By Howard Roddie, FuturMaster Senior Supply Chain Consultant (@HowardRoddie)
Not too long ago I was wandering around some ruins in Rome and I was struck by how similar the job of an archaeologist is to forecast modelling. Reading that back, it looks like a ludicrous statement (I know I should be switching off!), but let’s dig a little deeper. The archaeologist looks closely at the fragments of long gone everyday life to build a picture of what the past might have looked like. A forecast model looks closely at fragments of more recent data to build a picture of what the past might have looked like.
Whilst archaeologists are mainly concerned with the actual past, forecasters are more interested in using the past as a guide to the future, so while Henry Ford declared history to be ‘bunk’, a demand planner rarely would, except where the history genuinely is bunk, as it can be. A demand planner would more likely tell you that by not observing history, you are more likely to repeat its mistakes.
As I was wondering around, there was one particular plinth in the ruins that caught my eye, it had a sign that was less informative, but to me it was more illuminating than all those around it. Most had fragments of statues or lettering and a sign proclaiming the magnificence and significance of what once stood there. This one simply said that there were no fragments and the lettering was entirely absent. There was no way to tell what was once stood there. Was it so insignificant that it had not been built to last? Or was it highly significant and a target for those who destroyed it at some point? It looks like we’ll never know. Indeed, you may have seen recent historical data that looks just like that.
Historians will always try to match physical remains with written and oral records of the time to validate each other and build a bigger picture of the past. They can’t ask those who were there as they are long gone and mostly forgotten. The demand planner will try to do the same, especially where the numerical data is sparse and luckily most of the time there is someone around with the knowledge to help you interpret it. However, for those select few, that person has usually moved on without telling the story.
Indeed, it is important that we gather all of our history as it happens, not just the numbers. We are using the past as a guide to the future, and it is much easier to gather the data as it happens, creating a single view of history rather than hunting for broken fragments after the event. Usually, we are good at gathering the numbers, but often we are less good at capturing the context. Statistics come from numbers, knowledge comes from words. Without the words, how can we interpret the numbers? Without words, numbers can become mere fragments and sometimes all we are left with is an empty plinth.