Losing Perspective

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The story is that if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. If you put it into a pot of cool water, however, then turn on the heat, the frog won’t notice the temperature change, and will eventually die when it gets too hot. Who knows if it’s true, but it’s a great metaphor, and we see it happening everywhere.

It’s easy to lose perspective.

We Are the Best

I worked on the conversion of a newly-acquired retailer’s systems to those of the acquiring parent company. Although the new system was much more sophisticated and comprehensive, fundamental accounting controls were missing, and it was so difficult to acquire, verify or reconcile certain information that we had lingering doubts over its overall integrity.

The parent company had a unique corporate culture based on the belief that they were the best – had the best stores, the best products, the best people, the best systems, etc. – and there was no room for discussion of improvements. The corporate controller explained to me that the systems were terrible before he joined the company, but they were great now. He listed examples of how bad they used to be, and every one of the deficiencies still existed… but they were the best.

Years later, there was an accounting scandal that hinged, among many other things, on the system’s inability to properly account for cost of goods sold.

They refused to look at their systems with a critical eye, and they lost perspective.

Director’s Cut

A well-known filmmaker invited me to see his new film while it was still a work in progress. He had been editing it for weeks, and was ready to show a rough version of the finished product. It was a demanding film, with dense dialog requiring concentration, and a limited budget for production values, and I was drained by the end of the screening. I looked at my watch several times during the film, so I was very aware of the fact that it was well over 2 hours long.

Called on for comments, I sincerely praised the film for its merits – a respected film critic eventually included it in his annual “Top Ten” list – but I felt the length of the film undermined its overall success. Surprised, the filmmaker responded: “You should have seen it when it was 4 hours long.” I attended the screening of the final film, and still found it much too long.

Art is subjective, of course, but I believe he lost perspective.

Competing Systems

A homebuilder developed an elaborate and advanced construction management system, and its reporting mechanism was tied to an accounting package. For reasons lost in history, they also continued to customize the primary general ledger system that had been in use since the 1970s. The result was that there were two very complex systems, but the reported results were often materially different.

Each member of the management team had his own favorite reports from both systems, and every meeting started with an argument over whose report was correct. One member of senior management knew how to reconcile the results, and he spent more than half his time doing so. By the time the reports were reconciled, the meetings were often over. Important business issues were never addressed, and the managers made their decisions based on different information.

This was one of the first issues I raised when asked for my observations on the company and its operations. The CEO, early in his career, personally directed the customization of the ledger system, and he wouldn’t listen to any criticism. He and his managers had developed the construction system, and were so proud of it that they invited homebuilders from around the country to show it off. There wasn’t going to be any discussion of problems there, either. When I tried to address the gap between the systems, the response was: “It’s great now – up until 6 months ago, all the computer terminals had green screens.” I hadn’t seen a monochrome screen in over 20 years.

The company went bankrupt. They had lost perspective.

Hey, What’re You Gonna Do?

Another retailer was very dependent on its highly complex systems. The nature of the business is that there is a high rate of turnover among line managers, and the corporate training systems placed more emphasis on sales and marketing than on administration. Unfortunately, the systems, while comprehensive, were not user-friendly, and there were constant problems requiring many long telephone calls to explain and resolve issues.

There was constant finger-pointing and redirection. A manager would direct associates to call the technical support hotline, only to be directed to the regional office, who might then send it back to the original manager. Certain employees became known for their ability to resolve certain types of problems, and everyone had a favorite go-to fixer.

Frustration abounded, but there was no feeling at the field level that there was anything fundamentally wrong with the systems. The company had been in existence for a long time. There was no problem with customer service, but the amount of employee time wasted by awkward systems was huge. When I asked why nobody complained up the corporate ladder, they just shrugged and said it wouldn’t do any good.

They had lost perspective.

That’s How it Should Be

In a construction company, it was highly unusual for accounting reports to tie out to the general ledger. It was a constant problem, and drove me crazy, because I could never trust that I was working with reliable information. We were involved in huge projects and equally huge financings, and acting on wrong information could have major consequences.

The CFO and IT director had been with the company for many years, and together had implemented most of the systems in use at the time. They knew them so well that they could tell me how to do elaborate reconciliations of the reports, which would often involve writing special programs. Their default question would typically be: “What do you need that for?” This exercise turned up problems with the original reports often enough that we had the battle many times.

When I pressed the CFO to set up a task force to streamline and clean up the accounting systems, he would argue that the systems were good, and that the reports actually shouldn’t tie out. “That’s how we designed them.”

They had lost perspective.

Does your CFO encourage taking a fresh look at long-established systems and methods?

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Profit Improvement – Delay of Expenditures

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Pretty much every company wants to increase its profit, and most managers devote a large portion of their time to trying to increase revenues and margins, or reduce costs. As a financial manager and consultant, I have been involved in many profit improvement initiatives. Here are some examples – they are mostly from construction, retail and land development, but the concepts can be applied to any business.

Delay of Expenditures

Time is money. Delaying expenditures until absolutely necessary reduces interest, storage and other carrying costs, reduces pressure on borrowing limits and has a positive impact on return on investment. Speeding the receipt of funds has the same impact.

Financial Review

A land developer traditionally let marketing decide when certain tracts would be made available for sale to builders. The sites they selected appeared to be random throughout the communities, and they professed no particular strategy. I proposed marketing contiguous tracts to delay the outlay on roads and other infrastructure costs. As a result, we delayed the spending of tens of millions of dollars, and there wasn’t a grumble from marketing.

Looking Around

A retailer’s distribution center was designed to service a fixed number of stores, and the time was upon us to start construction on a new, larger center. The limiting factor was the number of boxes that would fit on the conveyors that passed in front of the merchandise pickers. I observed that if we simply changed the shape of the boxes, we could serve up to 50% more stores without incurring the multi-million dollar capital expenditure.

Process Review

Homebuilders often sell their model homes to investors, and lease them back until the community is sold out. The process is rather complex, involving the buyer, various attorneys, appraisers, the construction and marketing departments, accounting and treasury, among others. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on interest and carrying costs until the transaction is completed. I led a Six Sigma team to look into speeding the inflow of cash. We flow-charted the process, identified bottlenecks and delays, and established a standard timetable to be followed on all future transactions. We reduced the cycle time by three weeks, and calculated annual savings at $400,000.

Does your CFO get involved in planning your major expenditures?