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From Liberal Arts to Demand Planning: An Unexpected Journey By Rebekah Haynes, CPF

drawing idea pencil and light bulb concept outside the box as creative and leadership concept

John Galt Solutions customer, Rebekah Haynes (CPF) of WD-40, writes about her journey from Liberal Arts to Demand Planning. Read on for a fascinating comparison of skill-sets and mind-sets that juxtapose two very different industries for an intriguing perspective.


This article discusses how different areas of the Liberal Arts can be used to explain areas of supply chain and business. Although Liberal Arts and business are perceived as very different, both offer opportunities for thoughtful analysis, and the cognitive skills required for one are directly applicable to the other. Here, we look at how the concepts and characteristics of three of the Liberal Arts, namely Theater, Literature and Philosophy, help us in our role as Demand Planners.


From Liberal Arts to Demand Planning: An Unexpected Journey By Rebekah Haynes, CPF

Demand planning can be a somewhat difficult concept for those with little to no experience in a supply chain environment. It can be a completely foreign concept for someone coming from a Liberal Arts background. In supply chain you have charts, numbers, statistics; a different planet altogether from a world of literature and philosophy. However, when you really break it down, the two fields aren’t that dissimilar. Having a background in both areas has offered a unique perspective in business. As a Liberal Arts major, graduating with a degree in English Literature, supply chain was not even close to what I had in mind as a career choice. That path had never presented itself as an option, nor did I even know it existed. I was all about thought-provoking literature that told a story or presented cautionary tales about life. However, what I’ve learned over the course of my career is that supply chain truly lends itself to that same level of thought-provoking work and cautionary tales about business. Who knew that all those years of studying literature and philosophy to find meaning and understanding would lead me to a career of charts, numbers and statistics? Stranger still, who knew I would love it? How we understand the business around us can take us on a journey of clarity or mass confusion. Interpreting the same data on a high level or low level can tell vastly different stories. It really depends on the questions you are trying to answer and more importantly, who’s asking the questions. Whether we’re trying to write the great American novel or write an equation that solves the mystery of shoppers’ minds, how you interpret the world around you will tell the story. We can use our understanding of Liberal Arts to interpret supply chain in three areas: Theater, Literature and Philosophy. All three of these areas have similar properties; storytelling, performing, understanding, just to name a few. They all come together in some way to provide clarity and assist in decision making. Below I’ll be exploring these ideas and how they can overlap and help each other in many ways.


“One man in his time plays many parts.”  – William Shakespeare

Bringing the S&OP (Sales and Operations Planning) process to your Senior Leadership can be a very intimidating thing. You’re in a room with people who make all the high level decisions and they’re looking to you to let them know how the business is trending. The news is not always good but separating the feeling of delivering bad news and simply delivering the truth of the business (good or bad), should all be based on the data you have and the best information available. For the theatrical performance of what we call our “Senior Consensus Review” you have all the parts represented in the room: Antagonist, Protagonist and Contagonist. Depending on the topic, each part can be assigned to different members, and at times, even the same member. Prior to the main performance, you’ll need several dress rehearsals. Sales and Marketing will have valuable information due to their closeness to the customers. Meeting with them regularly will ensure a smooth performance, and maybe even a standing ovation. Collaboration between the Antagonist, Protagonist and Contagonist is really the key to ensuring the latest estimate is as accurate as possible. As the Contagonist, Demand Planning will offer a perspective to all parties based on POS, Inventory, Weeks of Stock and units sold per store per week. In many cases, demand planning will appear to be Antagonist, but really, the Contagonist is simply providing perspective from a data standpoint that may provide clarity and understanding to what is happening or perhaps going to happen. Each member supports the other in some way to execute as flawless a performance as possible. It will never be 100% perfect, but if your audience (or customer) is happy and satisfied, your performance is a success. What’s important to remember is we all share the stage together; our ultimate goal is to deliver the very best service to our customers. If you’re lucky enough to work for a company who lives their values every day, you’ll not only have fun performing, you’ll leave the stage every day with positive lasting memories.


“Just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the  explanation doesn’t exist.”  —Madeleine L’ Engle,  A Wrinkle in Time

While pursuing my degree in English Literature, one thing stood out above all the rest: If you make a point, you better be able to defend it. In every story, poem or play that I read; if there was a point I was trying to make in any paper I was writing on the subject, there was text to back it up. Anyone can make a claim based on a feeling or a hunch; but if you want your point to be taken seriously, have the data there to support it. If you can get your hands on point of sale data, do it. Most importantly, don’t ignore it. POS will not only tell you a story, it can help you predict a future tale. For instance, suddenly POS spikes. Why did it spike? There’s a story in there somewhere, you may just have to dig a little to find it. The story could be the unit price was reduced for a period of time, or more stores are scanning the item across the register. Better yet, you gained distribution in more stores. Any one of these or all of them together can tell you the story of your spike in POS. Ignoring this could result in running out of stock due to heavy reorders. This will then put a strain on the supply chain to get the item back in stock (also known as the bullwhip effect).

Having regular conversations with your Sales and Marketing teams can definitely help answer some of these questions ahead of time. What’s important is that you have the data to support your story; or better yet, the data to support your interpretation of the story. POS can also tell you the other side of that story. Suddenly, POS drops off. What happened? Did we lose distribution? Is a competitor running a program resulting in lost market share? There’s always a story, good or bad. What goes into that story are all of the different data points you can gather to support your story, and the valuable information you gather from your Sales and Marketing partners. The data is there somewhere in some format; again, don’t ignore it. I’ve found that analyzing text is very much like analyzing data. Decrypting an author’s meaning or diving deeper into a plot is no different than finding seasonality in a data stream or understanding changes in ordering behavior. Be patient and ask lots questions, the story will come together.


“Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. By WHY I mean your purpose, cause or belief ­ WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care? ”  —Simon Sinek, Start with  Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Philosophy can mean many things to many people and is applied in just as many different ways. Business philosophies can be thought of as a company’s image or core set of values. How your customers experience your product is a direct result of the philosophies that built the company and its culture. To build a successful culture where you strive to integrate your values, you have to start with asking the right questions. One of my favorite philosophical questions asks, “If a tree falls down in the middle of the forest and no one is around, does it make noise? ” The same type of question can be asked about what prompted the sale of product. Many of us exist on both sides of that question coming from an industry side and a consumer side. Did someone need it? Was it an impulse buy? Was the price right for that customer, at that moment, in that store, on that day? Was the product positioned correctly on the shelf or in a display? Did one or all of these play a role in the decision making process? These are all questions we ask when trying to understand why shoppers behave the way they do. If we can understand that, we have a far better chance of predicting where and when they might make the purchase. Unfortunately, having this information isn’t always the case, so we rely on other factors to point us in the right direction.

We can always look at ourselves to try and understand how shoppers behave, but having a reliable planning tool is very key. In the absence of point of sale data, history of warehouse shipments can help predict the future using various statistical models. These models are very useful and can do a great job of forecasting. It’s also another area where you can apply a business rule or philosophy to guide your decision making. Perhaps you want to carry more safety stock on a specific item for a specific customer due to the significance their business brings. It can be less of a mathematical solution and more of a cognitive solution to satisfy the need. Unlike many great philosophical questions, forecasting questions can be answered, but it all depends on who you ask. Furthermore, expect each answer to be different depending on who is answering. It is the job of the Demand Planner to take those answers, analyze the data, and come to a reasonable conclusion. In the world of demand planning, we like to say we’re paid to be wrong. Our ultimate goal, however, is to be less wrong. Improving forecast error can decrease inventory costs, sustain higher service levels, and ultimately create an environment of credibility.

Between Theater, Literature and Philosophy, it’s not impossible to translate those critical thinking points to business practices. However, looking at business from a creative standpoint isn’t always a natural instinct; some people are just not programmed that way. It takes a healthy mix of all areas to create a well-rounded team of players that can bring different points of view to the stage. How many times have you thought to yourself, “Oh wow, I never thought of it like that” after hearing someone else’s idea? Not only can you reevaluate your own point of view, you have the opportunity to take all those ideas and create the best solutions possible. Having a love for Liberal Arts has helped maintain a high level of curiosity, always wanting to explore more and learn as much as possible. Understanding there will always be different points of view and seeing information in a different way has helped in engaging all sides of the business. Composing that information into an understandable story takes a level of creativity and finesse. Your audience is seeing information from various backgrounds and it’s up to you, the Contagonist, to find that balance and support for not only your story, but the conclusion. What I’ve learned over time is, it’s okay to be in a business world and have a background in Liberal Arts. I’m able to perform well in my responsibilities, analyze the information openmindedly, and ask the questions that help drive reasonable conclusions.

“Follow the evidence wherever it leads, and question everything.”  — Neil Degrasse Tyson


Rebekah is a Senior Demand Planner at WD-40 Company. She has over 18 years of experience in supply chain, working in demand planning and supply chain management roles. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from San Diego State University and is a Certified Professional Forecaster (CPF) with the Institute of Business Forecasting & Planning, IBF. 

This article is re-published with the permission of the author and the IBF - Journal of Business Forecasting - Winter 2018-2019 | www.ibf.org


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