Sunday, October 16, 2022

Case Study 16: Nike’s 100 Million Dollar Supply Chain "Speed bump"

Case Study 16 – Nike’s 100 Million Dollar Supply Chain Speed bump

“This is what you get for 400 million, huh?” 

Nike President and CEO Phil Knight famously raised the question in a conference call days before announcing the company would miss its third-quarter earnings by at least 28% due to a glitch in the new supply chain management software. The announcement would then send Nike’s stock down 19.8%. In addition, Dallas-based supply-chain vendor i2 Technologies, which Nike assigned blame, would suffer a 22.4% drop in stock price.

The relationship would ultimately cost Nike an estimated $100 million. Each company blamed the other for the failure, but the damage could have been dramatically reduced if realistic expectations had been set early on and a proper software implementation plan had been put in place. Most companies wouldn’t overcome such a disastrous supply chain glitch or “speed bump,” as Knight would call it, but Nike would recover due to its dominant position in the retail footwear and apparel market.

In 1999, two years before Knight’s famous outburst, Nike paid i2 $10 million to centralize its supply, demand, and collaboration planning system with a total estimated implementation cost of $40 million. Initially, i2 was the first phase of The Nike Supply Chain (NSC) project. The plan was to implement i2 to replace the existing system and introduce enterprise resource planning (ERP) software from SAP and customer relationship management (CRM) software from Siebel Systems.  

The goal of the NSC project was to improve Nike’s existing 9-month product cycle and fractured supply chain. As the brand experienced rapid growth and market dominance in the 1990s, it accumulated 27 separate order management systems around the globe. Each is entirely different from the next and poorly linked to Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.

At the time, there wasn’t a model to follow at the scale Nike required. Competitors like Reebok struggled to find a functional supply chain solution specific to the retail footwear and apparel industry. In an effort to solidify its position as the leader in sportswear, Nike decided to move forward quickly with i2’s predictive demand application and its supply chain planner software.

"Once we got into this, we quickly realized that what we originally thought was going to be a two-to-three-year effort would be more like five to seven," - Roland Wolfram, Nike’s vice president of global operations and technology.

The NCS project would be a success, and Nike would eventually accomplish all its supply chain goals. However, the process took much longer than expected, cost the company an additional $100 million, and could have been avoided had the operators or both companies taken a different approach to implementation.

"I think it will, in the long run, be a competitive advantage." – Phil Knight

In the end, Knight was right, but there are many valuable lessons to learn from the Nike i2 failure.

If you are an executive sponsor, steering committee member, or a non-executive board member and want to learn what you need to do so that your project does not land on my list with project failures? Then my (Non)-Executive Crash Course is what you are looking for.

If you want to know where you are standing with that large, multi-year, strategic project? Or you think one of your key projects is in trouble? Then a Project Review is what you are looking for.

If you just want to read more project failure case studies? Then have a look at the overview of all case studies I have written here.

So, before we get into the case study, let’s look at precisely what happened...

Timeline of Events

1996 - 1999

Nike experienced incredible growth during this period but was at a crossroads. Strategic endorsement deals and groundbreaking marketing campaigns gave the company a clear edge over Adidas and Reebok, its two most substantial competitors in the 80s and 90s. However, as Nike became a world-renowned athletics brand, its supply chain became more complex and challenging to manage.

Part of Nike’s strategy that separated itself from competitors was the centralized approach. Product design, factory contracting, and order fulfillment were coordinated from headquarters in Oregon. The process resulted in some of the most iconic designs and athlete partnerships in sports history. However, manufacturing was much more disoriented.

During the 1970s and 80s, Nike battled to develop and control the emerging Asian sneaker supply chain. Eventually, the brand won the market but struggled to expand because of the nine-month manufacturing cycle.

At the time, there wasn’t an established method to outsource manufacturing from Asia, making the ordering process disorganized and inefficient across the industry. In addition, Nike’s fractured order management system contained tens of millions of product numbers with different business rules and data formats. The brand needed a new way to measure consumer demand and manage purchasing orders, but the state of the legacy system would make implementing new software difficult.


At the beginning of 1999, Nike decided to implement the first stage of its NSC project with the existing system. i2 cost the company $10 million but estimated the entire project would cost upwards of $400 million. The project would be one of the most ambitious supply chain overhauls by a company of Nike’s size. 

i2 Technologies is a Dallas, Texas-based software company specializing in designing solutions that simplify supply and demand chain management while maximizing efficiency and minimizing cost. Before the Nike relationship, i2 was an emerging player in logistics software with year-over-year growth. Involvement in the Nike project would position the company as the leading name in supply chain management software.

Nike’s vision for the i2 phase of NSC was “achieving greater flexibility in planning execution and delivery processes…looking for better forecasting and more profitable order fulfillment." When successfully implemented, the manufacturing cycle would be reduced from nine months the six. This would convert the supply chain to make-to-order rather than make-to-sell, an accomplishment not yet achieved in the footwear and apparel industry.

Predicting demand required inputting historical sales numbers into i2’s software. “Crystal balling” the market had substantial support at the time among SCM companies. While the belief that entering numbers into an algorithm and spitting out a magical prediction didn’t age well, the methodology required reliable, uniform data sets to function.

Nike decided to implement the “Big Bang” ERP approach when switching to i2 for the supply chain management. The method consists of going live where the business completely changes without phasing out the old system. Nike also opted for a single instance strategy for implementation. The CIO at the time, Gordon Steele, is quoted saying, “single instance is a decision, not a discussion.” Typically, global corporations choose a multi-instance ERP solution, using separate instances in various regions or for different product categories.


By June of 2000, various problems with the new system had already become apparent. According to documents filed by Nike and i2 shareholders in class-action suits, the system used different business rules and stored data in various formats, making integration difficult. In addition, the software needed customization beyond the 10-15% limit recommended by i2. Heavy customization slowed down the software. For example, entries were reportedly taking over a minute to be recorded. In addition, the SCM system frequently crashed as it struggled to handle Nike’s tens of millions of product numbers.

The issues persisted but were fixable. Unfortunately, the software was linked to core business processes, specifically factory orders, that sent a ripple effect that would result in over and under-purchasing critical products. The demand planner would also delete ordering data six to eight weeks after it was entered. As a result, planners couldn’t access purchasing orders that had been sent to factories.

Problems in the system caused far too many factory orders for the less popular shoes like the Air Garnett IIIs and not enough popular shoes like the Air Jordan to meet the market's demand. Foot Locker was forced to reduce prices for the Air Garnett to $90 instead of the projected retail price of $140 to move the product. Many shoes were also delivered late due to late production. As a result, Nike had to ship the shoes by plane at $4-$8 a pair compared to sending them across the Pacific by boat for $0.75.   

November 2000

According to Nike, all the problems with i2’s supply chain management system were resolved by the fall. Once the issues were identified, Nike built manual workarounds. For example, programmers had to download data from i2’s demand predictor and reload it into the supply chain planner on a weekly basis. While the software glitches were fixed and orders weren’t being duplicated or disappearing, the damage was done. Sales for the following quarter were dramatically affected by the purchasing order errors resulting in a loss of over $100 million in sales.


Nike made the problem public on February 27, 2001. The company was forced to report quarterly earnings to stakeholders to avoid repercussions from the SEC. As a result, the stock price dove 20%, numerous class-action lawsuits were filed, and Phil Knight famously voiced his opinion on the implementation, "This is what you get for $400 million, huh?"

In the meeting, Nike told shareholders they expected profits from the quarter to decline from around $0.50 a share to about $0.35. In addition, the inventory problems would persist for the next six to nine months as the overproduced products were sold off.

As for the future of NSC, the company, including its CEO and President, expressed optimism. Knight said, "We believe that we have addressed the issues around this implementation and that over the long term, we will achieve significant financial and organizational benefit from our global supply-chain initiative."

A spokeswoman from Nike also assured stakeholders that the problems would be resolved; she said that they were working closely with i2 to solve the problems by creating “some technical and operational workarounds” and that the supply chain software was now stable.

While Nike was positive about the implementation process moving forward, they placed full blame on the SCM software and i2 Technologies.

Nike stopped using i2’s demand-planning software for short-and-medium range sneaker planning; however, it still used the application for short range and its emerging apparel business. By the Spring of 2001, Nike integrated i2 into its more extensive SAP ERP system, focusing more on orders and invoices rather than predictive modeling.

What Went Wrong?

While the failures damaged each company’s reputation in the IT industry, both companies would go on to recover from the poorly executed software implementation. Each side has assigned blame outward, but after reviewing all the events, it's safe to say each had a role in the breakdown of the supply chain management system.

Underestimating Complexity

Implementing software at this scale always has risks. Tom Harwick, Gigi Information Group’s research director for supply chain management, said, “Implementing a supply-chain management solution is like crossing a street, high risk if you don't look both ways, but if you do it right, low risk.”

One of Nike's most significant mistakes was underestimating the complexity of implementing software at such a large scale. According to Roland Wolfram, Nike’s operators had a false sense of security regarding the i2 installation because it was small compared to the larger NSC project. "This felt like something we could do a little easier since it wasn’t changing everything else [in the business]," he says. "But it turned out it was very complicated."

Part of the reason why the project was so complicated was because of Nike’s fractured legacy supply chain system and disoriented data sets. i2’s software wasn’t designed for the footwear and apparel industry, let alone Nike’s unique position in the market.  

Data Quality

Execution by both parties was also to blame. i2 Technologies is on record recommending customization not to exceed 10-15%. Nike and i2 should have recognized early on that this range would be impossible to accommodate the existing SCM system.

Choosing a Big Bang implementation strategy didn’t make sense in this scenario. Nike’s legacy system data was too disorganized to be integrated into the i2 without making dramatic changes before a full-on launch.

Poor Communication

Communication between Nike and i2 from 1999 to the summer of 2000 was poor. i2 claimed not to be aware of problems until Knight issued blame publicly. Greg Brady, the President of i2 Technologies who was directly involved with the project, reacted to the finger-pointing by saying, "If our deployment was creating a business problem for them, why were we never informed?" Brady also claimed, "There is no way that software is responsible for Nike's earnings problem." i2 blamed Nike’s failure to follow the customization limitations, which was caused by the link to Nike’s bake-end.

Rush to Market

At the time, Nike was on the verge of solidifying its position as the leader in footwear and sports apparel for decades to come. Building a solid supply chain that could adapt to market trends and reduce the manufacturing cycle was the last step toward complete market dominance. In addition, the existing supply chain solutions built for the footwear and apparel industry weren’t ready to deploy on a large scale. This gave Nike the opportunity to develop its own SCM system putting the company years ahead of competitors. Implementing functional demand-planning software would be highly valuable for Nike and its retail clients.

i2 also was experiencing market pressure to deploy a major project. Had the implementation gone smoothly, i2 would have a massive competitive advantage. The desire to please Nike likely played a factor in i2’s missteps. Failing to provide clear expectations and communication throughout the process may not have happened with a less prominent client.  

Failure to Train

After the problems became apparent in the summer of 2000, Nike had to hire consultants to create workarounds to make the SCM system operational. This clearly indicates that Nike’s internal team wasn’t trained adequately to handle the complexity of the new ERP software.

Nike’s CIO at the time reflected on the situation. "Could we have taken more time with the rollout?" he asked. "Probably. Could we have done a better job with software quality? Sure. Could the planners have been better prepared to use the system before it went live? You can never train enough."

How Nike Could Have Done Things Differently

While Nike and i2 attempted to implement software that had never been successfully deployed in the global footwear and apparel industry, many problems could have been avoided. We can learn from the mistakes and how Nike overcame their challenges with i2 to build a functioning ERP system.

Understanding and Managing Complexity

Nike’s failure to assess the complexity of the problem is at the root of the situation. Regardless if the i2 implementation was just the beginning of a larger project, it featured a significant transition from the legacy system. Nike’s leadership should have realized the scale of the project and the importance of starting NSC off on the right foot.  

i2 also is to blame for not providing its client with realistic expectations. As a software vendor, i2 is responsible for providing its client with clear limitations and the potential risks of failing to deploy successfully.

See "Understanding and Managing Your Project’s Complexity" for more insights on this topic.

Collaborate with i2 Technologies

Both companies should have realized that Nike required more than 10-15% customization. Working together during the implementation process could have prevented the ordering issues that were the reason for the lost revenue.

Collaboration before deployment and at the early stages of implementation is critical when integrating a new system with fractured data. Nike and i2 should have coordinated throughout the process to ensure a smooth rollout; instead, both parties executed poor project management resulting in significant financial and reputational blows.  

See "Solving Your Between Problems" for more insights on this topic.

Hire a 3rd Party Integration Company

Nike’s lack of understanding of the complexity of SCM implementation is difficult to understand. If i2 had been truthful in that they did not know about problems with their software, Nike could have made a coordinated decision not to involve the software company during the process.

Assuming that is the case, Nike should have hired a 3rd party to help with the integration process. Unfortunately, Nike’s internal team was not ready for the project. Outside integrators could have prevented the problems before the damage was done.

Not seeking outside help may be the most significant aspect of Nike’s failure to implement a new SCM system.   

See "Be a Responsible Buyer of Technology" for more insights on this topic.

Deploy in Stages

A “Big Bang” implementation strategy was a massive mistake by Nike. While i2 should have made it clear this was not the logical path considering the capabilities of their software and Nike’s legacy system, this was Nike’s decision.

Ego, rush to market, or failure to understand the complexities of the project could all have been a factor in the decision. Lee Geishecker, a Gartner analyst, stated that Nike chose to go live a little over a year after starting the project, while projects of this scale should take two years before deployment. In addition, the system should be rolled out in stages, not all at once.

Brent Thrill, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, is on record saying he would have kept the old system running for three years while testing i2’s software. In another analysis, Larry Lapide commented on the i2 project by saying, "Whenever you put software in, you don't go big bang, and you don't go into production right away. Usually, you get these bugs worked out . . . before it goes live across the whole business."

Train Employees Sufficiently

At the time, Nike’s planners weren’t prepared for the project. While we will never know what would have happened if the team had been adequately trained, proper preparation would have put Nike in a much better position to handle the glitches and required customizations.

See "User Enablement is Critical for Project Success" for more insights on this topic.

Practice Patience in Software Implementation

At the time, a software glitch causing a ripple effect that would impact the entire supply chain was a novel idea. Nike likely made their decisions to risk the “Big Bang” strategy, deploy in a year without phases and proper testing, and not seek outside help because they assumed the repercussions of a glitch wouldn’t be as catastrophic.

Impatience resulted in avoidable errors. A more conservative implementation strategy with adequate testing would have likely caught the mistakes.

See "Going Live Too Early Can Be Worse as Going Late" for more insights on this topic.

Closing Thoughts

One of the most incredible aspects of Nike’s implementation failure is how quickly the company bounced back. While Nike undoubtedly made numerous mistakes during the process, NSC was 80% operational in 2004.

Nike turned the project around by making adjustments and learning patience. Few companies can suffer a $100 million “speed bump” without filing bankruptcy, but Nike is in that position because of its resilience. The SAP installation wasn’t rushed and resumed many aspects of its original strategy. In addition, a training culture was established due to the i2 failures. Customer service representatives receive 140 to 180 hours of training from highly skilled “super users,” All employees are locked out of the system until they complete their required training courses.

Aside from the $100 million loss, the NSC project was successful. Lead times were reduced from nine months to six (the initial goal), and Nike’s factory inventory levels were reduced from a month to a week in some cases. Implementing a new SCM system also created an integration between departments, better visibility of customer orders, and increased gross margins.

While Nike could have executed far more efficiently, Phil Knight’s early assessment of the i2 failure turned out to be true. In the long run, the process gave Nike a competitive advantage and was instrumental in building an effective SCM system. 

In a nutshell: A failure to demonstrate patience, seek outside help, and rush software implementation can have drastic consequences. 

If you are an executive sponsor, steering committee member, or a non-executive board member and want to learn what you need to do so that your project does not land on my list with project failures? Then my (Non)-Executive Crash Course is what you are looking for.

If you want to know where you are standing with that large, multi-year, strategic project? Or you think one of your key projects is in trouble? Then a Project Review is what you are looking for.

If you just want to read more project failure case studies? Then have a look at the overview of all case studies I have written here.


> Nike says i2 hurt its profits

> I2 Technologies, Inc.

> How Not to Spend $400 Million

> i2-Nike fallout a cautionary tale

> Nike rebounds: How Nike recovered from its supply chain disaster

> Scm and Erp Software Implementation at Nike – from Failure to Success 

> I2 Says: "You Too, Nike"

Posted on Sunday, October 16, 2022 by Henrico Dolfing