I recently met a management consultant specializing in management accounting and FP&A whose intentions were sincere. However his advice was surprising, but not totally surprising, to me.
He mentioned to me that a company had inquired to him whether they should consider using activity-based costing (ABC). His next step was initially encouraging. He contacted the accounting departments of the inquiring company’s major competitors. He asked them if they are using ABC. The answer from them was that none of them are.
A missed opportunity for good advice
I was hoping the next thing he would tell me is this. I was hoping he would inform the inquiring company that they had an opportunity to gain a competitive edge.
I presumed he would say to them, “I have good news for you. Your instincts are correct. You have realized that the amount of your indirect and shared expenses have grown large relative to your direct expenses. You may understand that this expansion is a result that your products and services have expanded with much diversity and variations. And the result is that complexity has caused this increase to manage the complexity. By your using a highly aggregated indirect cost pool with a single allocation factor that has no cause-and-effect relationship with those indirect expenses, the consequence is that you are simultaneously over- and-under-costing your products. Their costs exactly reconcile in total but not in with parts. This is because cost allocations are a zero sum error condition. Your competitors do not realize this, but you do. Go for it. Implement ABC. Your company will much better understand their profit margin layers and where it makes and loses money – and why.”
Sadly, he advised the inquiring company that since its competitors do not use ABC then that is evidence that ABC is of little benefit.
How long can this ignorance continue?
My ranting and raving
Those readers who follow my blogs and articles about this topic recognize that I have been relentless in criticizing the ‘homo accounticus’ accountants who remain in the stone age. They are exposing their organizations to a risk that the enterprise risk management (ERM) community rarely references – invalid and flawed cost information that leads to misleading profit margin information.
I remain in awe. The advanced and mature organizations that have adopted ABC would never go back to traditional standard costing (unless a new mindless CFO or CEO shows up and rejects ABC as too complicated and abandons it).
The longer these types of primitive accountants delay applying ABC, the greater the risks. The issue here is not mainly about product and standard service-line costing. The issue is about the emerging need to report and analyze channel and customer profitability. This includes the broader scope of marketing, distribution, selling, and customer service expenses that are below the product gross profit margin line.
Open your eyes. It is apparent that today customers view almost all suppliers’ products as commodities. They want to be specially treated and serviced. This means that suppliers must provide differentiated services to increasingly differentiated micro-segments of customers. These are cost-to-serve costs, not product and standard service-line costs.
An increasing pressure comes when suppliers recognize that they have high maintenance customers, in contrast to low maintenance ones, whose extra costs erode profits. The objective of sales and marketing is no longer about growing market share and sales, but rather it is about growing profitable sales. Accountants must accurately measure the ‘middle line’ to subtract from the ‘top line’ because the ‘bottom line’ – profits – is a derivative from both of them. And to use large aggregated cost pools with a non-causal allocation factor (e.g., sales amounts, number of labor/machine input hours) to allocate costs is irresponsible. The results are distorted.
When the consultant advised his inquiring company that their competitors are not using ABC, then it is a case of the blind leading the blind. And, remember, that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.
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