To serve or not to serve, to stock or not to stock – by Supply Chain Detective

If you asked any CEO, Sales Executive or Marketing head what is the customer service level they desire in the organization they’d invariably say 100%. And hearing that answer the Supply Chain VP will invariably shake their heads and flee the room before you could ask them the same question.

But why, you might ask, such an expectation is unreasonable for any organization in any industry? Intuitively, it seems alright to want to sell to anyone who is willing to pay you in crispy greens. In fact, primary purpose of existence of organization is shareholder value creation? Which in simple words mean that organizations solely exist to earn profit by selling their stuff.

Before we delve deep – keep this thought at the back of your mind –

Organizations aim to maximize their profit

Let us try to understand this problem and define our problem statements more clearly.

1.Why it is unreasonable to have customer service level at 100%? And if it is, indeed, unreasonable then,

2.What is the optimum service level?

Qualitative Approach

Let us suppose you are the store manager in the said organization that sells consumer goods. You are responsible for managing stock on the shelves and ordering them before they go out of stock. Customer Service Level is your primary KPI and it is defined as percentage of times customer gets on the shelf whatever he is looking for.

Let us also imagine that one fine morning you get a memo from the CEO, the Sales VP and the marketing head (who must truly hate the supply chain guy) have decided to set this Customer Service Level as 100% as the new target.

Just yesterday you had to turn a guy back who wanted to buy five dozen television sets. With this new policy you’d have to stock everything that the next customer might need.

Oh heck, you realize that you need to stock your party supplies section for the next customer who accidentally invited 21,000 guests on her birthday. Even though the probability of this happening is very small, it is not zero. And the customer service target of 100% nudges you to be stocked for this small probability. Even if this means tons of overstocking and surely lot of wastage later, you have to be ready for all the extreme cases of demand.

You let out a muffled scream and consider quitting your job before sending a polite reply to your boss asking for permission to stock infinite inventory.

Quantitative Approach

We now intuitively understand why the customer service level can not be 100%. It would mean keeping infinite inventory for any possible customer demand that may or may not come. Keeping high inventory is almost sure to lead to excess inventory and write-offs ultimately making it a loss making proposition. But how much then should we “serve” before it starts becoming a loss making proposition.

Let us first take an example to understand the underlying logic before we go on to make complex models.

Imagine that you are that poor store manager responsible for customer service as well as inventory cost. The product that you sell costs $8 and you sell it at $20 for a net profit of $12. However, if you are unable to sell it, you’d incur a loss of $8 that was product cost.

The trade-off here is the profit that you’d earn if the customer walks in and you have it in your inventory


The loss that you’d incur if you stock and he doesn’t turn up.

So, should you buy the next unit  of inventory (it is very important to note that we are only talking about a single incremental unit) if there is only 25% chance that you’ll be able to sell it? What if this probability is 50%? 75%?

If the probability is 100%, that is you are sure to sell that next unit (I repeat, only one incremental unit) of product, then it’s a no-brainer that you’d want to stock it for a sure-shot profit of $12.

Now let’s take the next case where there is only 25% chance that you’ll sell it and make a profit of $12 but there is 75% chance that you won’t be able to sell it thereby incurring a loss of $8.

Your expected payoff from this extra inventory is = (25% x $12) + (75% x – $8)

= – $3

Since your expected payoff is negative when the probability is 25% , you’d not want to store this next unit of stock.

Similarly, the payoffs at 50% selling probability (Let’s call it P50 ) is  +$2 and at P75 is +$7

Let us summarize these results:

P25 = – $3

P50 = +$2

P75 = +$7

So, somewhere between 25% and 50% selling probability, keeping that extra unit in inventory became a profit making proposition. With little bit of maths we can find that probability is 40%

So, as long as probability of selling the next unit exceeds 40%, you’ll keep stocking the inventory.

40% looks like a pretty high number. In real life, you’ll find that organizations are willing to stock that extra unit, for far lower selling probabilities. There is a logical quantifiable reason behind this behavior even though a vast majority don’t know about it. The reason is that profit on immediate sale ($12 in our case) is not the only gain you make from that customer. When a customer walks-in into your store and finds what he/she is looking for, he will continue coming to your store and give you all that future business. This value of all future goods that the customer would buy is called Customer Lifetime Value.

Continuing with the previous example, suppose Customer Lifetime Value at the above store is $100. i.e. if the customer keeps on coming to your store then you stand to profit $100 from that customer. However, if he doesn’t find the product he is looking for, he’ll take this business to your competitors. What is that selling probability at which you’ll keep that unit of inventory? Let’s call it S:

PS = (S x $100) + ((1-S) x -$8)

At the cut-off probability, payoff would be zero.

0 = 108S -100

S = 7%!

Surprising. 93% of the times you are not expecting to sell that one unit and yet you’ll keep it in store because in long run that one customer is going to pay-off by becoming your loyal customer.

So, in a nutshell, keeping extra inventory is determined by probability of us selling it for acquiring a customer lifetime value vs having to write-off the extra inventory.

Some of you might be wondering why we did this analysis for only one unit (and kept on harping upon the point repeatedly). This is because the probability of selling keeps on changing as you add more stock. The probability of selling the 1st unit is very different from probability of selling nth unit.

I’ll be bet my arm that a liquor store in the middle of alcoholic town will sell its first bottle during the first hour of the day. 50th bottle – maybe. 1000th bottle – all bets are off (because I love my arm way too much).

So, coming back to the original point, how do we do this analysis for all of stock and not just one unit? It is the next level of analysis of service level that deserves its own article. Keep tuned in – it’ll be releasing soon.


Whose Inventory Is It Anyway? – by Supply Chain Detective

This is one of the most contentious questions that is often raised in review meetings especially during months of high inventory. We’ve all been there – where all the inventory indicators are in red, warehouses are overflowing with stuff, several leaning Towers of Pisa in the warehouses are a common sight and trucks are waiting for hours to unload their stuff. The supply chain VP’s phone is ringing non-stop and when it seems that nothing can go worse, you suddenly realize that you have an S&OP meeting to attend to.To muddy the waters even further, that one person from finance mumbles how “Inventory” is on the asset side of the balance sheet but still recommending to reduce it as the cost of borrowing is getting higher.So, who is responsible for the inventory after all?As the norm has become with this blog, the answer is – “Well, it’s more complicated than that.”You see, inventory is not a single homogenous bloc that can be assigned or attributed to a single department or function, but a culmination of several direct and indirect causes across the organization.


In fact, Harold S. Geneen, has famously said, apart from his many other famous quotes,

All the problems of business end up in inventory

That’s true. Isn’t it?

Bad forecasting accuracy? – you’ll end up with unsold stock in inventory

Quality problems? – you’ll end up with returns in inventory

Bad roads? – you’ll end with damaged stock in inventory

Failed new product launch? – you’ll end with dead stock in inventory

Bad customer service? – you’ll end with canceled orders and… you guessed it, inventory

Very high customer service? – you’ll need to maintain high safety stock which is…inventory

So, are we doomed to live with this inventory mess forever without figuring out the real culprits? Is there no one who can save us from this impending inventory apocalypse?

Cool down, cut down on dramatics and dial a supply chain detective.

The solution to this mess is actually quite simple. A quick word of advice for SCZs out there – whenever you come across what seems like an insurmountable problem and you are unable to make a headway, start breaking the problem into its individual pieces, trace them back to their source and treat them individually. Once you solve the pieces, put them back together and voila – you have a solution.

For inventory ownership, the problem may look unassailable but let’s start breaking it. The good news is that we already know some of the inventory components. See! The moment we said inventory components, you’d know what is about to come already.

Cycle Stock

The first and often the biggest component of inventory is Cycle stock. It is the inventory that is needed to fulfill the average customer demand between the orders. Simply put, it is all the stock that is meant for selling before you receive the next inbound.

Cycle stock is dependent on two factors = Annual Demand and Inventory turns2.

While annual demand is an independent variable, inventory turns (the ability to churn your inventory) is something that is inherent in organizational strategy which in turn impact supply chain design and policies3 around it.

Let’s take an example –imagine there are two organizations named SavingPrivatePenny Inc (SPP) and FastAndFurious (FAF) Inc. SPP focuses a lot on cost efficiencies while FAF tries to be more responsive to their customers. With these different high-level strategies, SPP has a supply chain policy that prohibits less than 80% FTL load to be shipped. FAF Inc. Doesn’t have such policies and their trucks often go half unutilized.

In this example, SPP will have lower inventory turns vs FAF Inc. By extension – SPP will have higher cycle stock than FAF due to a. Organizational Strategy b. Supply Chain design.

[Some professionals blindly assume that SPP is a better organization than FAF. We’ll discuss this in another article why it’s a wrong pre-assumption without proper assessment.]

In a nutshell, cycle stock seems to be the responsibility of SCM function. However, supply chain design which has set a lower bound on cycle stock, also depends on financial constraints and overall organizational strategy.

Safety Stock

Demand-supply fluctuations are the name of the game and safety stock is the secret weapon in the arsenal of the organization that can help maintain the desired service level despite these fluctuations. However, this weapon comes at a cost. And that cost is inventory in form of safety stock. Higher the target service level, higher is the safety stock you need that may or may not be used that leads to higher inventory. In fact, the service level is the only deciding factor in determining the safety stock.4

So who owns the safety stock?

Simple. Whoever decides on the service levels. In most cases, this is something that is defined by Strategy (since they define the market positioning of the organization) and Sales (as they back-feed the strategy on customer requirements). But it varies widely from organization to organization.

Hence, safety stock inventory component is something that should be owned by strategy or sales. (Or whosoever is taking call on the service level).

Other Miscellaneous Inventory

You’ll notice that even after accounting for cycle stock and safety stock, you’re left with unaccounted inventory. This is something that is often reported as “Excess Inventory”. It is a curious mix of different types of stock that ends up in excess inventory bucket.

Unsaleable Stock: This one is my personal favorite. It consists of all kinds of expired, damaged or otherwise unsaleable stock. The reason this is my favorite is that more often than not this represents a good percentage of overall inventory. And it’s relatively easy to get rid of – you have to simply write it off.

The expired products are due to over-forecasting, and that ownership needs to be shared between the businesses and the demand planning. Damages fall right on SCM and should hit their KPIs.

Interestingly, most of the organizations are aware of this bucket but they don’t want to do the write-offs. Why? Remember when we said at the beginning that inventory is treated like an asset on the balance sheet. Well, write-offs of this inventory, that could be valued millions of dollars on the balance sheet, forces the company to take a huge one-time loss that could be detrimental to its share prices.

This hesitation is natural since no CEO wants to take this dent on the share prices and on his/her bonuses. But keeping this bad stock not only reduces its salvage value but also eats up valuable warehousing space. So, a good SCD must always push for continuously identifying and reducing this unsaleable stock from their supply chains.

This problem was quite visible in the banking industry (Surprise! You can apply SCM concepts to the banking industry too!) in 2008-09 where banking behemoths refused to identify their own toxic assets leading to the biggest global meltdown the world had ever seen since the great depression.

Bonus question: What is “inventory” in banking context? Does EOQ formula hold any significance in such context? What does ‘quantity’ in Economic Order Quantity refers to?

QC Stock: The stock under quality check can be quite significant especially for high-value items or high-tech industry where the quality process can take several days. The ownership of this stock is with Quality, Manufacturing or procurement depending upon your organization. Being in QC doesn’t mean that this inventory can not be reduced. We’ll have an entire post detailing inventory reduction

Promotional Stock: Remember that promotion scheme when you gave out Boyfriend Pillow to your customers for free – when your customers looked long and hard at you wondering if they should be seen in the vicinity of your products; and where, even after six-months of trying to push it down the throat of unsuspecting customers, dealers, wholesalers and mortal enemies, there are still mountains of this abomination lying somewhere in the corner of your warehouse.Yeah, that one.

Dispose it off and put it on marketing’s account. Done.

Blocked Stock: All ERP systems offer stock blocking to prevent multiple sales commitments on the same stock. Once the stock is “blocked” it is unavailable for committing to another customer. However, this functionality is sometimes used to game the system to hoard the stock even for tentative sales. We’ll see various means by which this can be reduced but one thing is clear that the ownership of this inventory lies with the sales.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that high inventory can be a real big pain for the organizations as it locks up capital, occupies valuable warehousing space and chokes us the free movement of stock though the supply chain. Identification of its ownership goes a long way towards taking the corrective action because if you don’t know who owns it, you will never know how to fix it.

This ownership should be built directly into the KPIs to ensure that right action is taken at the right time.

Do you have something to ask or say about inventory ownership? Please let us know through your comments.


1 It is important to note that balance sheet inventory also includes raw material and WIP inventory. However, in the current article, we are focusing on FG inventory.

2 Hardcore SCDs might argue that the equation is other way round, where inventory turns is calculated from average inventory and COGS. Secondly, average inventory and cycle stock are two different things as former also includes safety stock and other misc inventory like returns, damaged good etc.

While these arguments are correct, in this article’s context we are looking at inventory turns more from a network capability viewpoint and not as a performance metric.

3 If your policies aren’t centered around overall supply chain design and organizational strategy, your supply chain goals will always be in conflict with the organizational goals. For e.g. If you claim to be a super-responsive pizza delivery chain, then your supply chain’s goal can’t be vehicle utilization. You’d have to be prepared for small orders that need to be delivered in 30 mins even if it means carrying one pizza in one van.

4 All other variables in safety stock calculation are not directly controllable e.g. demand variability, Lead Time etc.

As you expected, the meeting is a bloodbath – S&OP chair, with deep burrows on his face, points finger at supply chain, others join in. Supply chain, on the other hand, blames faulty forecasting numbers. Demand planning, in turn, blames the inputs especially the sales projections; and when confronted, sales talks about their top-down targets and narrate in vivid detail how they didn’t receive right marketing support and how Supply Chain didn’t ensure that inventory was at the right place at the right time, thus completing the full circle of shrugging the responsibility of inventory ownership.



The Myth called EOQ -by Supply Chain Detective

All you supply chain zombies (SCZs), who are now vying for the blood of the crackpot who wrote such a blasphemy as the title of this post, take a deep breath, cool down a bit and think back at the time when you last implemented the EOQ formula in its basic form. That is – NEVER.

Hmmm…and now that you are thinking about it, doesn’t it seem strange that one of the most popular supply chain concepts and most widely recognized formula that is literally taught on the first day of supply chain classes in college, is rarely used in the real world?

Well, there is a solid reason behind it. Rather, reasons behind how the real world considerations make our basic EOQ formula difficult to use in practical situations.

And you can too traverse this journey from Supply Chain Zombie to the supply chain detectives by understanding these factors and then tweaking the formulas to make it more suitable for your organization’s context.

But before you scram to your boss to make him salivate with your $545 million formula and start planning o spend that six figure bonus that he’ll shower on you, lets first clear up our basics about EOQ.

For the seasoned Supply Chain Detectives, who understand the basics of EOQ inside out – feel free to skip to the second part of this article. For the rest of us lesser mortals– read on.

The Basic EOQ Formula

While your soporific professor mumbled something about carrying costs and ordering costs in Supply Chain 101 you dozed off while doodling aliens and space rockets in your notebook. Well, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

EOQ stands for Economic Order Quantity. Well, what does it mean?

Everyday billions of individuals and millions of organizations across the globe buy stuff. For individuals, it varies from buying eggs, bread & butter to 8 iPhones for a Dog.  And for organizations, it varies from manufacturing raw materials to office supplies, and from toilet papers to million dollar office decorations.

But, unless you are a billionaire owner of that Apple Watch brandishing dog, those billions of individuals and millions of organization must decide on one crucial factor while buying stuff – How much?

It may be intuitive for us to make the decision of ‘how much’ in some simple situations. E.g. eggs – On one hand you don’t want to buy too few eggs to save you trips to the grocery store everyday, one the other hand you also don’t want to buy too many to risk rotting them. And by using this rationale you settle on something in between say 1 week’s worth of supply.

What you are essentially doing here is trying to find a balance between two opposite cost elements – cost of visiting the grocery store too frequently vs cost of overstocking it.

This is what EOQ tells you. It finds the right balance between the Ordering Cost (cost of placing one order. In our example cost of visiting the grocery store once) and Carrying Cost (cost of carrying the inventory – storage costs, cost of capital etc.) mathematically and tells you exactly how much to buy.

Essentially what you are trying to minimize is the total cost of owning something.

Total Cost = Ordering Cost + Carrying Cost — (1)

Let us look at both the components theoretically. Later in this article, we elaborate what actually constitutes ordering and carrying costs from the organization perspective. For now, we’ll stick to formulas.

Ordering Cost

Ordering Cost = Number of orders per year x Cost per order (K)

Number of orders per year = Annual demand (D) / Ordering Quantity (Q)

Carrying Cost

Carrying Cost = Average Inventory (in $) over the year x Inventory Carrying Costs (h)

Average Inventory (in units) = (Q/2)

Average Inventory (in dollar) = (Q/2) x c

[Because we are ordering Q units at a time and it uniformly depletes to zero as the inventory is consumed. Hence, the average inventory is (Q+0)/2]

Carrying Cost = ( Q/2) x c x h

Let’s put back these numbers in total cost equation (1)

Total Cost (TC) = [( D/Q) x K] + [(Q/2) x c x h]

Now do you see why we need to find a sweet-spot of ordering quantity to minimize total costs? No?

Alright, pay close attention to the Q in the above equation. In the first term Q is in the denominator. So when the ordering quantity Q decreases, the first term, Ordering Cost increases. Obviously.

However, in the second term, ordering quantity Q is in the numerator. So when Q decreases, the second term, carrying cost decreases. Obviously.

It is more obvious visually. Below, we have plotted the total cost for various ordering quantities (on the X- axis) and Total cost on Y-axis.

Download the workbook here.

As you can see Total Cost (TC), the purple line, first decreases and then increases with changing Q. Though it is hard to see but the minimum Total Cost occurs at around ordering quantity of 20 units.

Using equation 3 we can derive (see footnotes for a detailed derivation) the order quantity for which the total cost is minimum. Voila! This order quantity is called Economic Order Quantity or EOQ.

We can also put the relevant data that was used to create the graphs above:

D= 100 units per annum, K = $ 2 per order, c = $ 5 per unit and h= 20%

And Q= 20 units that confirms our graph. Hence, we should order 20 units at a time.

This also means that we’ll place 5 orders per year and our average inventory will be 10 units.

Theory is fine but…

Now that you have a solid understanding of the basic EOQ formula, the trick to using it – even the basic version – depends on understanding those variables in the corporate context.

Product Cost (c) : This is the most straightforward variable to find out. Do keep in mind though that we need product’s landed cost and not the price.

Annual Demand (D): Another easy one. Just head down to your forecasting department and ask them politely to give you the projections for the next year. In all probability, they’ll throw a dart at the dart board and give a number to you. If they don’t – come back to your desk and prepare a forecast yourself by using some simple algorithms. That’s another post for another day.

Inventory Carrying Cost (h): Ah! Now we enter into exciting and tricky stuff. The basic premise of inventory carrying cost is any cost that is associated with holding extra inventory on our books. This typically includes cost of capital, cost of holding in warehouse (storage, insurance etc.)

However, this is not an exhaustive list – we should incorporate any other cost or risk that is associated with holding that extra inventory. E.g. risk of obsolescence, risk of damages etc.

Typically inventory carrying costs are taken to be around 17%. But remember, higher cost of capital, increasing risk and dynamic business environment (e.g. risk of design changes frequently) push this number up.

We’ll talk more about these in the next part of this article.

Ordering Cost: How much your organization spends on placing one order. It sounds simple but it is somewhat tricky to calculate. We should only add those ordering cost components that are variable in nature. That is, those costs components that are incurred every time there is an order.

Cost of stationery – ordering cost

Cost of courier – ordering cost

Inspection costs at inbound – ordering cost

Salary of the ordering manager – not an ordering cost

The last one is not an ordering cost because it doesn’t change with the number of orders placed and hence doesn’t impact our EOQ. In a strict sense however, this cost is a step function. Let’s say that up to a certain number of orders 1 ordering manager can handle the work. But for a large increase in orders, you may have to hire more people.


Well, now that we have a proper handle on the basic EOQ formula, we are now ready to take on the real world. But wait! Didn’t we say in the beginning that real world can put a spanner in using this formula in the basic form?

Well, that’s what the next part of this article deals with. Now that you are thorough with the basics , get your Cuban cigars out and get ready to become a true Supply Chain Detective.


Q is Economic Order Quantity

D is Annual demand (in units)

K is Ordering Cost (in $) per order

c is Cost of the product (in $ per unit) and,

h is the inventory carrying cost (as %age of product cost, incurred annually)

In this post we’ll see why EOQ formula should be rarely used in its basic form. And even if you were to use it, you must at least be aware of the caveats and assumptions that have gone into it.

We’ll do that in two parts. First let us challenge some assumptions that we made earlier and then we’ll put in some real world complications that require us to tweak the formula or add in some layers of analysis before we start using the order quantity recommendations.

Assumption #1: Inventory Depletion is uniform

One of the major assumption while deriving the formula was uniform inventory consumption. And that is how we arrived at Q/2 as average inventory. However, this is seldom true. Rate of consumption changes from season to season, week to week and even day to day.

Solution: An ideal solution is to come up with a consumption curve (Inventory vs Time graph) and use it to calculate average inventory over time. However, this may involve doing an integral of a complex curve. If you want to be super-precise then that’d the way to go but there are more practical and easier approximations to this problem that will give you “good” solutions with a lot less effort.

Approximation: Rather than one continuous curve, we can break our time period into two or more sub-periods each having a simpler consumption pattern. For example,  a vast majority of FMCG organizations make most of their sales during the last week of the month. This could be a typical case of student syndrome where sales team is pushing to meet their monthly targets. [This takes a significant toll on supply chain infrastructure and many organizations struggle to manage these last week peaks. We will dedicate a separate post to this topic.]

So, let us say that 50% of the monthly demand is consumed in first three weeks while remaining 50% is consumed in last week itself. In other words, consumption rate during last week is thrice that of first three weeks. Over long-term1, the average inventory can be calculated to be 5Q/8. We leave it to the readers to derive this number. You may notice that this average inventory is higher than (Q/2) that we calculated earlier where the inventory depletion was uniform throughout. This makes sense as earlier we had consumed 75% of the monthly demand in 3 weeks whereas we have only consumed 50% in the current scenario, leaving us with slightly higher inventory.

If we put 5Q/8 as average inventory in Total cost equation:

We can derive modified EOQ as:

Similarly, now you can derive your own EOQ formula given any consumption rate or consumption pattern.

Assumption #2: Cost of the material is constant regardless of quantity

Remember when we wrote the total cost equation as

We deliberately didn’t consider one element of cost in the above equation which was buying cost. We ignored it because it wasn’t relevant as we were spending the same amount annually despite of ordering quantity.

However, this assumption doesn’t hold true especially when buying quantities are large. Suppliers often provide bulk discount options as they save on producing at a scale. In fact a typical supplier quote looks like this:







Price (per)

$ 5

$ 4.75

$ 4.5

$ 4.25

$ 4

As the quantity increases our buying cost decreases significantly. In fact supplier is willing to offer 20% discount if we buy more than 150 units of the product. But is it worth it?

Now, let us rewrite the total cost equation, this time around we’ll have to include the buying cost as it has become relevant.

The product price c* is now a function of Q –

c* = $ 5 per unit (for Q between 1-20)

c* = $ 4.5 per unit (for Q between 21 -50)

…and so on.


Graphical Solution

Let us recreate the chart that we made earlier. This time around, we have an additional line for buying cost.

Download the workbook HERE.

As you can see in the graph above, buying cost is a step-curve. Those “steps” represent the bulk-discounts that supplier has offered. We also see these “steps” in total cost curve (the thick blue line) since it includes the buying cost. You’ll notice that now it is not so easy visually to find the minimum cost point on the total cost curve.

I checked the table that was used to create the graph in the workbook, and it turns out that minimum total cost is $ 461.7 while buying 151 units. Note that this is different from our non-discounted EOQ number where we got the answer as 20 units.

How will you sell this to the CEO? You can’t show derived EOQs and complex graphs, right? Well, you can simply state the following – “Usually, we should only buy 20 units at a time which is roughly one month of supply, however this time around the supplier is giving 20% discount on bulk orders. Sure, this increases our inventory costs a bit but it’ll be more than compensated by the discount.”

Interestingly, the next lowest cost $ 470 occurs at 101 units. So, if your CEO still frowns at you for asking to buy huge inventories, you can always fall back on the second best solution, where incurring 9 dollars extra reduces your inventory from 150 to 100.

[The second best or even third best solution may be more acceptable in some cases. True – that absolute minimum occurs at 151 units but just paying additional 9 dollars we can mitigate some of the unaccounted risks that come along with the additional inventory. This is a typical problem with all kinds of optimization algorithms. They try to reduce the objective function to the absolute minimum, a phenomenon that we describe as chasing the pennies. This is sometimes not desired. And this is where multi-objective optimization comes handy. However, that is another discussion for some other day.]


Analytical Solution

Above, we arrived at the solution by looking at the graph and corresponding data but that’s not feasible especially when large quantities are involved or we don’t have access to spreadsheet software.

While there is no straightforward formula for EOQ with bulk discount because buying cost is a step-function and hence non-differentiable, we still have a step-by-step procedure that can help us arrive at the best quantity.

Step 1: Find normal EOQ for ALL buying costs

In our example, there are five different costs. While we are not showing the detailed calculation their corresponding EOQ values are shown below. Subscript represents the cost(in $ per unit):

EOQ5       = 20 units

EOQ4.75  = 20.5 units

EOQ4.5    = 21.1 units

EOQ4.25  = 21.7 units

EOQ4      = 22.3 units


[Bonus Question: Keeping all the other factors constant, why does EOQ increases as the cost per unit decreases?]

Step 2: Eliminate “Invalid” solutions

Some of the EOQ quantities doesn’t belong to the buying cost. Eliminate them.

EOQ5       = 20 units

EOQ4.75  = 20.5 units X

EOQ4.5    = 21.1 units X

EOQ4.25  = 21.7 units X

EOQ4      = 22.3 units X



Note: You may be left with none or more than one solutions.

Step 3: Calculate and compare total costs for all the valid EOQ solutions and buying qty break-points

Qty Type

Qty (units)

Total Cost ($)




Bulk Qty 1



Bulk Qty 2



Bulk Qty 3



Bulk Qty 4



Bulk Qty 5



Total minimum cost is at Qty 151 which is our answer.


Assumption#3: Inventory Carrying Costs are constant

As briefly touched upon in previous part of this article, inventory carrying cost consists of several components – cost of capital (typically the borrowing rate of your organization), cost of storage (Warehousing costs and salaries) and cost of servicing the inventory (insurance, damages, obsolescence). Though it is highly organization dependent, finding the exact value might be a tricky task. It is usually taken between 17% and 25% depending the nature of the inventory and opportunity cost of capital to the organization.

However, some of these variables are not constant and vary with the quantity of inventory kept in the organization. Couple of examples are below:

Insurance cost: Per unit insurance cost decreases as average inventory increases.

Risk of damages/obsolescence: Risk of damages and obsolescence increases as average inventory increases.


The solution requires some understanding of basic differentiation. If you don’t get it in the first attempt, don’t worry about it too much as we are now

Let us say that by some measure of analytics, one has arrived on a inventory carrying cost equation

Inventory Carrying Cost (h)= r + f(Q)

h = 20% + 2%* ((Q/D)*12)

Don’t get scared by the above equation. It simply states that inventory carrying cost is 20% plus 2% for addition of every month to order quantity. This 2% is attributed to the increasing risk because of incremental inventory. Hence for one month’s inventory, carrying cost = 22%, for two months its 24% and so on.

Putting this in the basic equation


Differentiating both sides by dQ

For min TC,

Simplifying the equation we get,

Replacing the variable values, D = 100 units, c = $ 5, K = $2

This is a cubic equation with three solutions for order quantity Q.

Q= 19.96, -6000, -20

We can reject the negative solutions. Hence, the EOQ for dynamic carrying cost is 19.96.

Note that this is slightly lower than our original solution of 20 units that considered fixed carrying cost of 20%. This seems logical as slight increase in carrying cost is reflected in decreased EOQ.


If you have reached this far, then CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve mastered the science behind ordering quantities and their trade-offs, you are now ready to take on any challenge that anyone in your organization can throw at you. Well, let me scratch that. You are almost ready.

There are some teeny-weeny complications that are often put to question your EOQ numbers. While some of those do not impact our EOQ too much, it is important to be aware of them to pave way for smooth implementation of your ideas. Part 3 of this article is dedicated to those complications and work-arounds.

[At this juncture, some of you might be feeling that we are splitting hairs on EOQ formula. Do yourself a favor and do a back of the envelope calculation on how much total cost changes just by changing the ordering quantity 2% on either side. Total cost swings a lot, even for tiny changes in the ordering quantity.]

Complication #1: Your EOQ is not your supplier’s EOQ
Alright, so you’ve created fancy versions of EOQ models, gathered data on ordering cost and carrying cost through hook or crook, done tons of calculations, and checked and rechecked your numbers. And to your delight, it looks perfect. Not only that, it seems that implementing new EOQ numbers will save a few million dollars for your company every year. But just when it seems that there is nothing between you and that Employee of the Year award, your order is rejected by…the supplier.

But why? Simple. Your order quantity might be the best thing that has ever happened to your organization, it is not feasible for the supplier to manufacture. Supplier has his own manufacturing processes, its own suppliers and his own optimal batch sizes, and the order quantity you are demanding isn’t financially viable for him. For example, remember when we calculated the EOQ of 20 in previous illustration earlier. But what if supplier’s batch run produces only 15 units at a time. This means that he’ll have to run two batches of production to produce 30 units and after fulfilling your “optimal” order of 20, sit on remaining 10 units waiting for your next order. The problem is even worse if his batch size is, say, 50 units.

Well, there are two ways out of the situation – the easy way, where you arm-twist the supplier to your will and push him to absorb the loss which is the most common practice in such situations but in long term results in supplier mistrust, higher inventory at the supplier, and maybe renegotiation of the whole contract.

The slightly difficult way –that will ensure more transparency, collaboration and even bigger savings than the EOQ formula – is called Joint EOQ formula.
[Also known as Joint Economic Lot Size (JELS) formula]

The underlying principle behind Joint EOQ is pretty simple as you might have guessed from its name – it tries to find an optimal EOQ for the supplier-buyer system considered as one. Imagine if supplier was part of your organization – in that case how would you calculate the optimal order quantitiy that needs to be produced.

Let us re-write our total cost equation

Total Cost = Ordering Cost (for both supplier and buyer)+ Carrying cost (for both supplier and buyer)
Where, D is annual demand
Q is the order quantity
Kb is the Ordering cost for the buyer
S is the set-up cost for the supplier
hb, hs Inventory carrying cost for buyer and supplier respectively
cb, cs purchasing cost for buyer and supplier respectively.
We repeat the same procedure of differentiating both the sides by dQ and solve for Q.

The beauty of this JELS quantity is that is leads to even lower cost than what buyer and supplier could have individually achieved. THAT is the power of collaboration right there.

Bonus question: What are the total savings for supplier and buyer combined by moving to JELS than their individual optimal quantities? What should be a fair split of benefits between them?
[For a detailed read on JELS you may want to read this famous paper. Please note that the notations used in the paper are slightly different.]

Complication #2: FTL ≠ EOQ
If you pay your logistics provide by the unit then don’t read further. You can merrily start implementing EOQs and punching those 1 unit orders.

However, if you pay your logistics provider by the trip or the route, you’d notice that EOQ quantities may lead to lower utilization of your vehicles. And since you pay for the whole vehicle whether it has one unit inside it or one hundred, you lose some money on every trip when you order EOQ.

First check whether there are “right-sized” vehicles available with your logistics service provider. Your ideal situation is where EOQ matches exactly with the vehicle capacity.

If EOQ doesn’t align with the vehicle capacity, compare the total cost between partially filled vehicle (LTL) and FTL vehicle. When vehicle is FTL you end up increasing your inventory. It might still be worthwhile to under-utilize the vehicle.

[There are modified EOQ models available where transportation costs are taken as a step function.]
Multi-product ordering : If the supplier deals in multiple products, explore an option to combine multiple products in the same order.

Supplier clustering and multi-pick ups: If there are other suppliers in the vicinity, you may want to club your other orders in the same vehicle. This can also be implemented at buyer’s end where multiple buyers of the same suppliers combine their orders for better efficiencies.

This strategy to maximize vehicle utilization, albeit without EOQ reasons, is quite a common practice for non-competing organizations. Best example, perhaps, is where Nirma sent its heavy detergent packets inside Sintex’s empty water tanks to maximize the vehicle utilization leading to the savings for both the organizations.

Vehicle utilization and idle time reduction is an area of prime focus for the organizations with lot of resources and effort going into improving it. Hence, there will be whole another post to discuss it in detail.

Complication #3: Warehouse Capacities
At times, especially when pushed by deep discounts from the suppliers, EOQ formula may recommend huge buys. However, warehouse capacities are not infinite and handling additional inventory may require additional manpower, equipment or space.

In such rare cases, it is useful to consider warehousing costs as increasing with inventory. This is something we tackled in part 2 where we considered inventory carrying costs to be a function of quantity.

Closing Remarks
Phew! That was a long read. But I hope that has you transformed from a Supply Chain Zombie (SCZ) who used to take orders from bosses and the clients to a Supply Chain Detective (SCD) who doesn’t rely on “thumb rules” and “common practices”.

In fact, the aim of this article wasn’t to cover each and every possible scenario in the book and churn out dozens of formulas but arm you with the thought process and the techniques to handle all sorts of complicated situations that might come your way. If I’ve succeeded in this attempt, do let us know through your comments.

Go ahead, now, change the world.


Procrastination or Executive Function Fail?

Musings of an Aspie

There’s a spot on my kitchen floor, a little cluster of dried reddish drips. I don’t know what it is. If it’s from 3 days ago, it’s tomato sauce. If it’s been there longer . . .  who knows.

I’ve walked past it dozens of times. I look at it. It annoys me. I wonder how it got there. I wish it would go away. It doesn’t occur to me that I can make that happen.

The greasy smudgey fingerprints on the cabinet that I can only see in exactly the right light? The 8-inch long thread that’s been hanging off the bathroom rug since the last vacuuming? The dryer sheet on the laundry room floor? Same thing.

What is this? Why can I sit here and catalog all of these little annoyances yet I still do nothing about them? It’s not like fixing them would take a huge amount…

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Are You Losing Money By Calculating Margins Wrong?

I spent time on Friday helping a client update spreadsheets and Excel reports that used an incorrect formula to calculate the margin on bids for construction jobs. While this particular client was looking for a margin of 25%, he was actually getting one closer to 20%. On a $100,000.00 bid, that can be the difference between profit and disaster.

I see sellers new to retailing make this same mistake over and over again.

The seller wants a “mark up” of 30%

So they take their cost (the wholesale price), multiply that by 30% and add the result to the wholesale cost to find the retail, or selling price.


You can certainly find a retail price that way, but it won’t give you a 30% margin. The confusion stems from

  1. Confusion about calculating percentages
  2. The difference between margins and mark ups


Although it is less important, let’s talk about mark up vs margin first.  Many people use these terms interchangeably to mean the difference between what you pay for goods and what you sell them for – that is, gross profit. However, they are not the same thing. Misunderstanding the nature of mark ups and margins can make it easier to calculate them incorrectly – which cuts deeply into your bottom line.

A margin is, most simply put, the percentage of the selling price that is the profit.

  • If you pay $6.00 for an item and you sell it for $10.00, you made a gross profit of $4.00.
  • $4.00 is 40% of $10.00 – so you have a margin of 40%
  • Notice this important distinction- the 40% margin is 40% of the final selling price, not of the wholesale cost.

A mark up is the percent of the cost you add to the wholesale price to get to the selling price.

  • If you pay the same $6.00 and sell the item with a 40% mark up, you make a gross profit of only $2.40
  • 40% of $6.00 is just $2.40
  • A mark up of x% will yield a smaller profit than a margin of x% because the mark up is a percentage of the lower wholesale cost.


Many people say “mark up” when they mean “margin.” If you are fussy about language, this is annoying but it will not lead to financial disaster. It’s just words.

However, if you’ve confused the two concepts and are calculating your margins by mutliplying the wholesale cost by the margin percentage, you could be headed for trouble.

Just remember – you want to calculate your profit as a percentage of the final value, not as a percentage of the original cost. When a customer hands you $10.00, you need to know how much goes into your pocket and how much goes to your vendor.

Do you need a 40% profit margin to survive? Then you want to keep $4 out of every $10.

Also keep in mind that this is a gross profit margin. It does not take into account overhead, fees, etc. You may put $4 into your pocket, then have to turn around and give $1.00 to the landlord, 75¢ to the tax man, 15¢ to the bank for processing fees, etc.

You might end up keeping only $1.50 (net profit) of the original $4.00 (gross profit). Which is why calculating your margin by incorrectly using the wholesale price can be such a disaster. You can actually lose money with every sale!


Now that you know you want your margin to be a percentage of the final cost, how do you actually figure it out?

Relax – as long as you have a calculator handy, it is easy.

Say you want a 40% margin. We know that 100% less 40% leaves 60%. So your wholesale cost represents 60% of the final value. To find the remaining 40%, divide the wholesale cost by .6

  • If  you want a 90% margin – divide the wholesale cost by .1
  • If  you want a 80% margin – divide the wholesale cost by .2
  • If  you want a 70% margin – divide the wholesale cost by .3
  • If  you want a 60% margin – divide the wholesale cost by .4
  • If  you want a 50% margin – divide the wholesale cost by .5
  • If  you want a 40% margin – divide the wholesale cost by .6
  • If you want a 30% margin – divide the wholesale cost by .7
  • If you want a 20% margin – divide the wholesale cost by .8
  • If  you want a 10% margin – divide the wholesale cost by .9

As long as you follow this formula for calculating retail price, you will get the margin you want.

What makes an effective executive? – by Peter Drucker

An effective executive does not need to be a leader in the sense that the term is now most commonly used. Harry Truman did not have one ounce of charisma, for example, yet he was among the most effective chief executives in U.S. history. Similarly, some of the best business and nonprofit CEOs I’ve worked with over a 65-year consulting career were not stereotypical leaders. They were all over the map in terms of their personalities, attitudes, values, strengths, and weaknesses. They ranged from extroverted to nearly reclusive, from easygoing to controlling, from generous to parsimonious.

What made them all effective is that they followed the same eight practices:

  • They asked, “What needs to be done?”
  • They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?”
  • They developed action plans.
  • They took responsibility for decisions.
  • They took responsibility for communicating.
  • They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.
  • They ran productive meetings.
  • They thought and said “we” rather than “I.”

The first two practices gave them the knowledge they needed. The next four helped them convert this knowledge into effective action. The last two ensured that the whole organization felt responsible and accountable.

Get the Knowledge You Need

The first practice is to ask what needs to be done. Note that the question is not “What do I want to do?” Asking what has to be done, and taking the question seriously, is crucial for managerial success. Failure to ask this question will render even the ablest executive ineffectual.

Asking what has to be done, and taking the question seriously, is crucial for managerial success.

When Truman became president in 1945, he knew exactly what he wanted to do: complete the economic and social reforms of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which had been deferred by World War II. As soon as he asked what needed to be done, though, Truman realized that foreign affairs had absolute priority. He organized his working day so that it began with tutorials on foreign policy by the secretaries of state and defense. As a result, he became the most effective president in foreign affairs the United States has ever known. He contained Communism in both Europe and Asia and, with the Marshall Plan, triggered 50 years of worldwide economic growth.

Similarly, Jack Welch realized that what needed to be done at General Electric when he took over as chief executive was not the overseas expansion he wanted to launch. It was getting rid of GE businesses that, no matter how profitable, could not be number one or number two in their industries.

The answer to the question “What needs to be done?” almost always contains more than one urgent task. But effective executives do not splinter themselves. They concentrate on one task if at all possible. If they are among those people—a sizable minority—who work best with a change of pace in their working day, they pick two tasks. I have never encountered an executive who remains effective while tackling more than two tasks at a time. Hence, after asking what needs to be done, the effective executive sets priorities and sticks to them. For a CEO, the priority task might be redefining the company’s mission. For a unit head, it might be redefining the unit’s relationship with headquarters. Other tasks, no matter how important or appealing, are postponed. However, after completing the original top-priority task, the executive resets priorities rather than moving on to number two from the original list. He asks, “What must be done now?” This generally results in new and different priorities.

To refer again to America’s best-known CEO: Every five years, according to his autobiography, Jack Welch asked himself, “What needs to be done now?” And every time, he came up with a new and different priority.

But Welch also thought through another issue before deciding where to concentrate his efforts for the next five years. He asked himself which of the two or three tasks at the top of the list he himself was best suited to undertake. Then he concentrated on that task; the others he delegated. Effective executives try to focus on jobs they’ll do especially well. They know that enterprises perform if top management performs—and don’t if it doesn’t.

Effective executives’ second practice—fully as important as the first—is to ask, “Is this the right thing for the enterprise?” They do not ask if it’s right for the owners, the stock price, the employees, or the executives. Of course they know that shareholders, employees, and executives are important constituencies who have to support a decision, or at least acquiesce in it, if the choice is to be effective. They know that the share price is important not only for the shareholders but also for the enterprise, since the price/earnings ratio sets the cost of capital. But they also know that a decision that isn’t right for the enterprise will ultimately not be right for any of the stakeholders.

This second practice is especially important for executives at family owned or family run businesses—the majority of businesses in every country—particularly when they’re making decisions about people. In the successful family company, a relative is promoted only if he or she is measurably superior to all nonrelatives on the same level. At DuPont, for instance, all top managers (except the controller and lawyer) were family members in the early years when the firm was run as a family business. All male descendants of the founders were entitled to entry-level jobs at the company. Beyond the entrance level, a family member got a promotion only if a panel composed primarily of nonfamily managers judged the person to be superior in ability and performance to all other employees at the same level. The same rule was observed for a century in the highly successful British family business J. Lyons & Company (now part of a major conglomerate) when it dominated the British food-service and hotel industries.

Asking “What is right for the enterprise?” does not guarantee that the right decision will be made. Even the most brilliant executive is human and thus prone to mistakes and prejudices. But failure to ask the question virtually guarantees the wrong decision.

Write an Action Plan

Executives are doers; they execute. Knowledge is useless to executives until it has been translated into deeds. But before springing into action, the executive needs to plan his course. He needs to think about desired results, probable restraints, future revisions, check-in points, and implications for how he’ll spend his time.

First, the executive defines desired results by asking: “What contributions should the enterprise expect from me over the next 18 months to two years? What results will I commit to? With what deadlines?” Then he considers the restraints on action: “Is this course of action ethical? Is it acceptable within the organization? Is it legal? Is it compatible with the mission, values, and policies of the organization?” Affirmative answers don’t guarantee that the action will be effective. But violating these restraints is certain to make it both wrong and ineffectual.

The action plan is a statement of intentions rather than a commitment. It must not become a straitjacket. It should be revised often, because every success creates new opportunities. So does every failure. The same is true for changes in the business environment, in the market, and especially in people within the enterprise—all these changes demand that the plan be revised. A written plan should anticipate the need for flexibility.

In addition, the action plan needs to create a system for checking the results against the expectations. Effective executives usually build two such checks into their action plans. The first check comes halfway through the plan’s time period; for example, at nine months. The second occurs at the end, before the next action plan is drawn up.

Finally, the action plan has to become the basis for the executive’s time management. Time is an executive’s scarcest and most precious resource. And organizations—whether government agencies, businesses, or nonprofits—are inherently time wasters. The action plan will prove useless unless it’s allowed to determine how the executive spends his or her time.

Napoleon allegedly said that no successful battle ever followed its plan. Yet Napoleon also planned every one of his battles, far more meticulously than any earlier general had done. Without an action plan, the executive becomes a prisoner of events. And without check-ins to reexamine the plan as events unfold, the executive has no way of knowing which events really matter and which are only noise.


When they translate plans into action, executives need to pay particular attention to decision making, communication, opportunities (as opposed to problems), and meetings. I’ll consider these one at a time.

Take responsibility for decisions.

A decision has not been made until people know:

  • the name of the person accountable for carrying it out;
  • the deadline;
  • the names of the people who will be affected by the decision and therefore have to know about, understand, and approve it—or at least not be strongly opposed to it—and
  • the names of the people who have to be informed of the decision, even if they are not directly affected by it.

An extraordinary number of organizational decisions run into trouble because these bases aren’t covered. One of my clients, 30 years ago, lost its leadership position in the fast-growing Japanese market because the company, after deciding to enter into a joint venture with a new Japanese partner, never made clear who was to inform the purchasing agents that the partner defined its specifications in meters and kilograms rather than feet and pounds—and nobody ever did relay that information.

It’s just as important to review decisions periodically—at a time that’s been agreed on in advance—as it is to make them carefully in the first place. That way, a poor decision can be corrected before it does real damage. These reviews can cover anything from the results to the assumptions underlying the decision.

Such a review is especially important for the most crucial and most difficult of all decisions, the ones about hiring or promoting people. Studies of decisions about people show that only one-third of such choices turn out to be truly successful. One-third are likely to be draws—neither successes nor outright failures. And one-third are failures, pure and simple. Effective executives know this and check up (six to nine months later) on the results of their people decisions. If they find that a decision has not had the desired results, they don’t conclude that the person has not performed. They conclude, instead, that they themselves made a mistake. In a well-managed enterprise, it is understood that people who fail in a new job, especially after a promotion, may not be the ones to blame.

Executives also owe it to the organization and to their fellow workers not to tolerate nonperforming individuals in important jobs. It may not be the employees’ fault that they are underperforming, but even so, they have to be removed. People who have failed in a new job should be given the choice to go back to a job at their former level and salary. This option is rarely exercised; such people, as a rule, leave voluntarily, at least when their employers are U.S. firms. But the very existence of the option can have a powerful effect, encouraging people to leave safe, comfortable jobs and take risky new assignments. The organization’s performance depends on employees’ willingness to take such chances.

Executives owe it to the organization and their fellow workers not to tolerate nonperforming people in important jobs.

A systematic decision review can be a powerful tool for self-development, too. Checking the results of a decision against its expectations shows executives what their strengths are, where they need to improve, and where they lack knowledge or information. It shows them their biases. Very often it shows them that their decisions didn’t produce results because they didn’t put the right people on the job. Allocating the best people to the right positions is a crucial, tough job that many executives slight, in part because the best people are already too busy. Systematic decision review also shows executives their own weaknesses, particularly the areas in which they are simply incompetent. In these areas, smart executives don’t make decisions or take actions. They delegate. Everyone has such areas; there’s no such thing as a universal executive genius.

In areas where they are simply incompetent, smart executives don’t make decisions or take actions. They delegate. Everyone has such areas.

Most discussions of decision making assume that only senior executives make decisions or that only senior executives’ decisions matter. This is a dangerous mistake. Decisions are made at every level of the organization, beginning with individual professional contributors and frontline supervisors. These apparently low-level decisions are extremely important in a knowledge-based organization. Knowledge workers are supposed to know more about their areas of specialization—for example, tax accounting—than anybody else, so their decisions are likely to have an impact throughout the company. Making good decisions is a crucial skill at every level. It needs to be taught explicitly to everyone in organizations that are based on knowledge.

Take responsibility for communicating.

Effective executives make sure that both their action plans and their information needs are understood. Specifically, this means that they share their plans with and ask for comments from all their colleagues—superiors, subordinates, and peers. At the same time, they let each person know what information they’ll need to get the job done. The information flow from subordinate to boss is usually what gets the most attention. But executives need to pay equal attention to peers’ and superiors’ information needs.

We all know, thanks to Chester Barnard’s 1938 classic The Functions of the Executive, that organizations are held together by information rather than by ownership or command. Still, far too many executives behave as if information and its flow were the job of the information specialist—for example, the accountant. As a result, they get an enormous amount of data they do not need and cannot use, but little of the information they do need. The best way around this problem is for each executive to identify the information he needs, ask for it, and keep pushing until he gets it.

Focus on opportunities.

Good executives focus on opportunities rather than problems. Problems have to be taken care of, of course; they must not be swept under the rug. But problem solving, however necessary, does not produce results. It prevents damage. Exploiting opportunities produces results.

Above all, effective executives treat change as an opportunity rather than a threat. They systematically look at changes, inside and outside the corporation, and ask, “How can we exploit this change as an opportunity for our enterprise?” Specifically, executives scan these seven situations for opportunities:

  • an unexpected success or failure in their own enterprise, in a competing enterprise, or in the industry;
  • a gap between what is and what could be in a market, process, product, or service (for example, in the nineteenth century, the paper industry concentrated on the 10% of each tree that became wood pulp and totally neglected the possibilities in the remaining 90%, which became waste);
  • innovation in a process, product, or service, whether inside or outside the enterprise or its industry;
  • changes in industry structure and market structure;
  • demographics;
  • changes in mind-set, values, perception, mood, or meaning; and
  • new knowledge or a new technology.

Effective executives also make sure that problems do not overwhelm opportunities. In most companies, the first page of the monthly management report lists key problems. It’s far wiser to list opportunities on the first page and leave problems for the second page. Unless there is a true catastrophe, problems are not discussed in management meetings until opportunities have been analyzed and properly dealt with.

Staffing is another important aspect of being opportunity focused. Effective executives put their best people on opportunities rather than on problems. One way to staff for opportunities is to ask each member of the management group to prepare two lists every six months—a list of opportunities for the entire enterprise and a list of the best-performing people throughout the enterprise. These are discussed, then melded into two master lists, and the best people are matched with the best opportunities. In Japan, by the way, this matchup is considered a major HR task in a big corporation or government department; that practice is one of the key strengths of Japanese business.

Make meetings productive.

The most visible, powerful, and, arguably, effective nongovernmental executive in the America of World War II and the years thereafter was not a businessman. It was Francis Cardinal Spellman, the head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and adviser to several U.S. presidents. When Spellman took over, the diocese was bankrupt and totally demoralized. His successor inherited the leadership position in the American Catholic church. Spellman often said that during his waking hours he was alone only twice each day, for 25 minutes each time: when he said Mass in his private chapel after getting up in the morning and when he said his evening prayers before going to bed. Otherwise he was always with people in a meeting, starting at breakfast with one Catholic organization and ending at dinner with another.

Top executives aren’t quite as imprisoned as the archbishop of a major Catholic diocese. But every study of the executive workday has found that even junior executives and professionals are with other people—that is, in a meeting of some sort—more than half of every business day. The only exceptions are a few senior researchers. Even a conversation with only one other person is a meeting. Hence, if they are to be effective, executives must make meetings productive. They must make sure that meetings are work sessions rather than bull sessions.

The key to running an effective meeting is to decide in advance what kind of meeting it will be. Different kinds of meetings require different forms of preparation and different results:

A meeting to prepare a statement, an announcement, or a press release.

For this to be productive, one member has to prepare a draft beforehand. At the meeting’s end, a preappointed member has to take responsibility for disseminating the final text.

A meeting to make an announcement—for example, an organizational change.

This meeting should be confined to the announcement and a discussion about it.

A meeting in which one member reports.

Nothing but the report should be discussed.

A meeting in which several or all members report.

Either there should be no discussion at all or the discussion should be limited to questions for clarification. Alternatively, for each report there could be a short discussion in which all participants may ask questions. If this is the format, the reports should be distributed to all participants well before the meeting. At this kind of meeting, each report should be limited to a preset time—for example, 15 minutes.

A meeting to inform the convening executive.

The executive should listen and ask questions. He or she should sum up but not make a presentation.

A meeting whose only function is to allow the participants to be in the executive’s presence.

Cardinal Spellman’s breakfast and dinner meetings were of that kind. There is no way to make these meetings productive. They are the penalties of rank. Senior executives are effective to the extent to which they can prevent such meetings from encroaching on their workdays. Spellman, for instance, was effective in large part because he confined such meetings to breakfast and dinner and kept the rest of his working day free of them.

Making a meeting productive takes a good deal of self-discipline. It requires that executives determine what kind of meeting is appropriate and then stick to that format. It’s also necessary to terminate the meeting as soon as its specific purpose has been accomplished. Good executives don’t raise another matter for discussion. They sum up and adjourn.

Good follow-up is just as important as the meeting itself. The great master of follow-up was Alfred Sloan, the most effective business executive I have ever known. Sloan, who headed General Motors from the 1920s until the 1950s, spent most of his six working days a week in meetings—three days a week in formal committee meetings with a set membership, the other three days in ad hoc meetings with individual GM executives or with a small group of executives. At the beginning of a formal meeting, Sloan announced the meeting’s purpose. He then listened. He never took notes and he rarely spoke except to clarify a confusing point. At the end he summed up, thanked the participants, and left. Then he immediately wrote a short memo addressed to one attendee of the meeting. In that note, he summarized the discussion and its conclusions and spelled out any work assignment decided upon in the meeting (including a decision to hold another meeting on the subject or to study an issue). He specified the deadline and the executive who was to be accountable for the assignment. He sent a copy of the memo to everyone who’d been present at the meeting. It was through these memos—each a small masterpiece—that Sloan made himself into an outstandingly effective executive.

Effective executives know that any given meeting is either productive or a total waste of time.

Think and Say “We”

The final practice is this: Don’t think or say “I.” Think and say “we.” Effective executives know that they have ultimate responsibility, which can be neither shared nor delegated. But they have authority only because they have the trust of the organization. This means that they think of the needs and the opportunities of the organization before they think of their own needs and opportunities. This one may sound simple; it isn’t, but it needs to be strictly observed.

We’ve just reviewed eight practices of effective executives. I’m going to throw in one final, bonus practice. This one’s so important that I’ll elevate it to the level of a rule:Listen first, speak last.

Effective executives differ widely in their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, values, and beliefs. All they have in common is that they get the right things done. Some are born effective. But the demand is much too great to be satisfied by extraordinary talent. Effectiveness is a discipline. And, like every discipline, effectiveness can be learned and must be earned.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Peter F. Drucker (November 19, 1909 – November 11, 2005) was an Austrian-born American management consultant, educator, and author whose writings contributed to the philosophical and practical foundations of the modern business corporation. He was also a leader in the development of management education, he invented the concept known as management by objectives, and he has been described as “the founder of modern management.”

Leaders Don’t Manage Time, They Manage Choices

This is an article I liked and found valuable on Psychology Today. The link to the original article is here.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve looked at the four behaviors that differentiate a functional manager from a true leader.  As you know, I refer to these behaviors as the “Phenomenal Four,” which include:

  • Cultivating Reflective Silence
  • Capturing Meaningful Stories
  • Reinforcing What’s Important
  • Posing Curious Questions

If you haven’t had a chance to read the first two entries in this series, I recommendstarting here, then reading this.

Today, we are going to examine the third behavior: Reinforcing What’s Important.

In its most basic form, reinforcing what’s important is about ensuring you are working on the most important things each day. This behavior may seem ordinary, cliché in fact.  However, I would caution you not to dismiss it as just another tip for time management.

This third behavior, in all of its supposed simplicity, may be the most powerful out of the four in distinguishing a functional manager from a leader.

Let’s dive in.

The Truth About Time Management

In the last year, I (like many people) read Marie Kondo’s charming book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  One thing that struck me was her conviction that before you can begin to organize your possessions you must first cull through them and purge what does not bring you joy.

Ms. Kondo notes that most people skip this purge and go straight to organizing, assuming that they are happy with everything they have.  However, over time organizing becomes harder and harder the more things you accumulate.

To me, this is exactly what is wrong with traditional approaches to time management.

Instead of starting the process from a place of deciding what is important, we assume the worthiness of all our existing commitments, responsibilities, and activities and focus exclusively on how to fit them all together into our waking hours.  Over time, this challenge becomes greater and greater, and pretty soon our efforts to “manage” time become akin to efforts to “manage” clutter: futile.

This is why I say leaders don’t manage time, they manage choices.  They constantly try to stay attune to what is important in their life (what brings them “joy,” as Ms. Kondo says) and make decisions on a daily, sometimes hourly basis based on it.

While managers struggle to fit everything into a day, a leader is willing to purge, delegate, or just say no to anything that isn’t truly important.

The ability to reinforce what is important, and exert energy in accordance with what is important, is what makes this third behavior so powerful.

The Third Behavior: Reinforcing What’s Important

The behavior of reinforcing what’s important is about giving yourself a moment each day to see both the big picture and the little pieces at the same time so you can act accordingly.

This means taking five minutes at the beginning or end of the day to review your list of big picture goals, and then reviewing your daily action plan to ensure you’re working on the most important things related to your larger goals.

I have found this to be an invaluable strategy for helping me to stay above the urgent-not-important things that bombard leaders every day.  It is also a great way to keep those seemingly productive time sucks (i.e. email, social media) in their proper place.

Personally, I review my lists at both the start and end of the work day. It’s always satisfying to strike through an action or two or three or more. Over time, I realized that when I took care of the important items, my work really progressed. I finished that webinar design. I published that blog. I got that meeting scheduled where a decision had to be made.

I also noticed that when I did the items that were the least pleasant, progress was faster. What was it about those items? They were the ones I was avoiding because they had implications, and as a result were important. Avoidance was coming out of my fear that they would not produce the right implications. What was I afraid of? Today, as I look at the list either in the morning when I am determining which are the most important or at the end of the day when I am considering the accomplishments of the day, I’m conscious of what avoidance means. It tells me exactly which are the most important.

This week, challenge yourself to reinforce what is important by keeping a list of long-term goals alongside your daily action list, and check it at least once a day. Tell me about how this behavior is working for you here or on Twitter: @madelynblair!

Next week, we will explore the final Phenomenal Four behavior: Posing Curious Questions!