Volatility is the New Norm

If there is one thing that is certain in today’s world, it is that volatility and change are the new normal. VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) is top of mind for every client. For example, clients ask the following questions:

  • What will happen next?
  • Are we prepared?
  • Which are the likeliest risks with the most severe consequences?
  • Should we take the appropriate steps to mitigate if we don’t know what the future holds and if our business can withstand the investment?

Unfortunately, there is no playbook. Only the proactive, brave, and resilient will thrive,

How Does Inventory Relate to Volatility?

As it relates to inventory, the entire point of carrying inventory is to cover lead time, mitigate risk, and address volatility. For example, if you purchase from China, you have to cover the manufacturing and transportation lead time (typically 12 weeks minimum). You would want to mitigate risk. Unfortunately, with China, there are many potential risks (Chinese spy balloons, Taiwan-China tensions, Zero-COVID policy shutdowns, lack of natural resource supply (energy, water), shutdowns, transportation challenges in the South China sea, potential weather, strike and other conflicts in its journey to its destination, etc.). And last but not least, inventory covers volatility. If Sales sells different products than predicted, if suppliers extend lead times, or if disruptions occur, inventory allows your customers to be served while you address the volatility.

Thus, executives are perplexed as to what to do about inventory. In fact, they are in a quandary.

  • Volatility is high: Since VUCA is at an all-time high, both demand and supply are volatile, and therefore out of alignment. Inventory covers that gap, and so more inventory is required to successfully serve customers. Beyond required inventory to cover volatility, clients have also moved from just-in-time (JIT) to just-in-case. Inventory is piling up! Of course, unfortunately, it is typically the wrong items in the wrong place at the wrong time if demand isn’t aligned with supply via a process like SIOP (Sales Inventory Operations Planning), also known as S&OP.
  • Cost is up: The cost of inventory is going up with inflationary pressures. Every client has experienced raw material, component, and ingredient price increases. Additionally, every unit of inventory has to be stored and transported. Logistics costs have increased significantly as well. Even though the cost of the increases are slowing down, if you compare costs to pre-pandemic, they are up substantially. Thus, every unit of inventory costs more.
  • Carrying cost: Having “too much” inventory ties up cash unnecessarily. You purchase materials, pay for production, and have storage and material handling costs all prior to getting paid. In addition, if you have to finance inventory, the cost has been skyrocketing with the increase in interest rates. Even if you don’t finance inventory, you are tying up cash that you cannot invest elsewhere. This carrying cost is also adding up to simply cover built in lead time. For example, 12 weeks of inventory is not only tied up unnecessarily but the cost to carry that inventory has gone up substantially with increased interest rates, increased warehouse space cost, etc.
  • Inventory accuracy woes: Although a bedrock fundamental, the more inventory you have, the more likely you’ll be to have inventory issues. For example, as warehouses overflow into the aisles, inventory gets lost. As more locations are added, complexity increases (a key element of VUCA) and inventory inaccuracies increase. For example, a client expanded rapidly to meet increasing customer orders. To meet this increased growth, they expanded operations. Resources are limited, thereby creating complications in keeping up with transactions. Also, they moved the stockroom to a different location to accommodate for the expansion, thereby creating further volatility. Additionally, they needed additional materials and components to support production, requiring additional space. They also purchased long-term supply of critical components coming from the Russia-Ukraine region to secure supply, therefore needing additional storage locations. And, to increase production, they had to produce work-in-process when capacity was available, thereby increasing WIP inventory while waiting for parts and capacity to be available to complete the job. Since they are located in a rural area, they had to expand quickly with multiple available buildings/ locations. What I love is the descriptive names for these locations – the barn, the swamp, the subway, and more. Nevertheless, quick expansion with multiple physical locations can be quite the inventory accuracy challenge.

Executives are deciding among conflicting factors – customer service, customer growth, margins, and cash flow. It is not for the faint of heart. The trick is to turn this “or” equation into “and” so that you can achieve a win-win-win.

Go Back to Fundamentals

The great news about inventory is that the fundamentals “work”. As challenging as it is to navigate volatility, the key is to focus on the fundamentals. Best practice processes paired with process disciplines will carry the day. However, that will not be enough. To thrive in today’s business environment, processes will have to be accompanied with the appropriate technologies. For example, barcoding is greatly more efficient than writing on papers and data entry. However, garbage in, garbage out. Focus on process disciplines before you jump to automate a “mess”. And none of this will matter if you do not have the resources to support these practices.

Best Practice Processes

There are several inventory processes required to have the “right” inventory in the “right” place at the “right” time without having “too much” creating financial woes or “not enough” to support customers. Several of relevant fundamental processes include:

  • Transaction disciplines: Every inventory movement (receiving, interfacility movements, work order issues, work order completion, operational steps, shipments, interbranch transfers, intercompany transfers, outsourcing operation steps, etc.) requires a best practice process accompanied with the appropriate use of ERP system functionality performed in the correct sequence and in a timely fashion. Most clients overlook the critical importance of these fundamentals. Although theoretically ‘easy’, it requires an orchestrated effort with trained resources who understand the impacts of their work.
  • Cycle counting: Cycle counting is more than simply counting and adjusting. The key is to focus on root cause analysis and remain vigilant on process disciplines, cutoff times, and prioritizing what’s most important (ABC counting). The bottom line is that cycle counting will maintain your inventory accuracy so that when you go to produce, distribute, or ship, the inventory is where you expect it to be in the quantity expected. 
  • Costing: Cost accountants are often underappreciated. Good ones can be your most valuable asset! When I was VP of Operations, understanding the true cost of inventory was a critical basic. Otherwise, how do you make “good” decisions? It was surprising how challenging it was to get a directionally correct cost for materials (including freight), labor, warehousing, freight, carrying cost, etc. It is important to properly utilize your ERP system to get a reasonable view of costs. Adding variances into the mix can confuse almost everyone in your organization. Stick with common sense. Strangely, cost reduction programs also cause havoc as 80% of clients double count at least some of the cost reduction programs accidentally. Bring on experts that can dig in and help you know where to focus. (Thank you to my mentor on this topic, Marty Ostrow!)
  • Planning processes (demand, production, replenishment, materials, VMI, etc.): The best way to ensure the appropriate inventory is in the “right” place at the “right time” in the “right” quantities to support customer requirements while not having “too much” is to roll out best practice planning processes. These processes go hand-in-hand with ERP functionality including CRM, demand planning, MRP, advanced planning and scheduling, DRP, and more.
  • SIOP (Sales Inventory Operations Planning), also known as S&OP: Aligning demand and supply is cornerstone to managing inventory. Refer to our eBook, SIOP Creating Predictable Revenue and EBITDA Growth to learn about how SIOP can help your organization and the secrets to implementing a process and cadence to ensure customer success and bottom-line results.
  • Inventory metrics: Make sure to track the key metrics relevant to your business. A few of the key ones include inventory turns, days on hand (DOH), inventory variances, and inventory accuracy.

Final Thought

Inventory management is bedrock for any manufacturer, distributor, or retailer. Although solid inventory management is always vital in supporting growth, profitability and cash flow, it takes on even more importance during times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Both inventory accuracy and inventory levels will either propel success or become a bottleneck to success. Remember to dedicate key resources to this foundational building block.

Refer to our blog for many articles on inventory management and related concepts. Also, read more about these types of strategies in our eBooks including SIOP (Sales Inventory Operations Planning): Creating Predictable Revenue and EBITDA Growth. If you are interested in talking about implementing out best practices for inventory management to drive stability, customer service, growth and profitability, contact us.

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