Put up or shut up: The corporate guarantee

By Gene Tanski, CEO, Demand Foresight

Things were getting heated at the sales meeting. The cause of my anger was an old theme: Industry-wide, client expectations for business software were so low that stories about the failure of big enterprise projects had practically become wallpaper.

Where were the repercussions for the business performance that never materialized? The big systems failed to deliver what they were supposed to over 70 percent of the time and the big checks just kept getting cut with no accountability. The whole dynamic needed to be nuked.

In the heat of our discussion about the institutionalized negligence of our gigantic competitors and how we could exploit it, a 25-year-old, Xbox-playing member of our team, said: “Dude, if we’re that bitchin’, why don’t we guarantee it?”

“What?” I asked him.  “Are you nuts?  Do you have any idea how software works?”

“No, not really. But I hear you guys constantly complaining about how everyone else over-promises and under-delivers. Why not do something about it?”

That simple dare became our biggest differentiator – and, more surprisingly, revolutionized the way we run our company.

During the dot-com boom, new businesses were founded on completely new thinking by young professionals, unencumbered by any notion of what was or wasn’t possible. Most of that potential was never realized, though – at least not in the first wave, since the young visionaries had no grounding in the disciplines that would sustain their visions over time.

However, we wondered, could our team fuse the experience of the old hands with the “anything is possible” optimism of our young teammate?

Once we got our minds around the concept, the experienced guys on the team were able to adjust some long-held assumptions and work through how to handle the risk, build the pricing and generally operationalize the concept.

It was a little bit like learning how to fly, as characterized by Douglas Adams in his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books: the key to flying was to throw yourself at the ground really hard, and miss.

It was exhilarating. I felt like we had just missed the ground by a huge margin, and instead were flying straight to a business model that embodied the exact opposite of everything we hated about the IT and consulting world.

The guarantee was an explicit one – with no wiggle room. Clients would measurably improve their business performance — in our instance, a 25 percent minimum reduction in absolute forecast error — or we wouldn’t get paid. Not a dime.

It could have been a disaster, but taking this leap of faith actually did incredible things for our organizational focus – and ultimately helped cement our culture and internally align all divisions of the company.

The developers know that the software has to work and be relevant to specific job responsibilities or they don’t get paid. Implementation and technical support? They better get it right or they don’t get paid. Sales people? They had better understand the client problem and know exactly how to solve it, or … well, you know…

Another benefit of this ‘put up or shut up’ philosophy was the elimination of the need to micromanage. Once everybody understood that the promise would not bend, I found I could trust everyone to solve problems the way they thought best.

Vacation policy? Didn’t need it. Our team was entrusted to take the time off that they knew they could afford to take. Office? Wherever they could open a laptop and do their best work. This culture tells us a lot about the kind of people we should hire — can they stay motivated and productive in our unique environment?

So an energetic, passionate clash of skilled professionals turned out to be lightning in a bottle. It let us fuse the brashness of youth with organizational know-how.

We still argue in meetings, of course. But these days I enjoy it. You never know what sorts of benefits it can produce.

This post first appeared on Venture Beat: Entrepreneur Corner on October 26, 2010

Demand Planning blogosphere: Yokohama and BusinessWeek’s “Plan V”

“Yokohama Tire Canada: Forecast Accuracy and the Cost of Being Right

Offering some comment and reaction to supply chain, forecasting and demand planning blog posts that caught my eye in recent months. In April, Jonathon Karelse, marketing manager of Yokohama Tire, teased a then-upcoming presentation he was giving at an Institute of Business Forecasting event.

While I did not have the opportunity to see Jonathan’s presentation, one claim he makes in his preview post did catch my eye. I bring it up because I often find myself in some version of this discussion when I’m talking with companies that want to attack their supply chain management issues and become more profitable.

Consider that the result of demand planning is only profitable to the extent that it is actionable – that is, if links above or below in the participant’s supply chain are unable to respond to the data, it might be a purely academic exercise.

I contend that it is not academic at all — even if your supply chain can’t react — because the issue isn’t forecast, the issue is timing. If the forecast identifies a demand signal that a company can’t or won’t respond to, it’s still good to know in the first place. Secondly, perhaps next time the company can learn and adjust for the opportunity by adding extra capacity or additional storage in a more favorable location or what have you; again, tough to say without seeing the speech. Last, you can calculate the opportunity cost of not having acted.

Karelse correctly points out the importance of keeping cost and benefits in mind — no argument from me — but the business Intelligence that he mentions should be integrated into a company’s demand planning, S&OP and forecasting processes with the software being used — not as a parallel process. Upper management is absolutely correct to drive for utmost accuracy, because even if the company decides not to act on a forecast (e.g., someone is optimally supplied), at least they are able to measure the difference and understand the opportunity cost.

“Why Every Business Needs a ‘Plan V’”

A BusinessWeek guest blog from Harold L. Sirkin used the recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland as a jumping-off point for musings on modern-day continuity planningn for business in the global age:

We may or may not see more such disruptions; who knows? What we do know is that any disruption that does occur will have far more serious ripple effects than anything seen in the past. That’s what happens when companies from everywhere are competing for everything with companies from everyplace else.

Wouldn’t debate this any more than I would over apple pie being good; however, how do you move from the theoretical stance below to the potentially unsustainable practice of simultaneously being ready for everything from global warming to Godzilla? For manufacturers, he recommends strategic inventory reserves, redundant manufacturing locations and alternative distribution networks. I don’t know many mid-sized manufacturers who can afford such preparedness.

It is extremely hard to run a profitable business focused on the .1% scenario and still make enough money to be alive when the .1% scenario comes to pass. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do the planning. This is something that can be helped by a process (and supporting technology) that combines comprehensive short- and long-term (high-level and execution-level detail, as well) forecasting and planning scenarios, taking into account the day-to-day business and what is most profitable right now.

From this assumption, you can then allow management to consider some strategic options. For example, “It may cost us a bit more to have an extra DC in South Africa, but the sales forecast shows growth that would support that DC in about three years. Why don’t we accelerate that investment to provide more fleixibility now and provide competitive insurance in case the .1% scenario happens.” That may be a more practical and sustainable approach.

How better demand forecasting could have saved Dean Foods a lot of spilt milk

With demand forecasting,

it’s easy to get carried away with the technical, the theoretical, or just plain get lost in the weeds. I often see practitioners who zero in on specific facets of forecasting and demand planning, and in so doing, lose the complete and holistic approach that can deliver measurable business improvements.

In thinking about the big picture, I believe we all need to keep in mind that there are real and significant consequences to getting demand planning and forecasting right or getting them wrong. This story in the WSJ was a critical reminder. Dean Foods announced that first quarter earnings are down 43%. The CEO said that they are facing increased pressure from private label products, which might handicap growth and profitability into the future. The most troubling aspect to me? No real numbers regarding how much of a handicap, nor any clues as to a competitive response – in other words no substantiated forecast detailing the competitive response and supporting the credibility of Dean’s future value.

Dean Foods Co.’s first-quarter earnings fell 43%, and the company’s chief executive warned Monday that some business may not bounce back as retailers use private-label products to lure customers.

Chairman and Chief Executive Gregg Engles said gains by private-label producers are accelerating, noting that in some regions, a half-gallon of Dean Foods milk costs more than a gallon of an unbranded product. Retailers routinely use discounted milk and bread to drive foot traffic, and private-label food products gained share as consumers traded down during the recession.

I’m bringing this up not to kick dirt on Engles and his team, but to highlight some very specific implications of forecasting. A more comprehensive approach to a forecast would have revealed these icebergs much earlier and given them the insight to effectively react.

Better data, process, and technology
I posit that there are three things that could have kept them out of this stew: appropriately use of data (Comprehensive point of sale from retailers, demographics etc.), a better process (having sales people and account managers contributing market intelligence) and an appropriate technical platform. (My advice on the technology is obvious, but it looks like they’re stuck with a big German solution.)

More time to control expectations
Earlier detection would have allowed Dean’s to alert analysts and investors to the trend and the potential hit to their earnings. It also would have prepared them for a competitive response — critical to maintaining credibility with the investor community.

Did I mention better technology?
Appropriate software would have alerted Dean’s to the trend and allowed for comprehensive “what-if” analysis of plausible responses — as well the margin impact of each potential response — so that the company could have quickly coalesced around a competitive strategic response.

Dean’s is struggling, and I would argue a large portion of it is due to lack of a sufficiently robust capability around demand planning and forecasting which as we know is really the tactics behind understanding the market and your customers. The impact is real: their stock lost 25% of its value in the early hours of trading today.  More importantly, what is their response?  What are the options?  Will they be profitable?  Will the retail customers respond? Critical questions for the Dean Foods team in the days to come…

Gene Tanski, Demand Foresight featured on Bold Ventures Radio

Jean Creech of Bold Ventures RadioI’d like to thank Jean Creech of Bold Ventures Radio for including me on her Wed., April 28 broadcast. Jean’s show airs in north Atlanta at 1620 AM and around the country at www.americaswebradio.com.

Bold Ventures Radio focuses on entrepreneurs, and it was my honor to be included as we discussed demand planning, forecasting, technology and business trends — as well as the genesis of Demand Foresight and our supply chain management software. I found this to be a stimulating experience and look forward to the chance to chat with Jean again.

You can listen to the whole episode here. I come on after the first few minutes.

Making demand planning software live up to its promises

I started this blog to share my experience in the areas of forecasting, demand planning and demand management. Some of the conversations will be technical – look for explorations of the best practices in demand forecasting and supply chain management. Some will be practical – useful examples of how our clients implemented value chain management solutions that demonstrably helped the bottom line. And some will be casual explorations of current events and how forecasting or demand planning may have impacted these events.

I will also regularly highlight why software and software companies must do a better job setting expectations and delivering measurable improvements to our clients. Too often, vendors over-promise and under-deliver. Unfortunately, by the time the under-delivering is understood, too much money, time, effort and ego have been expended to correct course and produce a positive benefit. And at that point, the software vendor doesn’t care all that much because they have been paid and the client has little or no recourse.

It is time for this dynamic to change – it must change. Software companies have got to be held responsible for quality products that deliver on their promises. It does no one any good when you spend $5 million to install SAP APO or Oracle’s Demantra and significant improvements are not delivered. And when they are not delivered, the companies should be held accountable.

Foresight intends to show how it should be done. We want the software industry to be known for delivering what is promised and, where possible, over-delivering. That is why Foresight is the only software vendor to offer clients a double guarantee.

1. We will deliver a 25% reduction in execution level forecasting measured on an absolute basis versus any competitor and/or against what your company is currently producing,

2. You will be satisfied that the software is working to your specification and expectations.

If either of these conditions are not met, you will get back all of the dollars invested in Foresight.

This ensures that we are focused on understanding your needs, your competitive pressures, and your expectations. You have a highly motivated partner for achieving the desired improvements in forecasting and demand planning.

From our point of view, you should demand this type of partnership with every software vendor. If you bought a piece of machinery that did not work, you could return it or demand that it was made to work correctly. You depend on that machinery to deliver value in the production line. Heck, even government has some expectation regarding performance (see: the introduction of lemon laws.) Why should software be any different? The answer is that it should not be – but it is up to you as the client to demand that software deliver and add value or be discarded.

You have our guarantee that Foresight will deliver value and will help you create your future profits. I look forward to sharing more about our forecasting and planning software with you, and welcome your feedback and suggestions.