“Disruption” has become another business buzzword that obviates the need for prudent, careful thought and consideration. If something is “disruptive,” then it must by definition be good. But when it comes to internal operations at least, disruption is often both bad for business and for employees, because it causes unevenness in work.

Last week, I wrote about how the unpredictability of “management by walking around” disrupts daily operations in an organization and leads to mura (unevenness), muri (overburden), and muda (waste). This week I’d like to address sales incentives and volume discounts. Incentives and discounts create tremendous disruption in a company’s business by distorting both incoming market signals and outgoing orders to suppliers.

Sales incentives—for example, bonuses to meet monthly or quarterly revenue goals—cause salespeople to stuff the company’s distribution channels with inventory far in excess of consumer demand. Volume discounts have the same effect, by encouraging customers to order more product than they need in order to get a larger discount. Both these practices wreak havoc on the supply chain through the “bullwhip effect.” Hau Lee, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, illustrates this problem with a story about Volvo: in the mid-1990s, the Swedish car manufacturer found itself with excess inventory of green cars. The sales and marketing departments began offering special deals to clear out the inventory, but no one told the manufacturing department about the promotions. It read the increased sales as a sign that consumers had started to like green cars, and ramped up production.

The former president of Wiremold, Art Byrne, explains in his book The Lean Turnaround that he eliminated volume discounts and incentives for sales to book the largest possible orders. Instead, he pushed his sales team and his customers to provide a steady flow of small orders that would smooth demand and reduce disruptions. Large customers received cash rebates at the end of the year as a reward for their business, but without the supply-distorting incentives for large individual orders. This clever approach allowed Byrne to square the circle: provide incentives without increasing demand variation.

It’s worth mentioning that not all incentives are bad—only poorly designed ones are. In highly seasonal businesses, they can actually be a useful tool for leveling demand and reducing unevenness. I consulted to an outdoor goods company whose warranty department got into trouble every summer. Usage for this company’s products are overwhelmingly concentrated in summer months, and as you might expect, consumers wouldn’t send their products in for warrantee repair till the summer started. The sudden spike in warranty requests meant that lead time exploded from less than a week to five or six weeks. The company reduced the fluctuation in demand by sending out regular emails to customers from January-March, reminding them to send in their products for repair early, and promised a free logo t-shirt for people who sent in their item before April 1. This incentive not only increased the number of items that came in early, it got more brand logos on the street. With more level demand, the warranty department was able to keep its turnaround time to under a week, even during the peak summer season. 

Next week: Batch Processing.