Meet Jack Harwell, sole proprietor of Opsman, LLC.  Jack previously served as Vice President for Global Sourcing and Distribution at Radio Shack and Vice President, Supply Chain, at Amerock. This interview originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Foresight (Issue No. 39).

 

How did you first get involved in forecasting?

I’ve been in and out of forecasting my entire career. I started with what is probably the most difficult of forecasting problems: planning spare-parts usage for repair operations. Besides forecasting the overall number of repair incidents, we had to break that down to the component level to make sure we had the correct number of spare parts throughout the product life cycle.

My first ownership of the forecasting and demand-planning process occurred at RadioShack. There we totally overhauled the planning and allocation process: reorganizing the department, hiring and training 70% of the team, and developing procedures. The forecast process transitioned from a poorly understood and understaffed necessity to a key driver of sales and inventory performance for the company. We hired some highly credentialed individuals to form a demand-planning team that resided at the top of the department hierarchy. This is where I learned that it takes more than technical skills to succeed as a demand planner.

I have implemented S&OP processes several times in my career, often without actually owning the forecasting process. As a “subject matter” expert in the S&OP process, I have been able to gain buy-in and work with other executives to successfully implement it.

You consider forecasting as the technical component of the larger effort of demand planning. Can you expand on that?

As I mention in my article in this issue, demand planning is more than just forecasting. The demand planner is in a unique role where cross-functional coordination and collaboration are keys to success. Because the projection of sales is so important in driving many aspects of company behavior, almost everyone has a stake in what the forecasts say. Since each department has its own agenda, there are often conflicting views of what the numbers do say. It takes a special mix of technical and soft skills to get everyone on the same page.

What are the people-side challenges of demand planning?

As S&OP becomes increasingly popular, good demand planners are becoming more difficult to find. It’s important to keep a pipeline of skilled demand planners, as they tend to be recruited more than other planners. When seeking to fill these roles, executives should instruct their human resources departments to source candidates who have worked in similar industries and have already implemented S&OP, since these forecasters are more likely to have the skills their companies need.

What are some of the ongoing challenges in the world of forecasting?

Capturing external influences (such as business cycles, customer inventory strategies, weather, etc.) are always a challenge in forecasting. This is why it is so critical to have a robust S&OP process. Many times those external phenomena are brought to the table by someone who isn’t directly involved in building a forecast. Their input is often nebulous, almost background noise, but can be extremely valuable in predicting what may actually happen in sales. Hearing that voice and segregating the emotional from the factual take patience and a keen intuition for what actually drives demand.

It is sometimes a challenge to measure success in forecasting. Since almost by definition a forecast will be wrong, the question becomes how much error is acceptable. Many factors influence forecast accuracy, and every company has its own set of circumstances that impact the ability to reduce forecast error. I have found the “Forecast Value Added” process championed by Michael Gilliland of SAS to be a valuable tool in understanding your limits and measuring where you are relative to them.

What do you do to relax?

My wife and I like to explore our area, so we will take a day trip on a weekend to small towns and attractions within a short driving distance of our home. We like to visit small wineries, hike trails, and shop in Small Town, USA.

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