S&OP satisfaction: “A little less conversation, little more action”

When Elvis Presley originally performed the hit song ‘A little less conversation’ in 1968, I’m pretty sure he was alluding to something a little racier than an S&OP initiative. However every time one of our S&OP clients insists “what we really need is more communications” I am tempted to paraphrase ‘the King’ and argue for a little less communication and a little more action – in the form of preparation.

Ground rules

You might very well say that regardless of the situation, communications is always a good thing and there can never been too much of it. However, as with all good things from chocolate to fine wine, indulging in too much or expecting it to serve as a ‘cure-all’ is normally the sign of a deeper problem.

In S&OP initiatives, I have come to realise that when people insist that more communications is needed, what they actually lack are things like good visibility, clear processes and ‘ground rules’, and clarity about people’s roles and responsibilities. Once these are established, S&OP can run smoothly, with only specific and targeted communication.

Lego bricks

To drive this point home to clients, we invite them to play a game using Legos. Teams of three people are challenged to construct elephants from the Lego bricks as fast as they can, against the clock. In the first round, the team members are not allowed to talk amongst themselves at all. Before the second round, the teams are allowed to talk. This gives them the opportunity to prepare for the challenge by defining processes for building the elephants, establishing key milestones and assigning roles to different team members.

After hosting literally hundreds of these sessions over the years, the same thing happens every time: in round two, once the teams have talked things over and established how they plan to build their elephants, the actual construction work is then carried out in near silence. The only time there is any conversation is when an exception crops up to the agreed process. Likewise, in a well-functioning S&OP process, ad-hoc communication only takes place when something unexpected happens.  This is in contrast with communication used to chase people for late responses, incomplete data, misunderstandings, and uncertainties.

Information overload

If you’re still saying to yourself, “but surely more communication can’t actually hurt?”, think of how many incoming calls, e-mails, and social media messages you already receive in a day and how much time and energy this ‘information overload’ consumes. These days most of us delete, ignore or even implement special software to automatically manage routine communications. Do you really think you will benefit from receiving more?

Taking the argument one step further, I would argue that once an S&OP process gets up and running, if you do feel a strong need to introduce more communications, it’s a signal that you probably need to take a step back and refine your processes. Remember that the goal of S&OP is to integrate supply and demand plans and plan on a long horizon (ideally 18 months) in order to reduce fire-fighting and use resources more efficiently. This process requires continuous fine-tuning as internal and external factors change so the fact that you need to do this is perfectly normal.

One of our clients summarised it perfectly when he said, “we need fewer but better meetings”. A sentiment I’m sure ‘the King’ would wholeheartedly agree with!

Alain Vix, Account Director and Co-Founder, Hughenden Consulting