The Quick Fix? … Or the Whole Enchilada?

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Managers need information; that’s one of the laws of nature. The uses of information are endless, and managers constantly come up with new needs for reports, analyses and procedures. But information comes at a cost. The cost may be easy to calculate, as in the case of development hours required, or it may be an opportunity cost trade-off with the company’s other priorities.

Weighing Priorities

Whenever you have a need for information, here are the questions you’ll be asked:

1. How badly do you need it?
2. How soon do you need it?
3. If we can’t give you everything you need, what can you live with?
4. What are the projected cost savings or revenue increases?
5. What is the cost of getting the information?

Large organizations have developed sophisticated processes to allocate information resources among competing priorities, often involving some sort of ROI analysis. People do tend to exaggerate, though, so the objectivity and precision of the process comes under suspicion. Smaller companies, in my experience, tend to admit that they use more subjective methods to evaluate priorities.

The result is pretty much the same, though. Unless you have a critical need, such as compliance with a new accounting policy, a new line of business or an actual system breakdown…

You’re going to have to wait. Maybe forever.

The Quick Fix

The alternative to waiting for an exciting new series of reports and procedures, reconciled, actionable and fully integrated with all existing systems is the Quick Fix. This may be a compromise resulting from the answer to Question 3 above, or you may have to take matters into your own hands.

The Quick Fix is usually inexpensive, fast and gives you most of what you need. It can be a viable alternative to waiting for an entire new application to emerge from the murky dungeons of the development process. Or it can get you started on a new initiative without waiting for months, even years, to get the Whole Enchilada.

The Quick Fix isn’t always the right answer, though. Here are some situations I’ve observed over the years.

A Retailer

As CFO of a retailer, we received systems support from the specialty stores division of the internationally known parent company. The problem was that the specialty stores division was a shoe company, and we were a fashion apparel company. Many important issues needed to be resolved to customize the systems so our merchandisers could conduct business. So it was no surprise that when the accountants had a serious problem calculating Gross Profit and Inventory, we were sent to the back of the line, and told to wait.

For a small fee, we hired a programmer to develop a custom report that not only gave us reliable Gross Profit and Inventory results, but also provided the merchandisers with a clear picture of their operating results. It only took an hour or two a month to update the program, so the Quick Fix became a satisfactory permanent solution.

Some years later, a senior executive of the parent company saw our report, and ordered it installed in all the other operating companies. The systems development people jumped on it, and rolled it out to the entire company with great fanfare. But we just shrugged our shoulders… there was no need for the Whole Enchilada.

Real Estate Services

A real estate services company had passed the level of revenues that required them to change their tax accounting from the cash method to the accrual method. They recently asked me to help them make the transition.

The company had grown rapidly, but was still using Quick Books as its accounting system. It was certainly time for an upgrade, and the accounting conversion made it a perfect time to make the change. The only problem was that it would take months of time, and a substantial cash investment to research, purchase and install a new accounting package, and to integrate it with the business operations system. Meanwhile, the tax filing deadline was coming up fast.

My first suggestion was the Quick Fix. I suggested they continue using the methods the accounting staff were used to, and just make journal entries at the end of each month to adjust to accrual accounting. The CEO, however, wanted a deeper change, including a daily reconciliation to the output of their highly sophisticated operating system.

The situation clearly called for the Whole Enchilada, but timing was such that we needed a transitional Quick Fix to meet reporting requirements, and to fill in the gaps while we studied a fully integrated system overhaul.

I reviewed the business operating system, and found it to be sufficiently reliable to use its output as the source of accounting entries. The problem was that there were no accounting cutoffs or similar checks and balances for reconciliation, so I worked with the programmers to develop daily reports that verified the integrity of the data.

As a result of the project, management realized they needed to increase the sophistication of their financial department, and hired an experienced controller. I’m looking forward to hearing how they ultimately proceed.

A Homebuilder

A homebuilder had developed an elaborate and sophisticated construction management system, and its reporting mechanism was tied to an accounting package. Oddly enough, they also continued to maintain the original general ledger system that dated back to the 1970s. The problem was that the two systems generated very different information, and the senior managers each had favorite reports that didn’t agree with those used by other managers. Massive amounts of time were wasted in meetings, and one vice president spent most of his time reconciling the divergent reports. Needless to say, accounting was a nightmare.

The CEO had been instrumental in developing both systems, and was unwilling to see the need for change. The Quick Fix was practiced on a daily basis, but by the time the results were available, it was often too late to act on the information. An irreverent senior executive used an automotive metaphor, suggesting that when you opened the hood, the engine was run by squirrels on a treadmill.

The situation was crying out for the Whole Enchilada, and the Quick Fix just wasn’t working. Yes, the company went bankrupt.

A Land Developer

When I arrived for my first day as CFO of a land developer, I asked the controller for the most recent financial statements. “What do you mean?” she asked. That was the first sign of trouble. I soon learned that we had land on the books that we didn’t own, just as we owned land that wasn’t on the books. It was the same thing with loans and other assets and liabilities. In an organization with over 60 different companies, each with its own separate equity and debt financing, this was intolerable.

There was no Quick Fix to be found, so we shortly purchased a well-known industry-specific accounting package, and herded the numbers into their proper places.

The Whole Enchilada was the only option.

How does your company weigh the costs and benefits of implementing the Quick Fix or the Whole Enchilada?

Hmmm… Didn’t Think of That

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There are executives who rely on their ability to move quickly. They are often the ones who loudly declare that if we sit around analyzing things to death, we’ll never get anything done. Sometimes, they’re also the ones who are willing to bet the farm before the analysis has been thoroughly completed.

I love working with these high-velocity types, but they often need someone like me watching their back. Someone with a strong business sense and analytical capability who doesn’t slow down the process.

Here are some examples of how things can go wrong:

Catalogue Stores

A well-known retailer operated discount department stores nation-wide. To reach a wider customer base, they also operated a successful chain of catalogue stores in communities too small to support a full-service store. A customer would place his order at a catalogue store, and the item would be delivered within a week.

Meanwhile, changes in technology and inventory management techniques had resulted in a substantial reduction of inventory carried in the full-service stores. These were large stores, so quite a lot of physical space was freed up.

A senior executive came up with the idea to put catalogue stores in the available space in the full-service stores. His analysis showed that not only would the new catalogue stores add substantial revenue and profit to the existing outlets, but they could easily be placed in the least desirable selling areas, often in store basements.

There was much fanfare as the project was launched. The executive in charge even ran afoul of his boss and colleagues when newspaper articles praised his brilliance beyond their comfort level. Then the catalogue stores were abruptly shut down as a disastrous failure. Why would a customer walk through the store, passing by the merchandise he wants to buy, only to order it in a dark basement for delivery a week later? Hmmm… didn’t think of that.

Paper Shortage

A young warehouse worker at a large office supplies distributor showed such ability and intelligence that he was rapidly promoted to be the company’s purchasing agent. This was a long time ago, in the mid-1970s, when the oil crisis resulted in chronic shortages of a surprising range of products.

One day, the purchasing agent called to place a routine order of reams of 8 ½ x 11 inch printer paper. “6 months’ delivery” he was told, and he realized he would be unable to fulfill his customer orders for much of that time.

He was a smart kid, so it didn’t take long to figure out that when the shipment did arrive, he could be looking at another 6 months for the next delivery. Of course he didn’t ask for advice. He started placing orders every couple of weeks, based on historical usage, fully expecting to be back on his regular schedule at the end of the 6 months. Yes, he was a smart kid.

The only problem is that it was a big company, and after a while, the orders accumulated into a quantity large enough to justify an entire separate mill-run by the manufacturer. There were delivery trucks at the door for days on end, and you had to walk sideways through the warehouse to get past the stacks of paper. Hmmm… didn’t think of that.

Demographics

A retailer launched a new business based largely on demographics. It was the early 1980s, and the Baby Boomers were just starting to have children of their own. It was the beginning of a huge increase in births that the industry was calling the Echo Boom. What better time to start a chain of stores specializing in children’s apparel?

After establishing a solid base in California, the plan was to follow the demographic projections that showed high percentage population growth in the southern states. The company made an aggressive move into Texas, and suffered from an economic downturn and some bad real estate decisions, resulting in the prompt closure of about half of the new stores. Still, the roll-out through the south remained the CEO’s plan.

This is the only example in this article in which I was able to play a part, so of course, I’m the hero of this story. I pointed out that the southern states were in fact projected to grow at high percentage rates, but the population density was insufficient to achieve the economies resulting from tight clustering of stores. After all, 10% of nothing is still nothing. Hmmm… didn’t think of that.

The management team listened to my presentation, and we headed instead to the northeast, where large populations were already in place. Our strategy shifted to taking business away from the department stores.

Does your CFO sit in on strategy meetings and tactical problem-solving sessions? He might just bring an important new perspective.