What It Takes to Be a Great Demand Planner

Robert J. Bowman | SupplyChainBrain | April 08, 2013

Companies say they are in dire need of competent supply and demand planners, but the requirements of that position today are so varied that you wonder whether a single person exists who can do the job. It calls for strong math and statistical skills, obviously, but a good planner must also be able to communicate well across the multiple “silos” of an organization. The right candidate will have a deep understanding of the requirements of manufacturing, logistics, marketing, sales and finance. Then there’s the necessity of reaching outside company walls to suppliers and customers, to ensure that all parties are in agreement about what the demand forecast should be. Who are these freakishly talented individuals? And where can they be found?

For the most part, they aren’t born, but are bred within organizations that take a multidisciplinary view of supply chain operations, and train their employees accordingly. Let’s see if we can’t pick apart the elements that make up a good demand planner, based on the experience of several companies that were represented on a panel at a recent conference of the Institute of Business Forecasting & Planning (IBF) in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Patrick Bower, senior director of corporate planning and customer service with Combe Inc., agreed that the ideal demand or supply planner will have some kind of background in applied mathematics or economics. But strong leadership abilities are called for as well. “One of the needs for a demand planner is to be able to influence people,” Bower said. “The ability to lead by collaboration is an important skill.”

How one defines such an intangible is a highly subjective exercise. As Bower sees it, “you look for people who have done things that require some sort of complexity and analysis over time.”

Fine – but analytical prowess doesn’t necessarily translate into an ability to get along with others. Jonathon P. Karelse, president of Syncro Distribution Inc., has had plenty of success with people who possessed strong financial or economics backgrounds. “But 80 percent of the terminations I’ve done had nothing to do with a person who was good at math. That’s a pretty easy thing to vet.”

It’s not just a question of being able to crunch numbers, “but to make those numbers tangible for the rest of the organization that does not speak the same language,” Karelse said. With all of the competing pressures and conflicting interests among business functions, the biggest “soft skill” required of a demand planner might be a thick skin.

Nestle USA found that it takes more than one individual to perform the job. Director of demand and supply planning Geoffrey Fisher said a statistician can handle 90 percent of the mathematical requirements, but that position is really one of decision support. For true demand planning, the company needs someone who can function on the same level as marketing and sales – who can actually lead the whole sales and operations planning (S&OP) effort. Ideally, that’s a person with “great facilitation skills – who knows how to talk, and has a spine.”

When it came to working with skilled planners, Nestle had been grappling with a retention problem. “Demand planning is a thankless job,” said Fisher. “This is the person who owns the number, then we shoot them every week.”

One way to break the cycle is to allow employees to do “tours of duty” within the company – swapping, for example, the tasks of planning demand and supply. They might even venture into finance for a time. The program “gives people different scenery,” said Fisher, “so that they don’t feel like they’re in that one peg forever.”

It’s up to companies to launch programs that can help would-be demand planners become great leaders. Karelse is all too aware of the pain that can result from the lack of such an effort. When he headed up the consumer products division of Yokohama Tire (Canada) (http://www.yokohama.ca/language_select.php), he was “one of those demand planners who believed only in the truth of mathematics. Anyone who tried to convince me of something off my plan [was] a fool. I rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”

Fortunately, Karelse had the total support of his boss and the company president, allowing him to develop his skills in the right direction. “If you don’t have top-level engagement,” he said, “you are going to burn [your statisticians] out.”

Last year, Randy Wilp, leader of global commercial forecasting with Merck & Co., Inc., brought in an organizational-behavior coach to help transform the company’s planners from being “completely analytical-minded to customer-minded.”

In the beginning, “they were all about the numbers.” At the same time, the coach had to be schooled in the mathematical aspects of planning. “It took three months for my staff to feel more comfortable with the organizational part, and the organizational guy to understand,” Wilp said. “But the transformation has been remarkable. It was well worth the year of investment.”

Bower has sent his planners out to a center for creative leadership – a kind of managerial “outward-bound” program, supplemented by Myers-Briggs testing of personality types. Graduates come back with an improved set of soft skills, he said.

Combe’s tour-of-duty exercise involved placing planners within a small sub-segment of the business – say, a demand plan for Canada. In rotating through such discrete tasks, they emerged with a better sense of what demand planners experience in their everyday jobs.

“It’s always the supply planners saying, ‘I can execute against any plan you give me,’” said Bower. “They don’t understand what the other side goes through.”

The actual job of demand planning can vary from company to company. In Karelse’s experience, it takes someone above both disciplines to reconcile the demand and supply plans. Bower’s planners, by contrast, run the consensus process and participate in new-product development meetings. So the emerging theme appears similar to what I argued in my previous post about so-called one-number forecasting: the lack of an easy answer that applies to all companies.

As Bower put it: “I don’t think there’s a magic formula for developing demand planners.” Still, the basic ingredients – good statistical, analytical and communications skills, along with a firm commitment to training – are there for all to see.