Five Critical Supply Chain Planning Steps

Effective, data-driven supply chain planning is more critical than ever in the age of expanding global supply chains and developing supply networks. Sometimes detailed supply chain planning may not seem like a compelling time investment because forecasts can be inaccurate and plans can go awry. But a global pandemic has taught us that demand can change overnight.

Before we get too deep into the latest supply chain planning developments, let's take a step back and review the basic elements of supply chain planning.

What is Supply Chain Planning?

Supply chain planning is the process of determining the optimal manufacturing and sales volumes the company is trying to achieve and laying out the steps to achieve those volume goals and related revenue targets. Supply chain plans typically are long-term, running 52 weeks or longer, depending on a company's goals and include production planning details. 

Gartner's IT Glossary defines supply chain planning as "the forward-looking process of coordinating assets to optimize the delivery of goods, services and information from supplier to customer, balancing supply and demand."

The supply chain planning decisions, or indecisions, of a team do not just impact their own company's operations and sales but also the success of their supply chain partners. Over-forecasting demand could mean that your suppliers have to store or take a loss on any inventory you decide not to buy, but under-forecasting could mean that you do not have enough materials, components or products to support your production plan or sales needs.

Furthermore, a company's supply chain resilience strategy, which stems from supply chain planning, is critical for supporting a company's business strategy. The business strategy, which charts the overall direction of the company, is supported by operations—a supply chain element—as well as relationships with supply chain partners, including suppliers, distributors and customers. As the market becomes more competitive, these supply chain relationships become more critical. In addition, a solid supply chain management strategy can unlock value creation and competitive advantages for the organization.

Therefore, it is important that companies not only partake in supply chain planning but also have an effective planning process that leverages proven techniques alongside sophisticated sensing, predictive and prescriptive analytics, forecasting and planning tools in order to create the best possible forecasts and strategies.

In the last decade, technology has improved companies' forecasting abilities and, by extension, supply planning. Now, computers can run simulations and analyze outcomes for them. This has transitioned the process from the traditional supply chain execution-based method that was focused on fighting day-to-day fires.

Now, supply chain professionals are more strategic and better understand the trade-offs of their supply chain decisions. Also, evolving technology has led to shorter sales and operations planning (S&OP) cycles. In turn, companies now must be more agile and make faster decisions. Historical data and related data analytics can certainly help with this.

Supply Chain Planning: Key Elements

The traditional sales and operations planning process starts with a review of sales projects. Then, planners factor in inputs from the operations and supply chain teams as well as the goals of the business.

The output of sales and operations planning is the demand plan. Demand planning involves sensing and analyzing the demand signal and, in turn, using this information to drive the supply chain activities of all the different tiers of suppliers. It is important to ensure that this signal is as stable and realistic as possible so that it can inform a cost-efficient, integrated planning process.

Five Steps to Supply Chain Planning and S&OP Success

Demand planning is a multi-step process that requires the collaboration of many departments within a company. Previously, planning was done in silos, which resulted in disjointed plans, data discrepancies and some departments not even being aware of plans.

Now, sales and operations planning processes typically involve representatives from various parts of a company, including sales, finance, marketing, operations, materials, product management and more. These groups come together through sales and operations planning meetings to share data, discuss insights and, ultimately, make decisions.

Because it is unlikely that everyone in the room will have deep supply chain management knowledge and data analytics capabilities, it can be helpful to translate the information into easy-to-digest visualizations rather than spreadsheets, so that everyone can understand the situation and options and effectively participate in the planning process.

It also helps to share the relevant information prior to the meeting, so that everyone can review it in advance. In addition, teams should meet regularly to keep everyone up-to-date.

Broadly, the typical sales and operations planning steps are:

  1. Define Your Plan using demand planning and statistical forecasting and generate a plan aligned with seasonality and product life cycle trends
  2. Agree on an Inventory Strategy to achieve desired service levels by defining statistical safety stocks and reorder point replenishment models.
  3. Optimize the Supply Plan by rebalancing inventory across sites to resolve supply gaps.
  4. Manage Your Constraints to ensure that there is enough capacity to fulfill demand increases and balance worker capacity with material levels
  5. Make Decisions by evaluating financial trade-offs to maximize revenue and optimize inventory management

Sales and operations planning typically starts with the sales aspect. The sales team will set its desired goals and present them to the rest of the planning team. The demand planning team analyzes the market and uses sophisticated statistical forecasting tools to create an unbiased forecast. Then, the sales and demand teams discuss the differences in their findings.

For example, the sales team might plan to ship 5,000 widgets a month, but the demand team might point out that historically the company has shipped 4,000 widgets a month. The difference might be driven by market expansion, movement into new markets, planned promotions or other reasons.

Then the whole team decides on an appropriate demand level the company can support. It is important for the whole team to look at the long-term trends too. For example, although customer demand may be expected to decline in the next quarter, there could be a projected spike the following quarter. Therefore, it's important not to scale down too much just to have to scramble to scale up later.

In some cases, the decision might be to forego attaining the highest potential sales level because the inventory or manufacturing investment might be too much. There certainly are constraints and business trade-offs to every option. The planners need to evaluate those trade-offs and determine what will work best for the company.

Once the demand plan has been determined and executed, supply chain network optimization is an important additional step. This strategic analysis should be done every few months to understand a company's overall cost and ensure its supply chain network is optimized.

Key factors to consider include:

  • the cost of doing business in a company's target markets,
  • where suppliers are based,
  • inbound and outbound transportation costs,
  • manufacturing costs
  • and delivery targets.

Upon evaluating these elements, a company may learn that it is more efficient and cost-effective to operate multiple regional sites in or near target markets or to have one global site that supports all of its business.

For example, if your whole supplier base is in Asia, it may make more sense to relocate the company to Asia to save on inbound costs and then distribute from there. The outcome of this analysis also can inform supply chain plans, especially replenishment models.

Constant Change Complicates the Supply Chain Planning Process

Even if an organization has an effective strategy for global supply chain planning, constant change consistently complicates this process.

Some of these changes are related to the products themselves. In recent years, there has been a trend of products having shorter life cycles—from electronics to automotive to healthcare—with companies frequently releasing newer models to replace older or outdated items. In the past, products might have had a stable manufacturing and sales run lasting two or three years. Now, many electronics products have a lifespan of a year or less.

In terms of planning, the challenge here is that there is little to no sales history to inform supply chain plans for newer models. Although in some cases the sales history of related products can be helpful, in other cases the products are too different in terms of capacity, durability and usage opportunities. For example, as computer server technology evolves, individual servers can handle greater amounts of data, which subsequently reduces the need for multiple servers. Without specific historical sales information for this type of product, demand forecasting can be hard to accurately estimate.

Market dynamics are also a complicating factor. Right now, component supply shortages, supply base consolidation and other geopolitical considerations are causing companies to rethink their supply chain plans.

In a 2019 survey of supply chain decision-makers at original equipment manufacturers, Jabil found that 93% of surveyed companies have made changes to their supply chain strategy or manufacturing operations in order to better manage current market dynamics.

Download the full survey report.

of OEMs have made changes to their supply chain strategy or operations in order to better manage current market dynamics.

Further, 52% reported making significant changes, while 41% made minor changes. In addition, larger companies were slightly more likely to make significant changes, with 60% of companies with more than $5 billion in revenue making such changes compared with 52% of companies with $1 billion to $5 billion in revenue and 47% of companies with $500 million to $1 billion in revenue.

More than half of surveyed companies have begun including risk management plans for potential price fluctuations due to shortages or other issues in their pricing strategy. Participants also said their companies are investing in supplier contingency plans so they can quickly pivot to other supply chain partners in the event of disruptions or trade-driven supply shocks, working on lift and shift manufacturing scenarios to optimize lowest total landed cost strategies and opting for more diversity and redundancy when choosing suppliers.

When changes arise, supply chain planners have to meet and discuss how their company can best respond to these changes. Sometimes this can mean going through a supply chain optimization exercise; back to the drawing board; creating a brand-new plan; or factoring in some challenging details, like securing inventory buffers to support operations changeovers.

Leverage External Partners for More Effective Supply Chain Planning

As you've probably surmised, supply chain planning is no easy task. For some companies, especially smaller ones, it can be advantageous to partner with another organization that can provide expertise in this area. This saves the company time and money because it does not necessarily need to invest in the latest supply chain analytics technology or hire in-house experts. Subcontracting the strategic planning process to a contract manufacturing partner enables you to focus your time and dollars on your core operations.

Manufacturing solutions providers, like Jabil, can be a knowledgeable resource about effective supply chain planning. After years of working in the field, they typically have experience with a wide variety of supply chains and know what does and does not work.

say they are investing in advanced planning solutions to improve their supply chain performance as a result of the pandemic.

On top of this expertise, some manufacturing solutions providers invest in the technology to manage this data and knowledge effectively to create reasonable demand plans.

Even if you are doing your own supply chain planning, a contract manufacturing partner can be a key asset in this process. You want a partner who will collaborate with you but not necessarily agree with you 100% of the time. Experienced contract manufacturers will do their own market research, including reviewing historical shipment and consumption data, to validate your forecast. Then, they should discuss with you any discrepancies and collaborate with you to determine a new, more effective plan for your entire supply chain. This practice can spare both parties from investing too little and missing opportunities or investing too much and taking a loss on the product.

The Future of Supply Chain Planning

Just like forecasting sales, it is hard to accurately guess what the future holds for supply chain planning. There will certainly be more reliance on technology as it continues to improve its abilities. However, it is unlikely that technology will take over the whole supply chain planning process anytime soon, because the process is very nuanced and considers a plethora of factors as well as shifting priorities.

Instead, companies will be more likely to use technology as an asset to handle data analytics and inform the human decision-makers. These planners will use the data and any dashboards the technology creates to look at the big picture, evaluate trade-offs and make decisions that allow the company to meet its goals while balancing cost and efficiency.

Of course, as technology speeds the supply chain planning process, companies will need to be more and more agile. That is where these external partners and other supplier partnerships will become critical. These relationships will enable companies to quickly scale inventory levels and the production schedule up or down to meet changing market needs. In addition, these partners will be key to supporting new product launches, shorter product life cycles and expansion into new markets. With collaboration, your partners can identify supply chain management strategies that are a win-win for all involved.

Download the Global Supply Chain Trends Report

Insights from over 300 supply chain decision-makers at OEMs with more than $500 million in revenue on how they are managing their supply chains in light of market forces.