking, the beautiful slides move quickly at the front of the room, but the audience is not engaged.

In my travels, I attend these meetings frequently. They are precipitated by a strategic relationship between a consulting company and the executive team. The consulting team pitches a theme—vision of supply chain best practices, big data analytics, or demand-driven value networks—to the executive team, and a new project is initiated. The first step in the journey is a kick-off meeting. The second step is usually a large implementation of a technology project—Enterprise Resource Planning, Customer Relationship Planning or Analytics. I feel that the industry is engaged in ‘Group Think’. No one in this meeting is going to ask tough questions. The board has not set up the team for success. Here are the three questions that I would like people to ask:

Table 1. Comparison of Results for Best of Breed Solution Providers to ERP Expansionists in Supply Chain Planning

Question 1: What drives a successful implementation of supply chain planning?  Supply chain planning is now in its fourth decade. The first evolution of technologies were built by best-of-breed solution vendors. These solutions were usually implemented by the technology provider by consultants with specialized skill sets. The promise was the delivery of a decision support system that would allow the organization to optimize the relationships between cash, cost, and customer service against the strategy.

The second-generation of solutions were built and marketed by Enterprise Resource Planning technology companies like SAP and Oracle. The promise of these solutions was that an ‘integrated planning solution with ERP would deliver greater value’. (This solution is termed the ERP Expansionist in Table 1.) This new solution was favored by the Information Technology (IT) organization. By purchasing planning and transactional systems for a common vendor, they had one throat to choke and they were familiar with the architectural elements. It was also the preference of the consulting partners because the projects were longer, more costly and better aligned with the consulting model. But, did it add more value? The answer is no. As shown in Table 1, the movement to adopt “integrated ERP and Supply Chain Planning software from an ERP vendor” moved the industry backward. Ironically, the solutions implemented by the consultants, as contrasted to those implemented by the technology vendors, also produced less desirable results.

How do I know this?  The results in Table 1 come from a nine-month research project of 120 respondents representing 183 instances of demand and supply planning. (The average company has more than one instance of both.) In the study, the respondents were asked to rate time to Return on Investment, and satisfaction. We also correlated the results to balance sheet performance. What do we find? Best-of-breed solutions have a higher Return on Investment and are quicker to implement. They also have higher satisfaction rates. The highest satisfaction comes when the technology vendor implements the solution. It is significantly different at a 90% level of confidence. In the data, we can also see that the implementations from the ERP Expansionists have significant gaps—requiring more planners, longer times to plan, and greater difficulties getting to data.

Why does this happen? Leadership teams struggle with the trade-offs between cash, cost and customer service. As a result, supply chain planning is often a targeted project when the strategic consulting partners talk to their clients at a board level. The strategic consulting partners are respected in these relationships and seldom questioned, and the stage is set. In parallel, there is a low-level of trust for the best-of-breed technology vendors. Many are very sales-driven and difficult to work with. The market was overhyped at an early stage and trust eroded. Would the board deliberately select a system that takes longer to implement, with a lower Return on Investment, requiring more ongoing labor and producing lower results? Of course not. But, the industry is in a groupthink. No one is having a fact-based discussion. This is how we see our role.

Table 2. Characteristics of those Satisfied with Supply Chain Planning

Q2: Who does supply chain planning well? What can we learn? As shown in table 2, the companies that are the most satisfied with planning are smaller organizations with 15 or less planners and without high item complexity.

To drive maximizing the value of planning, organizations need to be aligned against an operating strategy. Companies adopt planning to optimize the organization’s response from the customer’s customer to the supplier’s supplier. The supply chain planning cannot be effective if implemented by a supply chain function that is focused only on customer service, logistics and distribution. It requires the support of the organization to optimize the response for the end-to-end value chain that crosses functions.

What can we learn from this table, and the research? A successful supply chain planning implementation is about more than technology. The implementation of decision support tools needs to be a way of life. Planners need time to plan, and the organization needs to be aligned against a shared vision or operating plan. It cannot be about the optimization of vertical silos within the organization. This leads to a sub-optimal response.

The second thing that I learned from the research is that we do not have good solutions for large organizations in the market today. If you have a large number of planners and high item complexity, you are at risk. This I think leads us to the Third act of Planning.  In the third act, I believe that the technologies are very different from those in the first three decades of evolution. In the Third Act, I believe that the processes and technologies are redesigned outside-in from the channel back to the enterprise. I think that it is a new world of cognitive learning, rules-based ontologies, concurrent optimization, and B2B Networks based on canonical infrastructures with many-to-many data models. These new technologies are evolving. (I will write more on this in my next blog post.)

Q3: How do I become demand-driven? Data surrounds the company. The data in the channel is changing faster than the company can adopt processes and technologies to use it. It is piling up on the doorsteps of most major companies. Some may be used by the digital marketing teams for marketing purposes, but the average company does not know how to use it. They struggle to listen to and interpret market signals. It is ironic that there has never been a time in history where customer data is more available, and the demand higher for companies to operate a customer-centric value network to sense and respond to true demand, but the solutions to use the data are evolving. Today, they do not exist.

Most consultants and technologists are guilty of bait and switch. The discussion is on becoming demand-driven, but the recommended solution is a traditional approach. When the pretty slides are over, the consultant submits a project plan to implement the traditional forecasting, order management and supply planning that does not sense market demand and translate it into usable outcomes. The audience listening to these presentations does not have the courage to raise their hands and ask the question, “How do you define demand-driven value networks?” and then follow with the question of, “Can the traditional technologies really help us to become demand driven?” The consultants are incented to recommend the solutions that they are familiar with in implementing. Most know very little about the true definition of demand driven.

Tomorrow, I get to deliver this message to a large manufacturing client. I am speaking at their global kick-off. I am going to encourage them to not be guilt of industry groupthink. In this blog, I hope that I push you too. I want you to raise your hand and question the status quo. And, if you do not have the courage to do it directly, share the research and ask your leadership team to give me a call. I answer all emails and phone calls. I want to change the dialogue. It is tough for me to see that nine out of ten companies are stuck, and not making progress, at the intersection of operating margin and inventory turns. I grow weary of all of the consultant presentations of how supply chains can reduce inventory without looking at the form and function of inventory and the real needs for inventory to be a buffer of demand and supply volatility.

Join us next week for our webinar on Supply Chain 2020. In this session, we will share research on the future of supply chain technologies, and I will be joined by a panel of two leaders that will share their insights on what the future means for them. In addition, I am now done with the page proofs for my new book, Metrics that Matter. The book is a story. It is a fable about a guy by the name of Joe that does not want to be an average Joe. Instead, he wants to drive supply chain excellence and build the metrics that matter. To do this, he has to build a guiding coalition and  define outside-in processes. Like you, he works with a group of characters within his organization, and is struggling with how to define the opportunity for the company. To do this, he has to use political capital, against great opposition, within the organization to redefine supply chain excellence. The book publishes in December 2014. In parallel, we are busy building a simulation game for organizations to play to understand the concepts of managing the metrics as a system and the importance of outside-in processes. Attendees at our 2015 Global Summit will get to participate in the launch of this new simulated exercise. We hope to see you there!

 

 

The Supply Chain Insights Global Summit is a week away. We are currently tabulating the results to publish the report, “Top 15 Supply Chains to Admire.” In this report, we track the progress on balance sheet performance of companies by peer group and chart the relative improvement for the period of 2006-2013. This work has taken us two years to finish.

As I look at the results—and reflect back on my ten years of experience as an analyst with these companies—I find the differences between a leader and laggard boil down to five things: supply chain leadership, talent management, active design of the supply chain, strong horizontal processes, and being good at supply chain planning. While consultants and technology providers may preach that you need the latest and greatest technologies, I often see companies implementing the wrong technology, doing it badly, and sending them backwards. Supply chain leaders that make the biggest difference build supply chain potential and make small, incremental progress over time.

A Closer Look at Supply Chain Talent

For most, supply chain talent management is challenging. In the recent report that we completed, Supply Chain Talent – A Broken Link in the Supply Chain, we shared data from a recent study that only one in three companies today thinks that they are managing supply chain talent effectively. When I look at the performance data, I think that it matters.

Figure 1.

Ease or difficulty of filling supply chain positions

Talent management is not trivial, and supply planning is at the nexus of the talent problem.  Today there is a shortage of mid-management supply chain talent; and as shown in Figure 1, some of the toughest positions to fill are in the area of supply chain planning. Supply chain planning requires a good understanding of the business, strong influence skills and deep analytic capabilities. These are hard to build, and the loss of a great planner can hurt.

Job satisfaction for supply chain planners is low. As a result, companies are churning planners—they are moving from one company to another. Due to the unique skill mix, it is difficult to recruit supply chain planners. Which makes me wonder, if we gave our supply chain planners more good old-fashioned love, would we have fewer open positions? And, if the position was more desirable, would the job have higher satisfaction causing others within the company to want to do the job more readily? I think so. Here I share my point of view.

What I See in the Data

From time to time at Supply Chain Insights, we do quantitative assessments of individual companies to understand the dynamics within the supply chain organization. These are private studies that we do for clients, and we keep the results of these studies confidential. However, time after time, we see a consistent theme in the data. Supply chain planners do not feel appreciated. The job is tough and the obstacles are many. Here are the seven issues that we see most frequently:

  1. Changing Priorities. It is hard for a planner to keep up with ever-changing priorities. Planning takes time and the use of optimization requires a clear objective function. With conflicting and ever-changing priorities, it is hard to do.
  2. Rewarding the Urgent. No Time for the Important. Most organizations reward the fire fighters. Planning requires a focus on the important and allowing planners time to plan. Culturally, this is a tough shift. 
  3. Giving Planners Time to Plan.  Good planning takes time. When an employee is always fighting fires, they do not have the time to plan.
  4. Making Their Positions Meaningful. At the end of the day, when we turn turn out the lights in our offices, we all want to think that we make a difference. Supply chain planners want their work to be used. They want to make a difference. Too few companies actually use their plans to make better decisions. The degree of this gap has grown greater in my time as an analyst. The good have gotten very good, and the average companies have gotten worse.
  5. Giving Planners Technologies That Are Easy to Use. The right supply chain planning tools have the right data model that is set up to adequately model the environment, and the planners are supported by easy-to-use business intelligence tools. As you can see in our reports on technology satisfaction, Voice of the Supply Chain, and Maximizing the ROI in Supply Chain Planning,  both are an issue right now.
  6. Creating the Right Work Environment. Politics, and the lack of understanding of the basics of supply chain, are issues for supply chain planners. The planners see the gaps in the organization first, and they need leadership help drive alignment.
  7. Clarity of Career Paths. In the early days of creating a supply chain planning group, the positions were entry-level and there was high turnover. In the companies that do it well, there are established career paths that reward planning.

What I Hear in Discussions.

When groups are doing well, you don’t hear stories like these:

  • “Yesterday, I presented the demand plan to my boss. He asked me to go back to my desk and create a better plan. When I asked him to define a “better plan,” he said that it would be one that showed the company growing with less demand error. When I asked him how to do this, he said just work on the plan and make it better. I shook my head. I cannot change the basics of the business.”
  • “Good news travels fast in our company, and bad news is seldom communicated. So, when we run a demand plan on market data and see that products are not selling, our jobs become very uncomfortable.”
  • “My boss criticized our work today on the demand plan stating that the demand error was too high. He mentioned to one of my colleagues that he wanted to recruit a new demand planning team to reduce the error. He just does not understand that the demand error is characterized by market conditions and what you are selling in the market. He thinks that he can just get a new team and that the demand error will magically go away.”
  • “My general manager believes in having a high bias. He thinks that if you forecast high that you are going to sell more, then you will sell more. When I tried to explain the issues with over-forecasting on waste and inventory obsolescence, he was dismissive. We have to keep two sets of ‘internal books’. One set has the marketing and sales bias and the second has what we think that we are really going to sell.”
  • “We are always on the hot seat. Whatever goes wrong, it is attributed to issues with the demand plan. I often feel that we are the scapegoat.”

Unfortunately, we hear these stories more than we’d like. So, on this sleepless morning, as I sit in Stockholm trying to recover from jet lag, I want to ask you a question. Have you given your supply chain planner some love today? If not, why not stop by their office this morning and make the first step. I think that it matters.

We will be discussing the issues and opportunities with supply chain talent in greater detail at our upcoming Supply Chain Insights Global Summit. We hope to see you there. If not, try to join us by ustream. Supply chain talent and the role of supply chain planning are topics that I think need to be elevated.