by BILL WADDELL
My last post warned against ignoring a 1980's idea – Eli Goldratt's Theory of Constraints. You don't want to hang on to everything from the '80's, however. Disco, for one, is best left behind. Another to distance yourself as much as possible from is Activity Based Costing (ABC). The same two clients I mentioned in the prior post were spending a lot of time working on, polishing, and waxing eloquently about their ABC concepts.
Let me make it very, very clear: Activity Based Costing is not Lean Accounting, it does not support lean manufacturing, it is not better than traditional standard costing, it is not leaner than traditional standard costing. It has no role whatsoever in the lean journey. It's most recent attempt to rise from the grave – "Time Driven Activity Based Costing" – is like putting an Armani suit on a monkey. It may make him look a little more sophisticated, but it does not change the fact that he is a monkey.
At the end of the day, Activity Based Costing is nothing other than a more complicated method of assigning costs to products, even though those costs have little or nothing to do with the products. Jean Cunningham, a true lean wizard if there ever was one - wrote a book along with a few other folks about lean accounting called "Real Numbers". Activity Based Costing does not enable you to generate 'real numbers' – just different numbers. ABC generated numbers will not help you make any better decisions. If anything, they will drive you to make more bad decisions.
One of the benefits you realize from reading Evolving Excellence is that one of the contributors – me – happens to be very old – old enough to have been one of the gang that met over the course of several years in Dallas back in the 1980's under the auspices of an organization called CAM-I (Computer Aided Manufacturing- International) in which Activity Based Costing was born. So I know very well what we were thinking and what we did. And I know that, in spite of good intentions, we were wrong. We were still suffering from the illusion that Full Absorption Accounting was basically right, and that taking all of the costs to the balance sheet through inventory valuation was the right thing to do. Worst of all, we were driven by the belief that GAAP based income statements and balance sheets were correct, and that the challenge was to find a better way to manage the details to better control those GAAP generated results. In short, we lacked the wisdom, courage or both to step up to the fatal flaws in traditional cost accounting.
Lean Accounting is the only approach to manufacturing accounting that will give you accurate, relevant information. It is driven by three fundamental principles:
1. Cash is the only real money. Your accounting must be cash based as much as practical
2. Allocations are inherently inaccurate. (This is where ABC falls flat. It is just another allocation method)
3. Costs must be accumulated in Value Streams, rather than 'cost centers'
The good news is that ABC is complicated and difficult. So stop doing it and save yourself a lot of time and aggravation. Lean Accounting is straightforward and simple. Stop using standard costs no matter how they were calculated for anything – especially measuring yourself or setting prices. Get on with Lean Accounting, and get on with the lean journey.