Tag Archives: fashion retailer

Inside vs. Outside

As Andy Mullholland pointed out in a recent post, all too often we manage our businesses by looking out the rear window to see where we’ve been, rather than looking forward to see where we’re going. How we use information too drive informed business decisions has a significant impact on our competitiveness.

I’ve made the point previously (which Andy built on) that not all information is of equal value. Success in today’s rapidly changing and uncertain business environment rests on our ability to make timely, appropriate and decisive action in response to new insights. Execution speed or organizational intelligence are not enough on their own: we need an intimate connection to the environment we operate in. Simply collecting more historical data will not solve the problem. If we want to look out the front window and see where we’re going, then we need to consider external market information, and not just internal historical information, or predictions derived from this information.

A little while ago I wrote about the value of information. My main point was that we tend to think of most information in one of two modes—either transactionally, with the information part of current business operations; or historically, when the information represents past business performance—where it’s more productive to think of an information age continuum.

The value of information
The value of information

Andy Mulholland posted an interesting build on this idea on the Capgemini CTO blog, adding the idea that information from our external environment provides mixed and weak signals, while internal, historical information provides focused and strong signals.

The value of information and internal vs. external drivers
The value of information and internal vs. external drivers

Andy’s major point was that traditional approaches to Business Intelligence (BI) focus on these strong, historical signals, which is much like driving a car by looking out the back window. While this works in a (relatively) unchanging environment (if the road was curving right, then keep turning right), it’s less useful in a rapidly changing environment as we won’t see the unexpected speed bump until we hit it. As Andy commented:

Unfortunately stability and lack of change are two elements that are conspicuously lacking in the global markets of today. Added to which, social and technology changes are creating new ideas, waves, and markets – almost overnight in some cases. These are the ‘opportunities’ to achieve ‘stretch targets’, or even to adjust positioning and the current business plan and budget. But the information is difficult to understand and use, as it is comprised of ‘mixed and weak signals’. As an example, we can look to what signals did the rise of the iPod and iTunes send to the music industry. There were definite signals in the market that change was occurring, but the BI of the music industry was monitoring its sales of CDs and didn’t react until these were impacted, by which point it was probably too late. Too late meaning the market had chosen to change and the new arrival had the strength to fight off the late actions of the previous established players.

We’ve become quite sophisticated at looking out the back window to manage moving forward. A whole class of enterprise applications, Enterprise Performance Management (EPM), has been created to harvest and analyze this data, aligning it with enterprise strategies and targets. With our own quants, we can create sophisticated models of our business, market, competitors and clients to predict where they’ll go next.

Robert K. Merton: Father of Quants
Robert K. Merton: Father of Quants

Despite EPM’s impressive theories and product sheets, it cannot, on its own, help us leverage these new market opportunities. These tools simply cannot predict where the speed bumps in the market, no matter how sophisticated they are.

There’s a simple thought experiment economists use to show the inherent limitations in using mathematical models to simulate the market. (A topical subject given the recent global financial crisis.) Imagine, for a moment, that you have a perfect model of the market; you can predict when and where the market will move with startling accuracy. However, as Sun likes to point out, statistically, the smartest people in your field do not work for your company; the resources in the general market are too big when compared to your company. If you have a perfect model, then you must assume that your competitors also have a perfect model. Assuming you’ll both use these models as triggers for action, you’ll both act earlier, and in possibly the same way, changing the state of the market. The fact that you’ve invented a tool to predicts the speed bumps causes the speed bumps to move. Scary!

Enterprise Performance Management is firmly in the grasp of the law of diminishing returns. Once you have the critical mass of data required to create a reasonable prediction, collecting additional data will have a negligible impact on the quality of this prediction. The harder your quants work, the more sophisticated your models, the larger the volume of data you collect and trawl, the lower the incremental impact will be on your business.

Andy’s point is a big one. It’s not possible to accurately predict future market disruptions with on historical data alone. Real insight is dependent on data sourced from outside the organization, not inside. This is not to diminish the important role BI and EPM play in modern business management, but to highlight that we need to look outside the organization if we are to deliver the next step change in performance.

Zara, a fashion retailer, is an interesting example of this. Rather than attempt to predict or create demand on a seasonal fashion cycle, and deliver product appropriately (an internally driven approach), Zara tracks customer preferences and trends as they happen in the stores and tries to deliver an appropriate design as rapidly as possible (an externally driven approach). This approach has made Zara the most profitable arm of Inditex, a holding company of eight retail brands, and one of the biggest success stories in Spanish business. You could say that Quants are out, and Blink is in.

At this point we can return to my original goal: creating a simple graphic that captures and communicates what drives the value of information. Building on both my own and Andy’s ideas we can create a new chart. This chart needs to capture how the value of information is effected by age, as well as the impact of externally vs. internally sourced. Using these two factors as dimensions, we can create a heat map capturing information value, as shown below.

Time and distance drive the value of information
Time and distance drive the value of information

Vertically we have the divide between inside and outside: internally created from processes; though information at the surface of our organization, sourced from current customers and partners; to information sourced from the general market and environment outside the organization. Horizontally we have information age, from information we obtain proactively (we think that customer might want a product), through reactively (the customer has indicated that they want a product) to historical (we sold a product to a customer). Highest value, in the top right corner, represents the external market disruption that we can tap into. Lowest value (though still important) represents an internal transactional processes.

As an acid test, I’ve plotted some of the case studies mentioned in to the conversation so far on a copy of this diagram.

  • The maintenance story I used in my original post. Internal, historical data lets us do predictive maintenance on equipment, while  external data enables us to maintain just before (detected) failure. Note: This also applies tasks like vegetation management (trimming trees to avoid power lines), as real time data and be used to determine where vegetation is a problem, rather than simply eyeballing the entire power network.
  • The Walkman and iPod examples from Andy’s follow-up post. Check out Snake Coffee for a discussion on how information driven the evolution of the Walkman.
  • The Walmart Telxon story, using floor staff to capture word of mouth sales.
  • The example from my follow-up (of Andy’s follow-up), of Albert Heijn (a Dutch Supermarket group) lifting the pricing of ice cream and certain drinks when the temperature goes above 25° C.
  • Netflix vs. (traditional) Blockbuster (via. Nigel Walsh in the comments), where Netflix helps you maintain a list of files you would like to see, rather than a more traditional brick-and-morter store which reacts to your desire to see a film.

Send me any examples that you know of (or think of) and I’ll add them to the acid test chart.

An acid test for our chart
An acid test for our chart

An interesting exercise left to the reader is to map Peter Drucker’s Seven Drivers for change onto the same figure.

Update: A discussion with a different take on the value of information is happening over at the Information Architects.

Update: The latest instalment in this thread is Working from the outside in.

Update: MIT Sloan Management Review weighs in with an interesting article on How to make sense of weak signals.

Accelerate along the road to happiness

Our ability to effectively manage time is central to success in today’s hype-competitive business environment. The streamlined and high velocity value-chains we’ve created are designed to invest as little time (and money) as possible in unproductive business activities. However, being fast, being good at optimizing our day-to-day operations, is no longer enough. We’ve reached a point where managing the acceleration of our business—the ability to change direction, redeploy resources to meet new opportunities more rapidly than our competition—is the driver for best in category performance. If we can react faster than our competition then we can capitalize on a business opportunity (or disruption, as they are often the same) and harvest any value the opportunity created.

Time is our overarching business driver at the moment. We hope to be the first to approve a mortgage, capturing the customer before our competitors have even responded to the original application. We strive to be first to market with a new portable music device (Walkman or iPod), establishing early mover advantage and taking the dominant position in the market. Or we might simply want to quickly restore essential services—power, gas or water—to our customers, as they have become intensely dependent upon them. Globalization has leveled the playing field, as we’re all working from the same play book and leveraging the same resources. The most significant factor for success in this environment is the ability to execute faster than our competition—harvesting the value in an opportunity before they can.

This focus on time is a recent phenomena. Not long ago, no further back than the early nineties, we were more concerned with mass. The challenge was too get the job done. Keep the wheels turning in the factories. Keep the workers busy in their cubicles. Time is money, so we’re told, and we need to ensure that we don’t waste money by laying idle. Mass was the key to success—ensuring that we had enough work to do, enough raw materials to work on, to keep our business busy and productive.

When mass is the focus, then bigger is better. This is a world where global conglomerates rule, as size is the driver for success. Supply chains were designed so that enough stuff was available right next to the factory, where supply can be ensured, that the factory would never run out of raw materials and grind to a halt. Whether shuffling paperwork or shifting widgets, the ability to move more stuff around the business was always seen as an improvement.

This is also the world that created a pile of shipping containers too behold in the Persian Gulf, during the Gulf War in the early nineties. With no known destination, some containers couldn’t be delivered. Without a clear understanding of where they came from, others couldn’t be returned. A few of these orphaned containers were opened in an attempt to determine their destination or origin; however the sweltering Arabian sun was not kind to their contents, which included items such as raw poultry, so a stop was soon put to that. The containers just kept piling up. 22,000 of 50,000 containers simply became invisible, collecting in a pile that went by the jaunty name of Iron Mountain.

Iron Mountain: 22,000 containers that became invisible
Iron Mountain: 22,000 containers that became invisible

Our answer was to stop focusing on mass, on having enough stuff on hand to keep the wheels of industry turning. We have to admit that Iron Mountain proves that we could move sufficient mass. The next challenge was to ensure that materials arrived at just the right time for them to be consumed by the business. We moved from worrying about mass, to managing velocity.

Total quality management and process improvement efforts finally found their niche. LEAN and Six Sigma rolled through the business landscape ripping cost out businesses where-ever they went. Equipped with books on Toyota’s Production System and kanban cards, we ripped excess material from the supply chain. Raw materials arrive just-in-time, and we avoid the costs associated with storing and handling vast warehouses of material, as well as the working capital tied up in the stored material itself. Quality went up, process cycle times shrunk, and the pace of business accelerated. Much like the tea clippers from China in the 1800s, with the annual race to get the first crop back to London for the maximum profit (with skipper paid a profit share as an incentive along with their salary), we’re focused on cranking the handle of business as fast as possible.

Zara, a fashion retailer, is the poster child for this generation of business. The fashion industry is built around a value-chain that tries to push out regular product updates, beating up demand via runway shows and media coverage to support a seasonal marketing cycle. Zara takes a different approach, tracking customer preferences and trends as they happen in the stores and trying to deliver an appropriate design as rapidly as possible, allowing customer demand to pull fashion. By focusing on responding to customer demand, wherever it is, Zara has built an organization designed too minimize time from design to marketed product. For example, onshore, high-tech, agile production is preferred to low-tech but low cost, offshore production which involves long production delays. Zara takes two weeks to take a product to market, where the industry average is six months; the lifetime of Zara’s products is measured in weeks, rather than months; and the products offered in each store are tailored to the interests of the community it serves rather than a long term marketing plan.

The change in product life-cycle has created a material change to customer buying habits. Traditionally customers’ will visit a fashion store a few times a year to see what a new season brings. There is no real pressure to buy in any particular visit, as they know they can return to buy the same garment later. Zara, however, with it’s dramatically shortened product cycles, drives different behavior. Customer visit more often, as they can expect to see a new range each visit. They are also more likely too buy, as they know that there is little chance of the same garment being available the next time. This approach has made Zara the most profitable arm of Inditex, a holding company of eight retail brands, and one of the biggest success stories in Spanish business.

The dirty secret of high velocity, lean businesses is that they are fragile: small disturbances can create massive knock-on effects. As we’ve ripped fat from the value chain, we’ve also weakened its ability to react to, and resolve, disruptions. A stockout can now flow all the way back along the supply chain to the literal coal face, stalling the entire business value-chain. Restoring an essential service is delayed while we scramble to procure the vital missing part. Mortgage approvals are deferred while we try reallocate the work load of a valuer dealing with a personal emergency. Or our carefully synchronized product launch falls apart for what seems like a trivial reason somewhere on the other side of the globe.

Our most powerful tools in creating todays high velocity businesses—tools like straight-through processing, LEAN and Six Sigma—worked by removing variation from business processes to increase throughput. The same tools prevent us from effectively responding to these disruptions.

Opportunities today are more frequent, but disruptive and fleeting. An open air festival in the country might represent an opportunity for a tolling operator to manage parking in an adjacent field, if the solution can be deployed as sufficient scale rapidly enough. Or the current trend for pop-up retail stores (if new products rapidly come and go, then why not stores) could be moved from an exceptional, special occasion marketing tool, into the mainstream as a means to optimize sales day-by-day. Responding to these opportunities implies reconfiguring our business on the fly—rapidly integrating business exceptions into the core of our business. This might range from reconfiguring our carefully designed global supply chain, through changing core mortgage approval criteria and processes to modifying category management strategies in (near) real time.

Sam: Waiting while his bank sorts itself out
Sam: Waiting while his bank sorts itself out

We’re entering a time when our ability to change direction, adapting to and leveraging changes in the commercial environment as they occur, will drive our success. If we can react faster than the competition then we can capitalize on a business opportunity and harvest any value the opportunity creates. Our focus will become acceleration: working too build businesses with the flexibility and spare energy required to turn and respond rapidly. These businesses will be the F1 cars of business, providing a massive step in performance over more conventional organizations. And, just like F1, they will also require a new level of performance from our knowledge workers. If acceleration is our focus, then our biggest challenge will be creating time and space required by our knowledge workers to identify these opportunities, turn the steering wheel and leverage them as they occur.

Update: A friend of mine just pointed out that the logical progression of mass → velocity → acceleration naturally leads to jerk, which is an informal unit of measurement for the third derivative.