The following is a guest commentary that is published on the Supply Chain Expert Community website.

This author just returned from the Supply Chain World North America 2012 conference, sponsored by the Supply Chain Council, which was held this week in Miami. The theme for this year’s gathering was Taking Supply Chains to the Next Level, and as was the case last year, the speakers were extraordinary and the messages fairly consistent.

I had the distinct opportunity to moderate a panel consisting of various well noted supply chain thought leaders and influencers. The panelists included:

Steven A. Melnyk, Professor of Operations and Supply Chain Management, Michigan State University

Roddy Martin, Senior Vice President, Global Supply Chain Practice, Competitive Capabilities International (Former Vice President at AMR Research/Gartner)

Matthew Davis, Research Director, Supply Chain, Gartner Inc.

Bob Parker, Group Vice President, IDC Manufacturing Insights and IDC Retail Insights

One particular question that I posed to the panel was on the topic of S&OP and included the following:

Many companies are now embracing sales and operations planning (S&OP) processes as a key mechanism to align anticipated product demand with supply and operations requirements.

What do you believe are the logical next steps for organizations in their S&OP journey?

Do you believe that the benefits of S&OP are being overhyped?

In the spirit of education and continual learning, I wanted to highlight with this broader supply chain community some insightful responses from our panelists regarding this important topic. Too often, as a community, we tend to get wrapped up in project management thinking, viewing an existing process in the lens of sequential steps.  Sometimes it helps to take pause and instead reflect on the overall business and supply chain outcomes required from an important process such as S&OP.

All the panelists were in agreement that S&OP is not a short-lived, vendor-hyped process and is not going away anytime soon. They characterized S&OP as a journey toward multiple outcomes and benefits. What is most important is knowing what the current and required maturity level should be.

Matthew Davis observed that S&OP can be positioned as a means to determine where decisions and what decisions need to be made regarding the need to represent the one face of the firm to customers.  It brings together teams that directly touch and/or influence product demand and supply, along with those responsible for influencing resources or making decisions as to options. The activities incorporated are generally focused on demand shaping or the ability to influence and respond to changing customer needs.  In terms of future needs, with more and more manufacturing and service firms positioning product offerings as “solutions-centric”, the process will need to synchronize a combination of product, technology and coordinated services needs. As an example, in the high tech industry, a product could involve a combination of hardware, software and services coordination.  All of this implies that the planning process changes from that of materials and physical needs to further include a broader context of project management based synchronization.

Technology’s role in the process is to help overcome time latency and aide in the ability to integrate information with the capabilities needed to influence and respond to customers. A broader scope of product solutions adds a project management dimension to the process.

Bob Parker added the need to incorporate portfolio, situational and scenario based analysis to manage products, tradeoff decisions, as well as to mitigate risk, with an overall goal of continuous planning. He cited as an example, Procter and Gamble’s circles of cadence, involving strategic, tactical and operational decisions that need to be coordinated.  The S&OP process never ends, it is continuous.

Professor Melnyk added the need to focus the process on required business outcomes, not so much in the sense of hard metrics, but on the required outcomes needed to satisfy customer and business needs.

Roddy Martin added that the future of S&OP is framing the process differently, as a journey toward integrative decision-making. Too often, S&OP teams rush to include senior executives in the process without the process maturity, and the right level of information that can context business impact or business options. Having arguments as to the accuracy of information or the meaning and implications of information, chases senior executives away and can derail efforts. That is perhaps, the worst mistake. Executive S&OP is the summarization of all business planning and execution across various time horizons, along with the business decision implications related to resource plans.

What I took away from these combined insights is that we as a community may be framing the question of the future of S&OP in an improper context.  The future is a given, the opportunities are enormous, but our context and lens needs to broaden.

Bob Ferrari