Effective demand planning requires ongoing collaboration with many other teams. Sales, Finance, Supply and Operations — among others — depend on reliable demand planning data. Demand Planners frequently exchange data with members of these teams in order to improve forecast and sales performance.
And in many cases, members of these other teams will request specific data from the demand planning team. Salespeople want to review future forecasts; Finance wants to know about promotional plans; Supply may question a future number that seems unusually high. So, in many cases, this exchanging of information is key to the process of improving future forecasts. And since data from the demand planning team can impact many other teams’ performance, it’s important that Demand Planners collaborate effectively with these teams.
But it’s also important that the demand planning team manage the many requests they may receive in a way that doesn’t place excess strain team members. Pam in Finance hears how you created a custom report for Jan in Operations, and now Pam is asking for help with another report. Paul in Sales asked you for an updated forecast for one of his customers, and now his sales manager wants similar reports for all his salespeople. Over time Demand Planners can find themselves doing work for other departments, and in some cases these requests are valid and help to support the business. But it also easy for these requests to grow to the point where the Planners are not able to devote the time needed to provide timely and accurate forecast data.
How do we balance collaboration with other teams with preserving time for quality planning? Here are my five recommendations for keeping your planning team from being overwhelmed by outside requests — for defragging your planning process to maintain a proper balance.
- Communicate in advance your team’s priorities so that the members of all other teams know in advance what requests are appropriate
- Always ask if demand planning is the correct team to be handling the request
- Always ask how a request will help improve forecast performance
- Beware of sticky requests
- Estimate the time required and whether the request needs to be handled immediately
- Communicate in advance your team’s priorities so that all other teams know in advance what requests are appropriate.
In my work in demand planning, I have often found that the members of other teams are not fully aware of the purpose of my role. So when I explain to them what I do and how it impacts all the other teams involved in Supply, Finance, Operation and Sales, they may still ask for help. But in these cases, they now know that their requests need to be aligned with my central role in planning, and they are not offended when I refer them to another team for help. And I have appreciated the managers who regularly reminded all the teams that we worked with that our central role was not reporting but research and planning, and that good planning requires a clear focus and undisturbed time, and that requests that distract us from our central role hurt every one that depends on our work.
Ask if Demand Planning is the Correct Team for the Request
People from other departments who ask a demand planner for help with information are often looking for help with issues within their own department, and may not be aware that their request is unrelated to planning. So, for example, asking a Demand Planner to research issues with past purchase order data might seem like a legitimate request to someone in Finance or Operations. However, in most cases, Demand Planners are not concerned with past orders. In addition, asking a Demand Planner to take time to do this will not help with planning future forecasts. In this case, it makes sense for the Planner to gently recommend that the requester contact a department such as Customer Service for assistance.
Ask how a Request Will Help Improve Forecast Performance
Since demand planning’s role is to provide the best possible forecasts of future performance, it makes sense for members of this team to question how requests for help from outside teams will help Planners improve forecast accuracy. A salesperson who calls for help reviewing a customer forecast can provide insights that can help the Planner with future forecasts, and collaborating here is part of the Demand Planner’s role. However, requests for help with managing purchase orders, pricing or late shipments is mostly outside the Demand Planner’s realm, and such requests need to be referred to the appropriate team.
Beware Sticky Requests
Some requests may not be directly related to demand planning, but since they are easy for Planners to handle, they help without questioning if they should do so. Where this gets them into trouble is when a single request turns into an ongoing request to provide information or reporting. I call these sticky requests. While collaboration is important, taking up a Planner’s time with ongoing requests that distracts them from their key role — providing the best possible view of future requirements — is harmful to everyone who depends on reliable forecasts. I have personally fallen into this trap, and in some cases I have had to ask my manager to inform the requester that I am no longer able to provide the requested information. A willingness to be helpful must always be balanced against managing the core demand planning responsibilities for all the teams that depend on our work.
Ask if the Request Needs to be Handled Immediately & Estimate the Time Required
When people ask for help with appropriate issues, it’s easy to assume that they need help immediately. I have learned to ask requesters when they actually need the information. Sometimes they need it immediately, but very often their need is not urgent. So, knowing when they need the information helps me manage my workload while also helping them. For my own planning purposes, I also estimate how much time and what resources I would need to allocate to each request, so I can give the requester an honest answer as to when I might have what they need. And when a request truly is urgent, take the time up front to get as much detail as possible about what the requester really wants. There’s nothing worse than dropping everything to help someone only to hear afterward that it was not what they truly needed.
The Balancing Act
In my experience, most Demand Planners are highly skilled, they know their business, and they want to do their best to improve their forecasting skills. They know that other teams are depending on them for reliable forecasts. And it’s natural for people on these other teams to look to these talented individuals for help. The challenge is to balance collaboration and helpfulness with tactfully defending your time and focus required for truly effective planning. Defragging your demand planning processes and keeping them free of distractions is key to maintaining this balance, and allowing the demand planning talent to drive ongoing improvement.
This article first appeared in the fall 2023 issue of the Journal of Business Forecasting. To access the Journal, become an IBF member and get it delivered to your door every quarter, along with a host of memberships benefits including discounted conferences and training, exclusive workshops, and access to the entire IBF knowledge library.