If you cannot measure it, you may be in trouble!

June 17, 2015

weights and measures‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ is a refrain that managers often hear but do not fully appreciate until confronted with a major challenge such as the complexity of a business transformation programme.  The need to diagnose the problems, stop the rot and prescribe timely and effective treatment, often quickly overwhelms management that is more used to reactive management of day to day events.

Driving through the strategy should be the focus of all management.  Performance management enables managers to maximise and sustain corporate performance by measuring and managing the drivers of future profitability.  Those drivers are what a business should invest in now to sustain and improve performance. The start point must be to quickly establish the necessary disciplines and approaches for the design and implementation of an effective management information system.  Such systems must comprise not only the key performance indicators (KPI’s), but also the execution management skills and processes to use them effectively in achieving operational and strategic objectives.

Silo’d Confusion

An organisation’s efforts to develop effective management information systems are often hampered by confusion caused by factors that include a one-dimensional, simplistic view of the problems.  For example:

  • The finance view‘All we need to do is supplement our financial information with a range of non‑financial          measures.’
  • The IT view – ‘All we need is a data warehouse and interrogation software to exploit the operational data.’
  • The management view‘All we need are better managers and staff.’
  • The staff view‘All we need is a business strategy and effective management.’

All these views may be valid, but the inter-relationships and dependencies between them are not identified and so critical thinking is impossible.  The absence of a universally accepted discipline for management information, similar to that for accounting which underpins the development and integrity of financial information, means there is limitless scope for confusion and paralysis.

A disciplined and structured approach to developing a performance management system must address the execution management processes, training and personnel issues to make effective interventions and encourage appropriate behaviours.

The Performance Measurement Framework

Business managers inhabit a practical world of reacting to day to day operational issues.  They may not haveThe Performance Management Framework the time nor interest in relating the management theories and measurement concepts that underlie the design of a performance management system.

The Performance Measurement Framework model links business objectives to the interventions needed to manage their achievement and gives managers a key to relating the concepts with the practical steps they can immediately take to develop their own performance measures.

The framework model is structured as a sequence of provocations linking business objectives with performance measures.  The performance measures feed the performance management process to actively manage the business on timely actionable intelligence.  Each of the provocations is addressed by practical approaches and quality assured by the pre-determined design principles.

The design principles reflect the values and behaviours that an organisation wishes to embed in all aspects of its structure, processes and relationships.

The Performance Management Process

A performance measurement system is often described as a ‘dashboard’, similar to that of a car.  Taking the analogy further, the performance management process ensures that the driver is sitting in the driving seat, knows how to drive and where he is going!  As with a car, the driver must plan the route and fuel the car, monitor the journey and take control with appropriate actions to ensure a safe and timely arrival.  Managers use just such a cycle to ‘drive’ through the business strategy.PerfManProc

The Performance Management Process is one of the tools Blue-Plate uses to support the KeyneLink Strategy Execution Management approach, and enable managers to visualise and understand the component parts of the process.

This conceptual understanding is a prerequisite to equipping managers to design and implement a performance management process that is appropriate for their organisation.


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February 25, 2010

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What is Financial Management?

November 23, 2009

Financial Management (FM) is one of those terms that is so much a part of the common lexicon  of management speak, that the scope and extent of its meaning is overlooked on the misguided assumption that there is a common understanding.  Nothing could be further from the truth as there are probably as many definitions of FM as there are people who use the term.   However, as a practicable consulting aid, Blue-Plate uses the metaphor of a Financial Management pyramid to illustrate one view of the scope of FM, building up from a sold foundation of processes and systems through to planning, forecasting and managing the business activities.   The hygiene factors of  basic record keeping, regulatory and finance function activities are like plumbing,  only appreciated when things go wrong.  What most businesses  increasingly demand are added value timely and accurate performance management information on which to base future plans and to consider options regarding strategic decisions for the effective use of resources.  FM is far too important to be left to the accountants and must be considered in the context of a set of  competences which are completely integrated into an organization’s business processes, systems, structures and human resource strategies.  Like a pyramid, getting to the FM pinnacle can be an exhausting climb!

Jeff Herman


Spreadsheet Modelling- A Reminder!

October 12, 2009

Blue-Plate consultants often find themselves advising on or building spreadsheet models on behalf of clients. Such models are almost ubiquitous in the financial management arena. Sometimes, however, the advice is more along the lines of “use the systems that already exist within the organisation”, spreadsheets are not always the best solution – but that is another debate. If you use spreadsheets in anger then you already know the rules but this posting intends to act as a reminder on some of the rules we should be following even though it is tempting to take shortcuts:

  • Don’t just start building the model, a third of the time should be spent on the specification and design, a third on building and a third on testing.
  • Put every variable on a variables sheet, all of them! It may be handy to have a 10% overhead variable just next to the results table so it can be changed quickly but don’t, someone else will come along and miss it.
  • And plan for that ‘someone else’ it’s not ‘your’ model for ever, someone else needs to know how it works, including you when you don’t use it for six months! Create a simple flowchart in the front sheet of the model and produce an operating manual – and allow plenty of time for this important activity. If the time is not available then, again, maybe a spreadsheet model is not the most appropriate tool for the job.
  • Of course the flowchart will be easy to do because your spreadsheet obeys the principle of having inputs, calculations and results on separate sheets. To be clear on the last point – don’t perform any calculations on your input or results sheets, and it goes without saying that your results sheets are just that, nothing else.
  • Don’t have any hard coded values in your formulae – there’s a VAT change coming so just change the standard rate of VAT variable once and every formula that requires the application of VAT looks to that cell or the range name called ‘VAT’.
  • VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP are difficult to audit and you can be caught out when you insert a column or row in the source tables at a later date. If you do use them then use the COLUMN or ROW functions to create a dynamic link to the source data or, better still, use a combination of INDEX and MATCH functions.
  • Make your timescale dynamic. Have the start period as a variable and have the column headings as functions. And have the start period in the same column on every spreadsheet.

There is lots of guidance on spreadsheet modelling best practice; one of the most widely recognised is the document of the same name by Nick Read and Jonathan Batson published by ICAEW and easily accessible through the internet. You can also call Blue-Plate but whatever you do, obey the rules and don’t take shortcuts – you’ll be rewarded in the long term.

Stephen Lockwood


Developing a Target Operating Model

September 24, 2009

“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” – Yogi Berra

When an organisation embarks on radical change, a representation of how the organisation is proposed to operate in the future may be required in the form of a Target Operating Model (TOM).  Developing a TOM is a cross functional team effort with, for example, the finance function describing how financial processes and systems support the business and its regulatory obligations.  A fully developed TOM will usually comprise a graphical representation with supporting explanatory documentation.

This article provides some ideas from practical experience of how to develop a TOM and the particular issues for finance.  Furthermore, it considers why TOMs often have a completely different look and feel from each other despite using a common development framework.  This development framework is structured around the various dimensions that comprise any organisation, rather like the musical instruments that form an orchestra.

TOM dimensions

The TOM and supporting documentation will seek to cover all the dimensions that show how an organisation is structured, operated and managed to deliver its strategy.  These dimensions are depicted in the graphic below and expanded upon as follows:

TOM dimensions

TOM dimensions

  1. Process – describing the grouping and scope of activities, customers, products, controls and rule sets in support of the customer lifecycles and value propositions.  The customer value propositions describe each type of customer, what they value and are prepared to pay for.
  2. Operating Units – describing the objectives, scope and locations, where relevant, for each type of operating unit.  The operating units may, for example, be call centres in differing geographic locations, manufacturing plants, shared service centres or outsourced facilities.
  3. Technology – the systems and other technologies required to support the business processes and deliver the customer value propositions.
  4. People – profile of the resource requirements, characteristics of desired attitudes and behaviours, skills and competencies.
  5. Organisation structures –legal and operating units, divisions, functions and reporting lines.
  6. Implementation Road Map – setting out the timescales, risks, phasing and programme management required to implement the TOM.
  7. Performance Management – uniquely blends all the dimensions together, enabling the organisation to be coherently managed to meet its objectives.  This is similar to the way a conductor will lead musicians in an orchestra and rehearse to play either Bach or Gershwin.

Finance problems

There are many issues that the finance team will need to address as they contribute to the TOM, including for example:

  • The scope of finance activities?

What is a finance activity and where does “finance” begin and end?  This will not be obvious as activities that will have a financial impact, may be carried out by business operational staff.  Such staff will not report to the finance function and may be unaware of the accounting impact of their activities, for example, insurance claims processing, customer account opening, credit underwriting and control.

  • Dependencies between finance and business systems and processes

Development of a TOM may also highlight the dependency of finance on the seamless flow of transactional data between business and financial systems.  It is not unusual to discover that a large proportion of finance resources are consumed in reconciling accounting transactions with real world transactional events recorded on the business systems.   For example, reconciling claims recorded as paid by the accounting system with those recorded on the claims insurance system.  Such reconciliation activities merely highlight the air gap and lack of integration between systems.  Such air gaps may be easy to design out of the “logical” TOM but will need to be followed through in the “physical” TOM in terms of investment in changes to systems and processes.

Depending on the purpose of the TOM and the constraints of time and complexity, it may be that not all the dimensions need to be addressed at the same time. A phased approach can be taken, in order to develop a representation that is fit for purpose, that is when enough has been achieved in order to make some progress.

Despite the use of a common framework in developing the TOMs, the resulting look and feel of each TOM can be very different.  On reflection, this should be no surprise as TOMs are an outcome of the type of organisation, the design principles, the primary driver for change and the point at which the TOM is considered to be fit for purpose.

Why change?

The ultimate driver for change is to improve business performance but organisations will usually prioritise their perceived greatest weakness or business imperative as the start point, which may be:

  • To deliver customer service and value:
    • Front line personnel often confuse working hard and conformance with procedures as evidence of customer service.  The more difficult challenge is to work out customers’ real needs and what they truly value and are prepared to pay for.
    • The start point for the TOM is, therefore, likely to be focused on the process dimensions with the development of differentiated customer value propositions, customer lifecycles and supporting processes.
  • To restructure an organisation that has evolved and lost its coherence:
    • It is often easier for organisations to establish new divisions, departments and functions than to close them down when no longer adding value, which may not be obvious.  This can be due to a combination of the organisational units’ naturally having a vested interest in prolonging the life of their operations, allied with budgeting systems that may challenge proposed new investments but not the existing cost base.  Over time, a poorly structured organisation creates frictional costs and frustrations in trying to manage and hold it together, that can no longer be ignored.
    • The start point for the TOM may, therefore, be focused on the organisation structures and process dimensions with the development of a coherent logical process and organisational design.
  • To integrate following a merger or acquisition:
    • Obtaining economies of scale and cost saving synergies will often be a key benefit to be realised from any business merger or acquisition.  However, it will be important to ensure that there is a complete understanding of what is critical to preserve from the old to the new integrated organisation.  This may encompass strategies for administering the current book of business, maintaining legacy systems, developing new business and preserving customer relationships.
    • The start point for the TOM may, therefore, be the organisation dimension in developing the structure for the integrated business, before moving on to the process and technology dimensions to design the supporting process and system designs.
  • To reduce and simplify the number of systems and processes in order to operate a common set across an organisation:
    • As organisations evolve, they will, at some point, find they have a disparate portfolio of systems and processes that become inefficient and costly to maintain.  However, the design of a rationalised system design is often easier said than done, as systems are at the heart of even the smallest of organisations and any heart intervention can be life threatening.
    • The start point for the TOM will, of course, be the technology dimension, closely followed by the process and people dimensions.
  • To reduce costs and improve the cost/income ratios and shareholder returns:
    • When cost/income ratios and shareholder returns become uncompetitive and unsustainable, action may be required as a matter of survival.  Very often, this translates into a sole focus on reducing headcount or across the board cuts rather than a more considered approach across all the organisational dimensions.  Aside from the wholesale closure of a business unit, any form of headcount reduction based upon a selection process, must be done in a way that is seen as being fair and equitable e.g. performance evaluation.
    • The start point for the TOM will often, therefore, be the people dimensions, to determine the future resource requirements, culture and accountabilities.
  • Business transformation to deliver a substantial performance improvement:
    • A particularly far-sighted or desperate management may wish to completely transform the business by addressing the why, how and where it generates value.  Such an approach will, of course, necessitate addressing all the dimensions of a TOM, driven by a clear business model.   The physical delivery of such a TOM, will also require a particularly well constructed and supported implementation road map.
    • The start point for the TOM is likely to be the process dimension to ensure that the customer value propositions and lifecycles to deliver the strategy and business model are clarified and understood.  Such clarity will ensure that systems, processes and structures have a customer focus.

Understanding the various dimensions may provide a conceptual start point for describing what a TOM is but not how to start the process of its development.  Stakeholders must take ownership of the TOM which needs a participative approach across the organisation, ideally via a project team comprising a mix of full and part-time stakeholder representatives.  A workshopping approach to the TOM development should be considered, as it enables the collaborative participation and mixing of stakeholders and personnel at all levels.  This is an effective mechanism, to not only solving issues but building team spirit and spreading knowledge around the participants, who may not normally work together.

The input of external suppliers, customers and intermediaries is also crucially important as organisational boundaries become blurred with the increasing use of outsourcing. The trend to outsource previously in-house responsibilities for back-office functions, manufacturing and logistics means that contract and relationship management becomes a core competence.  The development of a TOM to describe new ways of working provides a unique opportunity to have a conversation with external stakeholders in a different way from what they are used to.  This conversation should be through the project team and not the normal relationship management route, be it a salesman, account, procurement or contract manager.  The focus of the conversation is around walking in the customer’s/supplier’s shoes to understand the nature and quality of the interaction between them and the organisation.  Typically, customers welcome the opportunity to talk confidentially and openly about the relationship to someone whose motivation is not to sell them more products.  Suppliers also welcome the opportunity to convey the trade-offs they may be forced to make in dealing with a procurement function that may be solely focused on price, without regard to service and the security of the supply chain.

  • Key issues

In summary, I can offer the following tips to developing a TOM:

  1. Understand at the outset, the strategic and business driver for the change that is driving the TOM.
  2. Understand the value that the organisation wants to deliver to its customers.
  3. Identify the customer lifecycle and the key points of customer interactions.
  4. Produce the TOM in two stages; the logical design before delving into the detail of the physical delivery systems and processes.
  5. During the logical phase, think process in order to cut across functional silos. For example, finance processes and activities should be followed through to the management and business operational processes and not stop at the boundary of the finance function.
  6. Identify the distinctive skills and competencies required to deliver value to customers.
  7. Model the whole business within scope, not just particular functions.
  8. The development process must be inclusive and participative, involving end customers and intermediaries.
  9. Time is of the essence in managing expectations; have major milestones no longer than three months.

10.  Produce a gap analysis explaining how life will be different between the current and future TOM. Plan how this gap will be bridged.

As well as pressure for increased efficiencies, finance functions are increasingly being challenged with responsibility for developing a finance TOM and realising the due diligence benefits arising from acquisitions.  A TOM design approach provides finance with the opportunity for fresh thinking and to more fully integrate finance and business activities and so remove wasteful activities and associated costs.

Finally, of course, the development of a TOM is more an art than science so artistic flair and inspiration plays an important part in its final representation.  This representation, however, can prove less important than the process of collaboration, participation, challenge and consensus building created across the organisation in its development.  It’s the journey and not just the destination that often delivers the real benefit!

(This posting has been reproduced by the evaluation centre at http://www.evaluationcentre.com)


Catch Up? Coach Up!

April 30, 2009

To be the best, finance people need good coaching.

There are some areas where increasing performance demands are easier to see than others.  Take English soccer for example.  The Premier League is today regarded as the best in the world.  And increasing standards can be seen in the lower divisions too.  Watching a game last week in the Championship, the old second division, it was faster, more skilful and more entertaining than most top-tier games were 20 years ago.

It struck me that same is true of accounting and finance, though perhaps the changes are not so visible.  Accountants don’t have to juggle a ball like Ronaldo, but they do have to juggle increasingly complex sets of rules and regulations, systems and applications, technical tools and the like.  They don’t usually need the emotional resilience needed to come from 3-nil down at half-time to win on penalties, but it would be wrong to underestimate the stresses of working under constant and sometimes extreme time pressure, where errors can have serious consequences.  And now, more than ever, accountants need to be team players, able to contribute to the game plan and adjust it on the fly, to cover defence solidly, support attacks with flair and help control the game from midfield.

I don’t want to overwork the comparison, but there is a serious point here.  Football’s advances have been made with the support of increasing numbers of expert coaches focusing on every aspect of player performance: ball-play; physical strength and endurance; emotional and psychological strength; and team play and tactics.  Accountants have mostly had to do without such support.

A recent report from the ACCA shows that accountants are beginning to catch up, but still have some way to go.  Traditional forms of training are usually best for developing basic technical knowledge and skills.  But for a rising accountant, such core knowledge and skills are taken as read.  What is harder to teach in a classroom is how those skills can be applied creatively to solve complex, situation-specific challenges.  These challenges punctuate our well-controlled routines and test not only technical know-how, but often ethical, organisational and political skills too.  These are the situations where effective coaching can be most effective.  Traditionally, coaching has happened almost by accident, as a by-product of other interactions.  But conscious, skilled coaching can strengthen and accelerate learning and development, generate better decisions, and permanently raise the standard of performance of individuals and teams.

The challenges of developing emotional skill sets among accountants are famously, and not entirely without justification, judged considerable.  Let’s face it, we’re all, to some extent, congenital technocrats and not always comfortable with our own, never mind others’ emotions.  Yet it is almost impossible to succeed as a first-level supervisor, never mind as a senior manager, without developing good “people” skills, and these become more important, the more senior we become.  If the key to dealing well with others is to deal well with ourselves, this is where a different form of coaching is invaluable: one which accelerates and deepens our understanding of how we operate in given situations, and how we interact with our colleagues.

It is also increasingly the case that accountants have to be active team players, engaged with and contributing to all aspects of the business.  The FD cannot be “the one who says no”.  The challenge is to help make strategy possible by finding the best ways to finance new developments, manage the financial risks, and maximise the returns from existing business.  The current recession places even more emphasis on this role: there are enormous opportunities out there, but capturing them  will require real financial strength and ingenuity – the markets and the banks will no longer look kindly on proposals built on hopes and aspirations, or on clever manipulations.  And again, the challenges of getting accountants into this position are best met through skilled and experienced coaching.

If we expect finance people to perform at the highest level then, just like top-class footballers, they’re going to need expert coaching and development at all levels and covering all aspects of their game, and particularly for the emerging challenges in dealing more effectively both with people and relationships, and with roles that require them to be at the very heart of business strategy development and execution.  In my next pieces, I’ll follow-up with some thoughts on how best this can be achieved and, critically for us finance types, some thoughts on defining and measuring the benefits.

Gerry Quinn


Accountants the New Carbon Counters?

April 21, 2009

There Is No Accounting For Carbon

They are often patronisingly labelled bean counters by those who envy the charisma and exciting lifestyles of accountants.  However, carbon counter could become the new label as accountants face up to the challenge of accounting for sustainability in greenhouse gas emissions within their organisations’ management and financial reporting systems.

Unlike double-entry bookkeeping there are no agreed standards, disciplines, measures or policies for carbon counting, reporting and auditing.  As a result, corporate social responsibility and environmental reporting have become marketing opportunities for corporations to flaunt their green credentials without having any material impact on their business operations and competitive position.

Traditional financial reporting details the financial costs but not the associated carbon impacts.  The challenge for accountants is to devise the measures, mechanisms and disciplines to report upon the carbon impact of their organisation’s activities, for example:

  • If a $1m has been spent on travel, what has been the associated carbon emission impacts?
  • If a $1m is forecast to be spent on travel, how can the carbon impacts be mitigated?
  • How do we fully account for all the energy consumed in the production and delivery of a product or service across the whole end to end process?

More Than Just Accounting

Embedding in an organisation the ideas and practices of accounting for sustainability provides a broader challenge than just traditional just accounting.  The energy management aspects encompass a whole range of issues including:

  • Culture – real acceptance by the whole organisation that reducing climate change emissions is not only a public good and socially responsible, but can be compatible with longer term financial stability.  Day to day behaviours and decision making must be guided and informed by publicised standards of corporate ethics and beliefs in climate change sustainability.
  • Physical infrastructure – installation of the equipment to measure and mitigate climate change emissions.  This may encompass the replacement or scrapping of carbon and energy inefficient equipment, the installation of additional metering of energy usage, carbon sequestration and other post emission clean-up technologies.
  • Business case – development of a compelling strategic and financial rationale for any investment required to build the infrastructure and account for sustainability.  Being  cheap and dirty  may no longer be a sustainable business strategy for any organisation, including its suppliers.  The potential material up-front investment must be presented not only in financial terms, but also in a longer term strategic context encompassing the impacts on the organisation’s brand and values.  These non-financial considerations will also need to be expressed in a way that enables a fair evaluation alongside the traditional financial criteria and tools of hurdle rates, payback periods and discounted cash flows.
  • Management systems and processes – the formulation of energy management policies setting out the rationale and commitment to energy management, the objectives in terms of carbon reductions and an implementation plan.  Any such plan must also be supported by processes to monitor energy usage in order that timely management interventions can be made to reduce energy usage and minimise environmental impacts.
  • Financial management information – the development or enhancement of activity based costing systems to attribute the true financial and emission impacts of energy usage to the appropriate products and processes.
  • Procurement – organisational boundaries have become increasingly fuzzy as activities are outsourced and the supply network becomes more integrated in the whole process of product development and the delivery of customer value.  For an organisation to embark upon any programme to become climate change responsible, it must encompass the whole supply network and not get caught out by the inadvertent use of sweat shops and dirty chimneys.
  • Programme management – bringing about any change efficiently and effectively, especially one where the time span is likely to measured in years rather than months, requires a degree of forethought and planning.  The scope of change required to embed and operationalise an energy management policy cuts across an organisation’s functional silos.   A cross-discipline approach is therefore required,  where accountants, engineers, marketers and buyers will need to collaborate and talk a common language.

The Role of Consultants

Consultants, as part of an integrated team with in-house personnel, can play a pivotal role in kick-starting and facilitating the whole process of becoming more energy efficient by:

  • Designing the energy management programme by setting out the objectives, phases, activities, interdependencies, time-frames, roles and responsibilities required to bridge the gap between the current and future states.
  • Programme management to ensure that milestones are met, that activities are properly planned, resourced and carried out and the right balances are struck along the way.
  • Stakeholder management to ensure that all stakeholders are identified, engaged and their expectations actively managed.
  • Facilitating a collaborative and knowledge sharing work environment for those both directly and indirectly involved in the programme.
  • Providing technical expertise not only with regard to the mechanics and techniques of implementing an energy management policy, but also with regard to specific inputs that may be required with regard to, for example, new technologies, management processes and the development of energy management and accounting policies.

The Role of Accountants

An energy management policy can provide a unique opportunity for accountants to expand their influence by engaging with the disparate parts of their organisation in its development and implementation.  Such a policy, having the objective to improve the efficient use of energy consumption and reductions in emissions, will require the monitoring of performance measures and a strategy for interventions to manage the outcomes.   Although energy management is not a new concept, the emphasis has altered from a cost management perspective to one of greenhouse gas  emissions and social responsibility.  In addition, the challenge for accountants is to develop  the skills, competencies and a similar set of generally accepted disciplines and measures that enable greenhouse gas emissions to be accounted for in a way that is comparable with that used for more traditional accounting.