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Keep S&OP Alive and Well

  • Patrick Bower

Each year, a handful of the people I work with either change jobs internally here at Combe or move on to other companies. When this happens, they hand off their sales and operations planning (S&OP) responsibilities to new hires or existing employees ready to take on new roles. As the owner of a sustaining S&OP process, it is my role to hold steady our organization’s operational values in the wake of changes such as these.

To maintain process stability, I often train coworkers when they transition into their new S&OP roles. Sometimes I get lucky, and the newbies come with prior exposure to S&OP; most of the time, however, their experience is minimal, so it is up to me to explain the process details to each of the newcomers and prepare them to help ensure ongoing success.

I enjoy this and consider myself the keeper of the “S&OP flame” — the personification of a center of excellence for the process within our company. Training new people gives me the opportunity to keep the process not only alive, but also current, timely, vigorous and relevant. This is more than just sharing with a new generation some origin story about the intensity and justification behind the original implementation. They also must appreciate all the improvements and adjustments — the investment of focus and organizational commitment to the process — that have been made along the way.

As the original process implementer 10 years ago, I certainly have enough history to speak to the material savings already realized from S&OP. The initial benefit stream was significant: a 40 percent reduction in finished goods inventory, a 90 percent reduction in obsolete inventory and a 30 percent reduction in our distribution costs — all achieved by simply having more of the right inventory in the right place and at the right time.

More importantly, my role as trainer enables me to share the real-world, day-to-day refinements, gleaned over hundreds of consensus meetings, rough-cut capacity plans and executive reviews. I am well-equipped with answers to questions about such things as the importance of reporting data and metrics.

As I begin training each new person, I go through a primer on the S&OP model, participation responsibilities, and where one might find help with questions or data needs. The primer is my opportunity to talk S&OP theory. I describe the process model we use at Combe as well as the terminology we employ. Our model is circular with the process steps culminating in an executive review meeting, through which corporate direction and strategy are decided and then communicated outward throughout the company — thus restarting a closed-loop. I also explain our preference for “plain English” terminology to describe process steps because less-stilted language is just intuitively easier to comprehend.

I then walk my new S&OP colleagues through the typical agendas for each meeting they will be joining, explaining what they will need to have with them and what others will bring. And, because I am no fan of surprises, I explain each metric and why we use them, focusing on the measures the new person will own. None of these are complex concepts; just standard assessments of inventory, forecast accuracy and service that form the backbone of S&OP.

I always take a brief journey back in time to discuss the original justification for implementing our S&OP process: tons of bias, high forecast error, negative forecast value add, excessive inventory, obsolete components and an overall feeling that the business lacked control. My message is simply that we do not want to go back to a pre-S&OP existence.

As I finish each training session, I describe the various internal systems, queries and databases to which each new person will need to connect so they can be as effective as possible. I am always mindful to introduce them to the people both inside and outside of my direct reporting lines who can be of assistance to them as they proceed.

Train to sustain

I have led training exercises like these probably 20 times over the past 10 years. It is old-hat to me by now. Unfortunately, I have a sneaking suspicion that I am an outlier, and most companies do not have a strong training group or individual to educate newcomers; help assure process consistency and compliance; and confirm an agreed-upon and documented process model, common terminology, standard meeting formats and agendas, and well-defined participation guidelines.

In my consulting travels, I often heard, “We implemented S&OP five years ago,” yet at the same time, I observed an immature process without a clear owner. I would advise that every process needs a zealot to sustain S&OP gains and keep forward momentum and growth. Without a devoted owner, the S&OP process that remains after numerous iterations and personnel changes often is a watered-down mess. Like caring for the potted plants in an office, someone needs to take charge and nurture the S&OP process.

S&OP leaders often do not perceive ourselves as trainers. Most view their role as an executor of the process and fail to see that function as one that should extend into training. But one of the most valuable investments in a business’s S&OP effort is training and retraining stakeholders on the fundamentals. Leads must keep the S&OP process a living, breathing entity by continually infusing all users with process knowledge and timely, relevant training.

Despite being the designated process zealot, advocate and trainer at Combe, all measurables in our S&OP process still take a plunge as new people come along. Eventually, these new recruits overcome the learning curve, and process compliance and metrics rebound. If nothing else, this demonstrates that training helps sustain the process.


Patrick Bower is senior director of global supply chain planning and Customer Relations for Combe. He is responsible for the company’s sales and operations planning process, order management, and third-party logistics management. Bower may be contacted at

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