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Why Visualizing Data Makes All The Difference

By Dennis Donelon|

Within the customer service supply chain, businesses must answer questions from external and internal customers and partners. Understandably, there is significant pressure to perform and to provide accurate, effective, and quick responses.

The aim is simple: to make the customer’s job as easy as possible for them to be successful. Many customers do not let the salespeople even begin their meetings until there is a resolution to a major service or supply issue. Reacting rapidly is important as businesses can experience setbacks that can be frustrating and demoralizing. Maintaining and sustaining a good rapport with external customers allows for all-important trust. 

In my career, across the teams I led, we always made customers feel they could depend on us: reliability is key. Our customers, such as Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Target, entrusted us with the responsibility to help them manage their inventory supply between our warehouses, their warehouses, and stores. If you effectively do that, they will lean in and support your brands on the front pages of their advertisements, placing as a major promotion in their stores or pinging you to the top of the page on the consumer’s cell phones. If you fail to have a trustworthy relationship with your customer, they’ll simply pick your competition. 

I remember a meeting with Target where we were discussing long-term strategies and collaboration. A question came up about our on-time delivery and overall performance with them. As my director was responding to their question, I pulled the dashboard up we had for Target and I showed their performance across all our carriers from all of our DCs and to all of theirs. His jaw dropped; he was shocked at how much information I had at my fingertips. This changed their perspective of us as a supplier and elevated us in their eyes. It showed we cared and wanted to be more engaged with them.

Motivate Your Team

Always make sure to keep your team motivated and absorbed. This enables you to recruit talent and be attractive to potential new team members. The challenge is to meet in the middle across departments, ensuring that their interests are equally addressed, and to keep the flow of goods and information seamless for all parties. In this day and age, a technology solution is the only answer. My team at PepsiCo had direct access to SAP for customer-specific data, but not direct access to our central data warehouse. Working with our partners in IT, we gained direct access to the central database, which provided us with access to key data points and metrics utilized by our peers in Transportation, Warehousing, Supply Planning, Demand Planning, Sales, Finance, and Manufacturing.  This new access enabled us to create dashboards that provided quick access and insights into key customer metrics and provide accurate responses to the questions we received from our customers and internal business partners. 

Before these dashboards were created, the team dealt with over 60 different distribution centers and over 30 different manufacturing points. This made it difficult to track key customer metrics or aggregate a national perspective on service results for customers such as Walmart and Kroger, who were serviced by virtually every DC and Plant in our network. Leveraging data visualization and process automation tools enabled us to dramatically improve our internal processes, which had a direct impact on the engagement and world-class capabilities of the entire Customer Service Team.

Solutions through Communication

A solution can always be found by healthy communication, and by working with IT partners and collaborating with our partners across different departments. We first started by trying to improve two simple metrics: in-full and on-time. We focussed on these metrics from the very beginning, as they were the areas our key customers focused on every day. Working with our internal partners, we accessed the relevant data sources and started to visualize and automate the flow of information. We were able to look at the big picture in much more granular detail: daily, weekly, period, quarter, and annual time frames. This meant you could see exactly where your issues were, how long they were occurring, and then drill down to better understand them and solve them. It was always a  collaborative effort; we realized that finding better capabilities for leveraging this data source would provide us with a huge advantage. 

Our initial dashboards experienced speed issues, which was an early barrier to acceptance of this new capability by respective team members. As with any change effort, early adoption requires acknowledgment that the new solution is good and dependable. If it isn’t, individuals will become frustrated and revert to old habits. To solve this we realized that we needed to use the central repository to do the calculations and manipulate the data, before publishing the respective dashboards. Leveraging the central data repository meant that when we did make the transition to a software-based solution it would be an infinitely smoother process.

There were many other systems we were using at the time at PepsiCo. By collaborating and working with our respective functional partners we ensured that we utilized the precise data sets they were pulling, ensuring accuracy and alignment. This wasn’t guesswork; it was working as a team collaborating cross-functionally to try and automate and improve the processes. This built up trust because the respective functions were more likely to trust what our dashboards were showing all of us. After all, we were going to the same data source. This gave us more visibility as to what the other teams were doing. As a result, this led to some issues early on where my peer in supply planning was upset that we were showing a fill rate on a Gatorade product that was less than what his team was reporting. We had supply challenges on Gatorade at the time, we were selling too much of it (it’s a good problem to have!). Our fill rate was 95.2%, by our calculations, their team said it was 95.3%. 

My peer analyzed it and realized our metric was more accurate and complete. Their team was including closeout sales, which is a damaged product that we sell to other specialty companies at a significantly reduced price. Of course, those aren’t real customers, so their metric was inflated by a 10th of a point. My peer acknowledged it in a meeting; agreeing that what we were doing was right, effective and he wanted his team to embrace our work. This won them over. This was a huge leap in trust-building, working with his team, working with their data, and not trying to reinvent processes and calculations but refining them. 

Building a Business Case

In my case, I had a large team with a large budget and the business case was private to my department. This harps back to how I eliminate the frustration that the team was experiencing while at the same time, improve the ability of the team to perform their role as a customer service leader for customers. If I wind the clock back when we did our SAP journey, we knew after the first year or two, we needed a better way to manage the data that SAP had to bring forward to the organization. There was another initiative that was kicked off and they had spent millions of dollars trying to develop dashboards that were similar to what was ultimately developed. However, there were issues with the acceptance of those dashboards.

The technology wasn’t there at the time to help us take all the data that we wanted to look at and be able to see multiple years, quarters, periods, weeks, and days at one time. We were restricted to 13 weeks and this made it highly myopic. Considering how much we spent, the effort that went into that, and knowing the frustrations that other departments had for managing data, we had to learn how to manipulate reporting better.

Fortunately, I had a benchmark to judge against. When I started my effort with our initiative, it cost us $5,000 to get two developer licenses and five other viewer licenses. It was a small amount of money and we were using a cloud solution. I didn’t have to go out and get any hardware, a new server, or any of that sort. My team and I were able to learn as we went along at reasonable expense for those first six months. The team taught themselves and were motivated to drive this operation forward. The business case for me was those needs that formed a catalyst for change. That was a powerful tool for convincing the doubters of dashboards. It is all about the P&L and we were saving, spending nowhere near the amount as were before. No one could argue with this change. Over the next two and a half years, we spent a total of a quarter of a million dollars solving problems that the original initiative could not have carried out in terms of reporting, visibility, and access to information.

The simple answer was I didn’t even go and ask permission to do what I did. My team and I made decisions based on what we were empowered to do, knowing that what we were doing was far better than the other money that had been invested. We also knew in the long-term, there would be the need to enhance and expand the capacity and work that we were doing. Ultimately the business case for moving forward kept building on the success of the past. And it was about two years into it when we realized that there was a server that had been dedicated for this software that finance had used with a consulting company that was being underutilized. Once we got access alongside our IT partners, that was when we witnessed incredible growth.

Data-Driven Facts vs Tribal Knowledge

Tribal knowledge is always going to be important as you need to understand what you’re looking at from the heaps of data. I remember many times during this journey, as people were bringing forward dashboards, I was able to help them identify that even if the dashboard looked beautiful and the information was calculated perfectly but there needs to be proper scrutiny to know the data was wrong. That it was incomplete that something was missing. Therefore, tribal knowledge will always be important for this journey. But don’t depend too much on tribal knowledge or it becomes a crutch and it leads to distrust.

In the absence of facts, people like their own opinions. So the aim is to make sure you can leverage the facts. Present the facts that lead to better decision-making. The more you’re able to bring the facts to the forefront, glean the insights, the greater the acceptance will be across the board. Then you can truly capture the opportunity to progress.

Data Geek in the 1980s

I think back to even my first days on the job and when I first started with the company back in 1983 and had 125 grocery stores. We had these things called SAMI reports – Sales Area Marketing Information. I used to get hard copies mailed to me, I was a data geek even back then, always trying to better understand information. However, I was up against it as I was new to a sales team where the average person had 25 years of experience with tribal knowledge. Studying and sifting through the available data allowed me to catch up. It allowed me to understand what were the sales trends over the last five years. Back then, that was the timeframe of information available on hard copy. 

Technology and automation are making it unnecessary for people to remember past figures and stats and all that occurred within the business. Tribal knowledge is important but it’s not something that you want to lean on. As powerful as technology is, it too can be a crutch. We need to be mindful and sustain human relationships. You can’t have people just staring at screens. You have to think about what we’ve learned over the last 18 months with this pandemic. Technology allows me to be in Chicago, on a call with a guy in Dublin and another in Amsterdam for a business conversation. This is the beauty of technology, but long term, it can’t just depend on Zoom calls. At some point, it’s got to be much more, three-dimensional and experiential. Tribal knowledge and automation, past and future, have to be hand in glove.

Retention Strength

During one of the polar vortexes, I was getting texts on my cell phone, instant messaging through my desktop, emails, on conference calls. People were worried about the service levels to their different customers. It was using the dashboards we had created early on. I was able to effectively snuff out a forest fire that was being created because people were worried that we were cutting 35% of our product to some key customers. And that’s a big number. A 35% cut-rate would be disastrous for many people. I was able to show people where there was one customer’s order that was cut 35% on one item. That item had a hundred cases ordered out of 2000 total cases. So yes, that item was going to be cut 35%, but the overall fill rate for the order, on the system where we were up about 97%. And this was what we projected during that particular period.

This process allowed us to quickly find out something that would have taken hours, days, a week to turn around people’s attitudes about the reality of the situation. Obstacles appear when people don’t trust something. Doubters demand information and you have to be prepared with the facts and figures to back yourself up.

I have an example that has always stuck with me. I was congratulating a young man for the dashboards he’d developed for our VMI system, our vendor-managed inventory process. We had about 30+ people working on this. Several customers required a lot of time. Every Monday, every one of those people would come in and have to manually pull information out of customer systems and our VMI system to create spreadsheets and generate a forecast of what that customer would be required to have for inventory and orders for the next 7-10 days.

That’s on top of all the phone calls and all the emails and all the other things that they might be walking into if our service had any issues the week before for the same customers. This became a stressful endeavor as you want to do a good job. You want to do an effective job and you don’t want to be seen as incompetent in the eyes of your peers or customers. This gentleman created a dashboard that automated all of that information. And when he did it, he designed it in a way that it automated for everyone else that did the same process. Everyone was pulling data from the same data center. When I was commending him for his work, my instinct was to promote him to manage more of these dashboards to help us push this capability elsewhere. His response was an epiphany for me. He said that he loves creating these dashboards, using this technology, but he wanted to keep doing the VMI job because he was enjoying it so much more and always learning. That was the light bulb. Not only did he benefit from that, but every one of those other 30+ people that were doing the same work benefited as well. The customer benefited from it because not everybody in that process was doing it consistently. Not everybody was doing it effectively. Not everybody was doing it accurately automatically. His work raised the level of performance output to a common level for everybody, and every last one of us benefited.

It showed us the engagement benefit for people to be able to see how much more they were enjoying their jobs. That is retention strength right there. If people see my department and see people enjoying their job, that’s a recruitment benefit to bring people into the department. This transformed people’s daily tasks, giving people the ability to do more value-added work. 

Reshuffling the Business

Over a five-year period, my team was always ambitious. We started doing business with Sabra Hummus Customer Service Support and the optimization of this capability enabled us to repurpose headcount in a way that balanced team structures better to meet the work demand. While also giving us a greater capacity to take on work without adding more headcount. Over that period, we grew an average of 2-3%, while not adding any headcount for the five years. I was able to staff up a full-time team of five people dedicated to developing and maintaining the dashboards that we were creating, not just for my department, but Transportation, Warehousing, Supply Planning, Demand Planning, Sales, Finance, and Manufacturing. The data allowed us to bring facts forward that enabled us to capture opportunities that had gone down by the wayside in the past. 

At Gatorade, we convinced sales in the company to shift to a new case design that would allow us to have more efficient display mods for our customers. At the time we had 90 versions of display mods for 3 pack sizes. Everyone wanted their version of the display mod and their quantity to display their mix. All of them had the same five flavors, they just had a different mix between them and that mix was inconsistent as far as what’s sold best for those customers.

The data enabled us to not only have our shipment history but also our cost and consumer data information from the different retailers. We were able to present facts that allowed us to pursue a multi-million dollar CapEx and capture a multi-million dollar annual productivity. For instance, by making a change in transportation, we saw 50 fewer cases on a truck than they would with the current pallet designs. This saved on packaging, reducing the carbon footprint in manufacturing and inventory. We took 90 versions down to 15 and because of that, we were able to convince the company to approve the multi-million dollar CapEx. We did an audit of that year and it was identified as one of the best productivity efforts, exceeding the expectations of the CapEx while still being productive up until that day.

Call-to-action 

As we continued to grow and leverage more data, there needed to be some governance. If you go back to when Microsoft introduced Excel – it was revolutionary. Everyone was able to automate, to digitize that yellow legal pad. However, the technology became cumbersome, it became a crutch. Everyone used Excel, but my Excel spreadsheet was probably kept on the same thing you were calculating, but maybe yours was doing one other calculation and we didn’t share very well. So, we wanted to make sure that there was a standard form of governance; some type of a process that would avoid this proliferation of dashboards to the point where people wouldn’t know which dashboard was where and what it was holding. 

You’d lose all the value of automation in digitalization. So, it is important for companies that they have a strategy around this and everyone is on board with the strategy, so you don’t have redundant efforts at the same time the true value can be unlocked. There’s value as well though in the people now that can leverage this work. This might’ve been our tribal knowledge about what happened in the past, but how do we use this information to be that much more effective on what might happen in the future.

Get out of your silo!

The end-to-end value chain that I operated gave me a unique opportunity to see issues and challenges differently from others. I encourage people to always get out of their silos, go get that critical experience, engage with their peers across other functions to see what they see from the angle they see it. 

Listen and learn.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. 

Don’t be afraid to challenge tradition. 

Don’t be afraid to embrace new technology. 

Don’t make decisions just because you feel like you have to, make calls based on the business process and hard facts. 

This will make all the difference.

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About Dennis Donelon

Dennis M. Donelon possesses over 35 years of experience working in the Food & Beverage industry, spanning retail, sales strategy, and supply chain. He has worked on projects that leveraged LSS Process Mapping tools and were focused on driving greater collaboration between trading partners and unlocking productivity within internal processes and product offerings.

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