To get anything done (a process often called execution), we need a plan: a pattern of sub-activities (steps) to get it done. In simple cases we might not even notice we’re planning, but we always do. If we stop and think about it, all of life follows this pattern, all day, every day.
And as we execute a plan, life happens and we re-evaluate and adjust: we re-plan as needed and continue executing until we either meet our objective or give up. Whether we’re running errands, building a house, fighting a war, or — for our focus — managing a supply chain, the same basic principles apply.
As our objectives become more complex so do our plans. We break objectives down into key steps, considering critical baseline conditions, and include enough detail to ensure feasibility as well as we can. We know things will change, so we include more detail in earlier stages where less change is expected, planning far enough out to see how we’ll ultimately succeed.
Most every plan requires a set of tasks to be done in a pattern or sequence. When the ideal pattern is intuitive we may not even think about it, but if there’s some flexibility, and it appears that certain patterns are much more efficient than others, we’ll likely do some scheduling. We initially plan these tasks at a high level, lumping them into periods where we need them, then as we get closer we include more detail and apply additional skill and logic to determine a good sequence within the context of our plan. This scheduling process is definitely a type of planning, but a completely different, more intense kind.
Finally, some tasks require a bit of lead time to prep for, so we freeze this initial part of our plan, stabilizing it long enough to protect this setup effort once we get it started. We generally handle minor adjustments during this frozen period on the fly as we’re working out our plan.
The above concepts are intuitive, and perhaps deceptively simple; it’s what we do naturally every day as we accomplish objectives. For instance, think about these concepts in terms of how we go grocery shopping. We start by planning key steps, making a list so we don’t forget anything and timing our trip so we don’t miss an appointment, but not details like where to park or which grocery cart to use. We might even do some scheduling, grouping items by aisle or department and sequencing them to minimize our effort. While we’re in the store executing our plan, if we remember we also need to stop by the post office, we don’t drop everything and go right then; we’ve frozen our plan so we finish shopping first. To ensure success we measure as we go, marking off items as we find them and keeping an eye on the clock so we finish on time.
While seemingly simplistic, these ideas around planning, scheduling and execution are extremely powerful when applied in larger, more complex scenarios like supply chain planning, where managing all the moving parts at once and seeing how all the pieces are working together is next to impossible. Intelligently and consistently applying these same basic, common sense principles can help us plan complex supply chains much more efficiently.
In our next blog we’ll take a closer look at planning as a unique problem solving domain, consider its purpose and scope and distinguish it from both scheduling and execution. Then we’ll follow with similar analyses to complete the total picture and summarize what we find. When we’re done, we should have a much better sense of how to tackle our most complex supply chain planning challenges.