HQ Content, Context and Field Truth in the Realm of Inventory Planning
It was an impressive event with more than 170 sessions, a keynote speech by Hillary Clinton, interviews with thought leaders, unique insights from the likes of Jane Pauley and George Takei, and even a dose of Broadway entertainment to keep the excitement running high.
I came away from the conference with many pages of notes, but my most memorable "learning" came from someone who didn't speak a word: U.S. General Colin Powell, as quoted by the event host, Elliott Masie.
General Powell, I learned, was the keynote speaker at Learning 2012. Mr. Masie's recap of the general's remarks resonated strongly with my experiences in merchandise and inventory planning. Here's the gist:
According to General Powell, there are three components to successful training: headquarters content, context and field truth. I won't pretend to understand the nuances that apply to military professionals, but I do see a close match with the learning process for inventory planners. Colin Powell's components of learning:
- Headquarters content: This is the delivery of policies, procedures and company branding. In addition to the necessary employee administrative information, this can often include core branding messages — e.g., who is our customer, what does our brand stand for, how do we treat our customers and employees, and so forth. All important information!
- Context: Of Powell's principles, context may offer the real key to success. Most companies embrace the idea of hiring good people, training them and then getting out of the way. However, good decisions are made only when the individual comprehends what's going on in the business. What are the company and category goals for the year? Has the company invested in solid preseason product assortment and marketing plans to enable confident inventory planning? Are important merchandising, marketing or supplier shifts occurring that will affect the inventory plan? In other words, tell me what's going on within the business. However, in the fire-drill reality of day-to-day inventory planning, key information (aka context) is often missing.
- Field truth: You could describe this as "textbook vs. reality." Every inventory planner has had to deal with their version of field truth. While the textbook and objectives clearly state A, other forces (e.g., customer, management, supplier, etc.) introduce B, C, D and other priorities. Sometimes these priority shifts are hugely important; sometimes they're just a distraction. These priority shifts and distractions are common and, in most cases, quite valid. However, inventory planners are expected to always succeed, despite the unpredictable field conditions. Providing them with good context gives them the information to make better decisions and can save lost time and effort.
I'd encourage all inventory management organizations to embrace General Powell's learning advice. Continue to deliver the necessary headquarters content, but put more emphasis in communicating context, enabling inventory planners to make good decisions, quickly, in their day-to-day field truth.
Joe is Vice President of Product Solutions at Software Paradigms International (SPI), an award-winning provider of technology solutions, including merchandise planning applications, mobile applications, eCommerce development and hosting and integration services, to retailers for more than 20 years.
Joe is a 34-year veteran of the retail industry with hands-on experience in marketing, merchandising, inventory management and business development at multichannel retail companies including Lands’ End, LifeSketch.com, Nordstrom.com and Duluth Trading Company. At SPI, Joe uses his experience to help customers and prospects understand how to improve sales and profits through applying industry best practices in merchandise planning and inventory management systems and processes.