Patrick Bower

Patrick Bower

During a recent IBF conference in Chicago I was asked numerous times about how to make Sales & Operations Planning (S&OP) less boring.    It is not the first time.    This is a very common question.    I suspect this is becoming more common place as S&OP processes mature past “storming” and into “norming”.   When processes hit this inflection point it helps to draw on communication theory while at the same time asking hard questions about how the process is managed. Here is an example of such a letter:

Subject: My S&OP meeting is boring?!?

Dear S&OP Doctor,

My S&OP executive review meetings are boring. Is this normal? I was hoping they would be more interesting, but they are not. Even I am bored and my executives seem to be bailing out of my meetings. What can I do to save my process?

Unbalanced In Poughkeepsie.


Dear Unbalanced In Poughkeepsie,

You have a very common problem. I am asked this question all the time. Let’s be honest: boring happens. You can choose to accept this and act on it, or you can ignore it. If you ignore it, you run the risk of losing executive support for your S&OP process.

Of course, some would say that boring S&OP meetings aren’t all that bad; that boring is probably an indicator of process stability. If you are bored in a marriage or other long-term relationship, it might not be great but it is probably not bad. A good marriage counselor might suggest putting a little spice into your relationship. Maybe you schedule a date night or introduce a romantic wish bowl into the equation to reconnect and reengage in slightly different ways. Unfortunately, there is no easy advice for spicing up bad S&OP meetings.

It may be helpful to break up the routine every now and then to add some interest to the process. But this requires looking at how you orchestrate your process to determine if there are ways to make the meetings more relevant and interesting to your executives:

  • Are you gap-closing prior to the executive meeting? Some process leaders try to resolve all plan gaps prior to the meeting, leaving nothing for the executive team to decide. Ideally the executive S&OP meeting is the forum where senior-level meeting participants leverage their insights and expertise to determine the best ways to resolve gaps to the plan. If there are no gaps in the business then count your blessings (lucky you). However, if you are closing all gaps prior to the meeting, you are essentially discouraging the executive-level dialogue that can be such a valuable part of the process. Like a good marriage, S&OP should be a participative process.
  • Are you inadvertently stifling conversation during the executive meeting? There is often a tendency to overly discuss or vet content prior to the executive S&OP meeting, which often leads to boring S&OP meetings. Think of it this way: if you trade text messages and e-mails with your significant other and tweet or post every action and thought you may have all day long, you effectively remove all mystery from the relationship, leaving little to discuss in person. If you preview and debate all content prior to an S&OP meeting, in smaller settings, you leave nothing for the group as a whole to chew on. Save some conversation for the meeting.
  • Is the meeting managed in a way that is too routine, so there are no items of interest? While keeping a consistent agenda may be a safe way to run a process meeting, it will surely lead to boredom. It is important to mix up the content a bit—to change formats or occasionally add some tangential information that may not be required of the process—to effectively change up the routine. For example, if you always take your partner bowling on Wednesday’s and have dinner at Luigi’s on Friday, eventually they will likely find you boring! Mixing up the routine is as good for S&OP as it is for your relationship. For instance, I often ask sales and marketing personnel to present additional information. We commonly review and discuss details about new products, new package designs, new media campaigns, or the analysis of new promotions. Such factoids not only spark interest and awareness by mixing up the standard meeting content, they also yield insights that add meaningful (sometimes actionable) context to the overall plan.
  • Imagine going to the same dinner party with the same people every month. After a few years, you will have heard Joe’s struck-by-lightning story a hundred times and know about every bolt and screw in Mary’s 1970 302 Boss Mustang. Want to mix things up? Try bringing a new guest each month. Consider inviting a salesperson from a special class of trade or account to talk about what is selling well and what is not. Or bring in a plant manager or a distribution manager or a logistics manager to talk about their challenges. There is always a standard S&OP invite list, but adding other people to the mix can promote interest as well as drive greater awareness of the S&OP process throughout your organization. I have invited folks from general counsel, treasury, consumer affairs, and HR, as well as media and creative to S&OP meetings. They are universally grateful for a chance to see inside the process, and they often add great insight.
  • Have you ever asked your partner “How are we doing?” or “Are you happy?” Sure, these can be risky questions to ask, but openness and honesty are keys to effective communication and proactively developing strong relationships. Similarly, astute S&OP process leaders should not hesitate to discuss questions related to risk. I often ask presenters during S&OP meetings to discuss any risks in their business. There could be risk in the plan, or in net income, or there could be supply side risk such as capacity issues or obsolete inventory. Risk-related discussions stimulate deeper thought and engagement.
  • When I was a kid I used to hate when my Aunt Ann would make us watch slides from her trips to Mexico or Japan. I always seemed to fall asleep somewhere in the middle of the show. For this same reason I do not always display S&OP content using an overhead projector. I consciously mix it up. If I see highly graphical information being presented I will put it on the screen, otherwise I have found that working off of paper (or tablets, or laptops) is much better in terms of stimulating a dialogue than showing my S&OP content on a screen.
  • Are you at the front of the room giving a standard presentation? If so, you may want to consider moving to the center of the room. Positioning yourself within the midst of meeting participants engages more people in the process. I’ve learned to do this all the time. I feel closer to the people I am talking with, and it allows me to pick up on important visual cues and micro Imagine observing your significant other ever so subtly shaking his or her head no, even when they are agreeing with you. If you are adept at this skill, you may want to ask how they really feel (and of course you will look brilliant for caring so much). When I observe people expressing doubt, either via their facial expressions or their body language, I will stop and ask their opinion – in the hope of defusing that negative energy from the room.
  • Sometimes, you need to have a deep conversation. When something appears to be impacting the business, I will often ask our market research group to present a deep-dive review—on the competition, or market/category trends, or external influences on the business (economic trends, weather, etc.). I normally focus on a business line that is struggling and ask the market researcher to examine in detail what is happening. Most S&OP presentations lack true depth; knowing this, it is important to force in-depth conversation from time to time based on pressing need or urgent circumstances.
  • In relationships—in life and in S&OP meetings—you need to have some fun. Start your meeting with a corny joke (suitable for the workplace) or some self-effacing humor. Many studies have found that adding humor at the start of a meeting will create much more fluid and honest communication.

S&OP is chock-full of facts and numbers and can be decidedly uninteresting. Sparking interest, excitement, and a sense of engagement in the S&OP process is an unwritten part of the S&OP leader’s job description.

So, Unbalanced in Poughkeepsie, please try to introduce some fun into your meeting. Mix things up, try a little variety, think about how to add more passion & spice, and don’t be afraid to point out sensitive topics when it is important to discuss them.  Good luck!

Patrick Bower
Senior Director, Corporate Planning & Customer Service
Combe Incorporated

Patrick Bower has a wide area of expertise, including S&OP, Demand Planning, Inventory, Network Optimization, and Production Scheduling. A recognized expert on demand planning and S&OP, and a self-professed “S&OP geek” – Patrick was previously Practice Manager of Supply Chain Planning at the consulting firm, Plan4Demand where his client list included Diageo, Bayer, Glaxo Smith Kline, Pfizer, Foster Farms, Cabot Industries and American Girl. Patrick’s experience encompasses tenures with Cadbury, Kraft Foods, Unisys, and Snapple. Patrick also worked for the supply chain software company – Numetrix, and was Vice President of R&D at Atrion International. He was also the recipient of IBF’s 2012 award for Excellence in Business Forecasting & Planning and will be speaking at IBF’s Leadership Business Planning & Forecasting Forum taking place on October 19, 2015 in Orlando USA.  He is a regular contributor to IBF’s Journal of Business Forecasting and other well known publications on various topics around S&OP.