Last week I had the opportunity to attend IBF’s Business Forecasting & Planning Academy held in Las Vegas. The two days were filled with fourteen educational sessions, three roundtable discussions, and multiple opportunities for connecting with peers and instructors.

Each educational session, organized as introductory or advanced level, was two hours in length allowing for a deeper dive into content with plenty of opportunity for participant interaction. The instructors were academics, industry practitioners, and software providers giving the attendee a nice blend of viewpoints and experiences.

The first session I attended on Monday was conducted by Dr. Larry Lapide from MIT on Designing and Implementing a Successful Collaborative Demand Forecasting Process. The introductory level session was hands on and highly interactive. Participants were placed into four teams and asked to focus on a case study with questions around organizational design of the demand planning function, reporting needs of the Sales & Marketing, Operations and Finance organization, and various forecasting methods to employ. Dr. Lapide “challenged” the various answers provided by the teams in a manner that allowed for deeper understanding and awareness.

One of my takeaways from the session, and one I heard in several others, is the ongoing challenge companies have to not take the unbiased, unconstrained statement of demand, or for that matter the demand plan, and replace it with the financial budget. Too often firms are not paying attention to the demand signals in the market and turning the projection of future demand (forecast) into a demand plan that mirrors the financial budget created anywhere from weeks to months to quarters before.

Another takeaway was the reminder to design a forecasting process that incorporates multiple methods based upon the various characteristics of the customers, markets, channels and products. Applying segmentation approaches prior to selecting techniques such as time series forecasting, lifecycle forecasting, and collaboration to gain real time knowledge and expertise, will allow for a more robust and effective process tailored to the needs of each segment.

Next I attended the introductory session How to Sell Forecasts to Top Management and Understand the Power of One Number Planning given by Jeff Marthins, Director Supply Chain Operations, Tasty Baking Company/Flower Foods. This was a very pragmatic session with Marthins sharing Tastykake’s journey with S&OP starting in 2005. He spoke about the value of running the business from one set of numbers and using the budget as a benchmark rather than the demand plan or forecast. He made it clear that the forecasts need to be in terms that the various consumers of information can relate to: revenue, units, capacity, etc…

I was intrigued by one of his questions related to demand planner capabilities: if you could pick between analytical or communication skills which would you choose? While both are needed, I believe the analytical skills are the easier of the two to become good at. I would start with solid communication skills. To develop a comprehensive plan that is adopted, a demand planner needs to be an excellent listener, taking information and insights from various sources; an engaging and thoughtful facilitator to guide consensus dialogues; and a crisp, clear, and confident speaker to communicate and defend the rationale for the demand plan being presented and ultimately agreed to by senior leaders and stakeholders.

Marthins’ discussed the need to spend more time to understanding why the plan is different than the actual demand. Was the forecast and/or demand plan low or high because of promotional lift errors; unforeseen market changes; new production launch timing, trajectory, or cannibalization estimates of existing product; or outside influencers such as weather and competitor actions to name just a few? Root cause analysis is something that as a supply chain planning and analysis community we need to do more. Demand plans and forecasts will always be wrong. Hopefully over time they will become more and more accurate. But if we are not researching the reasons why our plans and KPI targets are not being met, we should not have high expectations that they will be achieved in the future.

I had a huge smile and kept nodding my head when Marthins started praising the need and benefits of scenario management and contingency planning as part of the S&OP process. While the output of an S&OP cycle is typically an agreed to set of numbers, they should not be obtained by looking at only one set of “inputs”. Understanding the implications of various scenarios with changes to demand and supply is needed to have a comprehensive understanding and agreement for a course of action. Scenario management is an excellent means to show decision makers the impact of their opinions about the future while keeping the discussion fact based. Contingency planning allows for a higher degree of responsiveness for risk mitigation actions to be put in place.

The final session of the day I attended was presented by Mark Lawless, Senior Consultant from IBF on Long Term Demand Planning & Forecasting: The Key to Corporate Strategic Planning. Lawless did a nice job throughout the session educating the attendees on the differences between long term (three to five years) and short term demand planning and forecasting. It was helpful to be reminded of the difference between a forecast – an unbiased prediction or estimate of an actual value at a future time and a demand plan – a desired outcome at a future time. Time was spent discussing how firms can shape the future demand, the more aggregated levels of detail to plan with, and the need to engage external subject matter experts in the planning process.

Looking three to five years into the future is not just about applying a time series technique. Companies must rely on internal and external domain experts to assist with potential changes in markets, competitors, customers, and consumers; technology and business cycle impacts; changes in demographics and regulatory environment and many other areas of potential impact. Thinking about where competition will come from is not always obvious. Five or more years ago, would the camera manufacturers have seen their market being potentially challenged by smart phones? Totally not related to the event, but I was intrigued to search for more: in 2000, 86 billion photos were taken with 99% analog (film), in 2011, over 380 billion photos were taken 1% analog. If you were the long range demand planner for camera film would you have seen this coming? Another crazy statistic, that shows that history alone is not always a great gauge for developing future demand plans, in 2011 we snapped as many photos in two minutes as humanity as a whole snapped in the 1800’s. Would this long range trend have been detected by a time series technique?

Long range demand planning requires us to understand the drivers of our demand even more so than short term demand. Our ability to respond to short term sharp changes may be limited, while changes in long term demand can be addressed. Regression, ARIMA, or ARIMAX models are very helpful in this area. Developing models that help explain demand as a function of price, feature/function, market trends, economic factors, age, income, education, marketing, and numerous others allows us to not only see the impact to demand of changes in these variables, but enables us to determine the levers to pull to shape the demand in our favor.

See my next post on the highlights from day two of the Academy. Your thoughts and feedback are always welcomed!  You can also see pictures from the IBF Academy HERE.