A Lean Budget?

From the June 26th edition of Business Week, The Welch Way by Jack and Suzy Welch was called Stop the B.S. Budget (need subscription to read).

I probably will not get much argument from people on this: budgeting as it is currently practiced is probably one of the most universally unlean processes that can be found. It’s fraught with every single one of the seven wastes and at the end, doesn’t produce something meaningful or useful to most of its intended customers. I don’t believe budgeting is inherently bad. Jack Welch has been known to chime in on the practice before and did so in this week’s column. Here are a couple excerpts from his statement:

“The budgeting process as it currently stands at most companies does exactly what you’d never want. It hides growth opportunities. It promotes bad behavior -especially when market conditions change midstream and people still try to “make the number.” And it had an uncanny way of sucking the energy and fun out of an organization.”

“What’s wrong with this picture? First, what you see: an orchestrated compromise. More important, what you don’t: a rich, expansive conversation about growth opportunities, especially high-risk ones.”

So, what’s a manager to do? First, let’s acknowledge that few feel very powerful to change it, INCLUDING CEOs and CFOs who lack options. Imagine if a company that lived with budgets just took them away cold-turkey. It would be like taking the stop light away from a busy intersection and relying on “good driving.” Chaos and financial disaster would probably rule. People set themselves up to be able to get what they need in order to game the system. I remember my own gaming of the system. I was a young supervisor and needed some new cabinets for parts that was critical to my strategy of improving parts availability and hence uptime. The absolute amount was greater than my signing authority and I could wait for the system to put it through, so I broke it up into small chunks just shy of the ceiling limit since I would still come under the overall budget and would have dramatic approval. As they say, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than approval. If people are used to gaming the system and you take the system away, there will be no balance.

That leads to a second key issue. Budgeting is not just a system. It is wrapped in the blanket of the corporate culture. What’s the culture of an organization? How do people behave in regards to the budget and its supporting processes? If you have the right culture, the system hardly matters. In one company in which I am an investor, there is a culture of frugality, top to bottom. Don’t fly when you can drive. Don’t get separate rooms when you can bunk up. Don’t buy a new piece of equipment when you can refurbish the old one. To this company, which does have a budget, people are much focused on their performance in regards to provide, down to the individual, than gaming the budget.

I believe the most important question that you must ask yourself in regards to budgeting is “who is the customer?” Who is the customer of your budget? Who uses it, and for what? Is it the baseline for incentives? A tool to plan your actions? A guideline for those making incremental investments? If you don’t have a clear customer, or have too many, it will be impossible for you to have a system that delivers something of value. Ask this question before asking “what’s the solution?” I do not believe there is one solution. I don’t believe there is a “thing” called LEAN BUDGETING just as there shouldn’t be a thing called LEAN ACCOUNTING.

But instead, apply lean principles to the accounting process. Who is the customer? Where is the waste? What are the guiding principles, the culture? What are the activities, connections and flows designed to deliver?

There hasn’t been much written about lean and the budgeting process. One book, called Beyond Budgeting, is being promoted as lean budgeting. It was not written by a bunch of lean folks who then asked ‘what about budgeting?’ It was developed outside of the world of budgeting but there has been a connection made to those promoting lean. To be honest, I don’t agree with everything in the book and I also think this solution is only right for some companies. But I do think it is worth a read. It has some challenging and intriguing thoughts and good case studies. You can check out the Beyond Budgeting Roundtable or check out the book Beyond Budgeting here.


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Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor. These companies range from high-performance motorcycles to SaaS tools for continuous improvement. He has advised over 300 companies around the world in lean transformation, including Intel, Harley-Davidson, Crayola, BMW, and Amazon. Jamie co-authored the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, and continues to share his experiences as a Contributing Editor forIndustryWeek and as a blogger at JamieFlinchbaugh.com. He holds degrees from Lehigh University, University of Michigan, and MIT, and continues to teach and mentor on campus. Jamie is best known for helping to transform how we think about lean from a tools-centric model to one based on principles and behaviors. His passion for lean transformation comes from seeking to unlock the great potential that people possess to build inspiring organizations.

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6 Comments on "A Lean Budget?"

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  1. Bill Waddell says:

    “there shouldn’t be a thing called LEAN ACCOUNTING”

    Please elaborate on this

  2. Jamie Flinchbaugh says:

    Sure. Lean Accounting is not (or should not be) like 5S, a step-by-step practice that you can implement in a bounded way. It is not a tool or a single solution. Yet many are preaching it as such. While perhaps not intended, the message people see is “here is lean accounting, implement it this way to become lean, then you are done.” You can imagine my concerns with this.

    I believe it shouldn’t be Lean Accounting (capital L, cap A) but lean accounting, meaning the pursuit of more value added and less waste in both the outcomes and the means of the accounting process and practice.

  3. Bill Waddell says:

    Are you suggesting that the fundamental underlying principles of Lean Accounting – such as the inherent inaccuracy of traditional standard costing and the necessity to convert to value stream costing instead – are not universal? That there are instances when a manufacturer is better served by standard costing? Likewise, value steam profit calculations are not necessary tools for some manufacturers? Are there cost and pricing decisions in manufacturing that can be more accurately made with standard cost data than value stream cost data?

    The Lean Accounting community realizes that the accounting transformation path to take for any manufacturer is going to vary according to circumstances – just like the path to becoming a lean manufacturer has no set roadmap. However, to suggest that there are not driving principles that are imperative to direct the manufacturer’s path to accounting transformation strikes me as if perhaps you are not too well versed in what Lean Accounting is all about.

  4. Jamie Flinchbaugh says:

    Sorry Bill, but you’re putting way too many words into my mouth than I can swallow. I want to just respond “I didn’t say any of that” but I’ll at least try to respond.

    You asked: “That there are instances when a manufacturer is better served by standard costing?” Of course not. Standard costing is an outdated artifact that should have been replaced 30 years ago but we just didn’t know how.

    But, as there is no one roadmap to lean accounting, there is also no SINGLE lean accounting solution. Does the lean accounting community (which is not all on the same page and which I am a part of despite your ending claim) understand this? Generally, yes. But it is not necessarily how it is being communicated, and a great number of people are now attacking the lean accounting movement because they are hearing a single solution.

    I think there are guiding principles and believe the guiding principles of lean accounting are what we should mostly be talking about. Onward and upward.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Dear Jamie,
    Before I leave any comments, can you please confirm that this blog is active. there has been no activity for over two years.

  6. Mark Graban says:

    Yes, if you leave a comment, I’ll make sure Jamie sees it and he’ll likely respond.

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