13 May 2016

Data Driven Planning

In the fast moving world of supply chain, the goal is always to achieve ¨fit for use¨ forecast sooner than later. If time were no constraint, even Mumabi Dabbawalas mature into anecdotal six sigma supply chain. Unfortunately, most companies don´t have luxury of time. That´s where the packaged planning tools come into play. Over last two and half decades, planning engines have grown in both sophistication of all the three layers of technologies namely data management, statistical algorithms and easily realizable business processes with required workflows as well as security.

Peeling a planning engine

At the bottom most layer of planning engines, we have Data Ingestion tools that can handle terabytes of data from various sources. Data can be in a structured format coming in thru human inputs or pulled thru system interfaces such as SalesForce, SAP ERP or Oracle eBusines suite. These tools can handle loads of unstructured data that comes in from market indicators, machine readings, IoT or mobile devices. Modern planning engines have Google like capabilities to store, index and query data at an unbelievable scale and speed.

The next layer is set of algorithms that help statistical analysis of this data for meaningful inferences such as Time Series analysis or heuristics techniques. Techniques need to be fit for the purpose and carefully interwoven with the tool set. Though most of the algorithms are standardized and are available off the shelf, there is always a level of customization that differentiates one planning tool set from another in terms of both accuracy and speed of intended results. This is where an experienced practitioner can help companies make right call. Again the purpose is always to strike a right trade off between accuracy and speed.

The third layer is to build the role based business logic. In that Demand planning is a different view compared to supply planning though the underlying data set is cross utilized. The key modules of a planning engine are Demand & Supply planning commonly known as Sales and Operations planning (S&OP), Product planning , Sales Forecast and Financial planning. All these modules, put together, create a presentation layers that must have a consumer class interface in terms of collaboration, mobility and required scale. Again, having experienced architect and industry expert are crucial to a successful realization of planning processes.

When it comes to planning , experience matters..

Goes without saying, experience can make a difference during selection of planning engines for your specific industry/business. Not all tools handle all the nuances. Given the choices available to today´s enterprise, it is utmost to have an independent partner with you while shopping these tools..

A brief history of planning systems

The planning function is an integral part of business starting with industrial revolution. With advent of computing technologies, planning engines adopted statistical tools in late 80s. i2 technologies was the first company that brought out a commercial packaged planning system for supply chain management. Founded in 1988 , i2 continued to gain traction thru 90s , forcing big ERP players such as SAP to enter this field. SAP launched APO (Advance Planning and Optimization) system in late 90s and later expanded the solution into a complete Supply Chain Management solution commonly known as SAP SCM. To meet the ever growing demand for these tools, Oracle bought Demantra, an Israeli demand planning company in 2006. While all these systems have improved over last two decades, the new wave of cloud based planning solutions such as SteelWedge , Kinexis and GTNexus are gaining popularity among enterprise users. SAP has also launched a cloud based S&OP solution.

The user interface

The older planning systems such as SAP-APO and i2 were designed with their own windows based thick client. As the web caught up, many of these older systems stitched a web interface on old systems. Goes without saying that web based interface was an after thought and hence it was slow and limited. It took a while for system designers that most of the planners live their lives in excel spreadsheets. Even if you provide them a clean web interface, they often download the data into excel spreadsheet.

This realization led to SteelWedge building the whole user interface thru Microsoft Excel add ins. SAP also caught up with a excel interface for its cloud S&OP offerings.

Excel allows planners to use a familiar interface thereby cutting down the training needs to bare minimum. It also allows planners to further analyze the data with their own scenarios .

Recommendation for a small and mid size business

SteelWedge is among the most comprehensive cloud based planning system followed close by Kinexis. GT Nexus is emerging tool set with solid features system for transportation management. If you are already invested into SAP or Oracle technologies, you may consider SAP IBP or Oracle Demantra for easier integration