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“How can I make my supply chain planning worse?”

Sep 9, 2015 3 min

Problem reversal is a technique I like to use in mediation. Basically it’s just turning a problem on its head – setting out to solve a problem that appears to be the opposite of the one you want the answer to.

Towards the end of the mediation process, both parties are usually asked to take part in some brainstorming. Without stopping to think too much they’re asked to shout out any ideas they think could help resolve their current conflict: “What would have to happen for your problem to be solved?”

In my experience, people struggle to develop or voice solutions to a problem or conflict that has been ongoing for some time. Too many IFs and BUTs get in the way of their flow of thoughts or constructive ideas. In this sort of situation I often hear statements like: “We’ve already considered all the options. If there was a way, surely we would have found it. But there is no way, and that’s our problem.” In this situation, problem reversal may just be your last hope.

What I do, is suggest both parties keep brainstorming, but flip the question about 180 degrees: “What would have to happen or what would you have to do to make your problem even worse?” I’m still impressed how parties involved in mediation suddenly start bubbling with ideas when asked to intentionally escalate a conflict. Here, their imagination seems to know no bounds.

But wait! Surely their replies to this reversed question are of no real use. Quite the contrary! They are extremely valuable when it comes to solving the actual problem. You just have to ensure that no one ever puts the ideas sparked by the reverse question brainstorming into practice.

Reversing the Question Produces Interesting Ideas and Fresh Perspective

Every single day companies struggle with planning their material flows. It’s not that they’re doing a bad job. If they did, they wouldn’t have been successful in the past and wouldn’t still be trading. But the more complex a business is (in terms of products, conditions, branches, distribution channels, etc.), the more limiting the manual creation of forecasts, orders, promotion plans becomes in terms of accuracy and capacity becomes.

I know what I’m talking about because I spent four years of my life as a materials planner for a furniture manufacturer: More than 150 product introductions per year; everything to be available at all times; campaigns and promotions; no storage space; product terminations; graduated price scales; variable lead times; limited transport capacity; too much capital tied up in inventory, and so on. As a materials planner, it it’s not just difficult to please everyone, it’s nigh on impossible.

It is not surprising that any external sales representative is met with scepticism when he or she claims that a piece of software can do everything the planner has been doing based on his years of experience – and that the software does it automatically, more effectively, and more efficiently.

This is why today I will not answer the question: “How could you make your supply chain planning more efficient and more accurate?”, instead I’ll politely ask you to ask yourself: “How could I make our supply chain planning less efficient and less accurate?”

Perhaps you will come up with answers such as:

  • employ unqualified, inexperienced personnel
  • abolish all computerised support
  • etc.

Now, let’s take a closer look at those two initial answers in light of our question: “How could you make your supply chain planning more efficient and more accurate?”

In a growing business you won’t be able to dispense with qualified and experienced personnel. But a growing business also means a growing workload. Can you impose that on your highly skilled specialists when they are almost certainly already operating near or at 100% capacity? Can you recruit enough qualified talent to close that gap? Do your IT systems still support your employees and your company after years of changes in internal processes and external market conditions? Does your team spend more time maintaining the system data than they get out of it in terms of work simplification?

We could take this problem reversal game even further. Why don’t you take some time to try it out with you co-workers? I’m sure it will produce some interesting ideas and a fresh perspective to some of the challenges you face.

Written by

Michael Hoffmann

Michael Hoffmann

VP Field Operations DACH