“Demand Shaping” or “Demand Sensing”?

The EE Times ran a great article by Romit Dey and Manoj K. Singh last month on Demand Shaping and how it aligns customer trends with supply. But I have to ask, is it really “demand shaping” or is it more “demand sensing”. Is not “demand shaping” what marketing and advertising does? It’s true that supply chain has a supporting role, in terms of letting marketing know how much a product can be produced for, how many units can be produced, and how fast the units can be in consumers hands. However, what supply chain really does, in a company that runs like a well-oiled machine, is sense the demand that has been created, and the demand that is in flux, and adapts to the situation.

So what is “demand sensing”? According to the article, which calls it “demand shaping”, it is a demand-driven, supply-constraining customer-centric approach to planning and execution that aligns process with customer demand at strategic and tactical levels and with an organization’s capabilities which helps optimize use of resources, reducing excess inventory and improving inventory turns. More specifically, at the strategic level, the emphasis is on aligning customers’ long-term demand patterns to long-term resource and capacity constraints and at he tactical level, the focus is on understanding demand patterns and then influencing customers’ demand toward available supply, using the levers of price, promotion and products/services bundling.

How do you sense demand? As the article points out, you need three key capabilities:

  • demand pattern recognition
    who is buying what, when, and in what quantity
  • supply supportability analysis
    how much can be made, when, and how fast can it be delivered
  • optimal demand steering
    if demand patterns suddenly change, and you do not have enough of product A, can product B be used as a substitute and can customers be steered to that product instead

The first skill is obvious – you need to manage inventory appropriately so you aren’t holding too much, and generating excessive inventory carrying charges, or holding too little, and selling out before supply can be replenished. The second skill is less obvious, but easily understood – you need to know how much you can make, and how fast it can be made, to appropriately plan your inventory level.

The third skill is what takes “demand sensing” to a whole new level, to the point that it is almost “demand shaping”, but not quite, and hence the source of confusion. It is, as it’s called, “demand steering”. The Dell example the authors use is the best. By maintaining real-time visibility into its supply chains, Dell knows its inventory levels now and in the immediate future on an hourly basis. If a customer configures an order for a 60GB drive on their web-site, and Dell knows they don’t have enough stock to configure the system immediately, then Dell informs the user of a delayed ship date and presents the customer with an opportunity to replace it with an 80GB drive at a discount – steering the customer towards another product that can meet their needs, even if it is more expensive, but Dell takes a discount on margin to make the sale and keep the customer.

The key to success, as the article points out, is to make sure that all three processes are part of a single, integrated loop. A supply supportability analysis is run on a regular, automated, basis; inventory is updated on a near real-time basis; and short-term forecasts are updated at least daily. Each of these numbers is compared on an automated basis, and as soon as forecasts exceed inventory and obtainable supply, an alert is sent to a planner who determines whether there are alternative products that can be used to meet the need or if marketing and sales needs to be informed that they need to take actions to steer demand on their end. Then, customers are steered towards the alternative products through the appropriate channels – in real-time.

The article also does a good job at overviewing what is required for a demand sensing framework. The elements it outlines are:

  • inter and intra organizational connectivity
  • the ability to capture, structure, and comprehend data from customers and channels
  • advanced business intelligence to identify demand patterns
  • optimization
  • common processes
  • a common data model
  • common performance metrics
  • available-to-process capabilities
  • exception management
  • electronic negotiation and collaboration

The best thing about the framework is that these are basic capabilities and processes a good organization should already have in place. It’s just a matter of tying them together and using them wisely!