Lean Accounting: Aligning the Lean Organization

by Nick Katko, President of BMA and Lean Accounting pioneer

Lean is first and foremost a business strategy based on 5 principles: creating customer value; organizing the business around its value streams; creating flow and pull; empowering employees and continuous improvement. The impact of these principles creates change throughout the organization, and the entire business must be aligned to execute the strategy.

Companies use their management accounting system is to align company strategy with its business model of operating practices by providing relevant data to all levels of management for decision-making and financial analysis.

Lean Accounting is the management accounting system for a lean organization. It provides the relevant financial and nonfinancial information necessary to execute the lean strategy and drive financial success.

This article will explain how and why Lean Accounting creates strategic and operational alignment in 5 areas of a lean organization:

  1. Alignment with Lean Strategy
  2. Alignment of the accounting function
  3. Alignment of performance measurements
  4. Alignment of financial information
  5. Alignment with financial management practices

1. Alignment with the Lean Strategy

Lean is a multi-faceted business strategy, with a primary focus on employees and learning. Through the use of various lean tools, practices and methods, employees learn to master their work, solve the right problems and help an organization learn how to doing things tomorrow it cannot do today. That’s why we should always talk about “lean thinking” as opposed to “doing lean”.

Lean also changes the way an organization thinks about making money. The financial impact of a lean strategy is well known – all we need to do is look at the many companies that have been successful in their transformations. We know that focusing an organization on customer value will result in revenue growth, and that the deployment of lean tools and techniques that create flow and eliminate waste will result in improved cost management. These are the economics of lean.

But before any of that appears, a fundamental shift must occur in what and how an organization measures itself operationally and financially. Financial management must be aligned with the economics of lean, and that’s what lean accounting is all about.

To achieve success, a lean organization must develop an effective and efficient accounting function that complements its financial accounting system to provide a knowledge base for effectively making decisions about the future (this is critical because the focus of financial accounting is on past activity). Lean accounting makes relevant information available to decision makers on a timely basis.

In a broader context, lean accounting is a financial learning system for the entire organization, not just the accounting function. Because the economics of lean changes the relationships between operations and financial numbers, the whole business must learn the new relationships and incorporate the dynamic context of these relationships in their financial analysis.

Now, here’s the challenge: the financial impact of lean is neither direct nor immediate, which is counter to traditional short-term business financial thinking. A lean organization considers employees and time to be its two most important assets. Helping employees to learn how to better use an organization’s time to deliver value to customers is a long-term strategy. This is accomplished though continuous improvement, which focuses the employees’ attention on maximizing value-added activities and eliminating non-value activities. Lean accounting uses this information to calculate value stream capacity and incorporate the impact of capacity into all financial analyses.

Internal financial management in a lean organization must be focused around the flow of money, rather than externally-reported financial results. External financial results can be impacted by compliance with accounting reporting requirements, which most people in a business do not understand. By focusing financial analysis around the flow of money, all functions in an organization can perform consistent, reliable financial analyses that will result in long-term financial growth.

All functions in a lean company must learn and understand the impact of their particular financial decisions based around the correlations between lean operational performance, resource capacity and financial numbers.

A Real-Life Example

Here is a simple real-life example of the benefits of using lean accounting practices for financial management and analysis. It is the story of an Italian company Auxiell & BMA have been supporting since March 2017. We started by creating box scores in one value stream (heating elements), which they then began  to use for financial analysis.

A customer recently requested a quote for a custom heating element product. The price the customer wanted was less than the standard cost of the product. In the past, the sales team would have not accepted this order because the product would “lose money” on a standard cost perspective after about one week’s worth of e-mail discussion between business functions.

Instead, the Corporate Controller assembled a cross-functional team of people from operations, engineering, purchasing, sales and finance to look at this opportunity using the box score. First, the sales representative explained the opportunity – the sales volume, the specific component parts required and the sales price. The total revenue of this opportunity was calculated by finance.

Next, the engineering representative discussed the functionality of the component parts and it was determined that the customer’s product specifications would be achieved. A bill of material was created. Purchasing then derived the cost of the new components from the bill of material, and total material cost was calculated by finance.

Operations asked sales many questions about the total volume of the order over the expected timeframe of delivery and it was determined that they had available capacity to produce the order. Because capacity was available, there was no additional labor or machine costs associated with this order.

Finance calculated the actual profitability of the order: the total revenue less the total material cost, and the consensus of the team was the order should be accepted at the price the customer desired.

This is a very simple example of using lean accounting information and lean financial management practices to evaluate business decisions in alignment with a lean strategy. The long-term benefit of this alignment is unlocking the financial potential of lean though better financial analysis and decision-making.

2. Alignment of Accounting Function

Accounting  professionals are trained to be “doers” of accounting. Accounting training and education is about how to perform accounting tasks, from learning the basics of journal entries in Accounting 101 to how to close the month and report regulatory compliant financial statements.

Looking at this thinking from a lean viewpoint, the readers and users of a company’s financial statements are the customers, and they value quality, delivery and speed. These customers are served by the financial accounting system of a company.

The accounting function has another set of customers – internal customers who need relevant financial and operational information to understand the relationships between operating performance and financial performance, along with the ability to make financial decisions consistent with company strategy. These internal customers are served by the management accounting system of a company.

To understand lean accounting, accountants need to adjust their perspective from “doing” financial accounting to “practicing” lean management accounting. The first step to begin practicing lean accounting is to change thinking in the accounting function by breaking away from thinking of all of their work on a “month-to-month” basis of producing financial statements.

Lean accounting is like lean – it is a never-ending journey. The journey is practicing lean accounting and the destination is continuous financial organization improvement. This journey never ends because the destination is not final. This is the first change in perspective for accountants– changing the way we think about accounting in a lean organization. It’s not just about the technical ability of accounting to produce financial statements, it’s also about the organization as an internal customer.

Management accounting is more of a continuous process that is practiced throughout the organization on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis. The needs of the users of management accounting are more dynamic based on business conditions. A successful lean strategy is based on relevant, accurate and timely financial and nonfinancial information, which is supplied by a management accounting system.

The second change in perspective for accountants is the understanding and accepting continuous improvement. All business processes can improve in a lean organization, including accounting processes. It’s not that the accounting processes are bad, it’s simply that they can get better. It’s important for accountants to change the way they think about the processes they “own.” Accounting is not exempt from improvement.

The final change in perspective for accountants is creating value for your internal customers. Accountants are very good at understanding and delivering value to external customers because the quality of our work is based on GAAP/IFRS, tax laws and other regulations. Internal customers in lean organizations value specific, relevant, timely, actionable information & data which support lean practices. Accountants need to listen to what their internal customers value and deliver on that value by making the necessary adjustments to accounting processes to deliver the exact value desired.

3. Align Measures with Operating Performance

Lean companies recognize that optimization of the entire value stream flow is the primary goal of lean operating practices, tools and methods, and this goal must take precedence against all departmental goals. When it comes to measuring operating performance, lean companies employ a different philosophy than traditional measurement systems: understand the present to change the future. This forms the basis for making improvements. Improving future performance to better serve customers will require specific actions and changes to current operational activities.

Traditional measurements have two common characteristics – they are financially based and developed around the vertical structure of the organization. Financially based measurements (any numbers with dollar signs in front of them) are automatically backward- looking. Sure, the root cause could be identified, but there’s nothing that can be done to change the outcome, because it’s already happened. In traditional manufacturing companies, performance analysis is often based around comparing the actual performance with standards set in a standard costing system. A standard costing system generates rate & volume variances by design. Standards are entered into the system, actual is reported into the system and variances are created.

Traditional operational measures are usually deployed based the vertical structure of the company. The goal of such a system is to maximize each department’s performance. This creates complexity.

First, there are usually way too many measures.  I’ve seen plants that have upwards of 50 -100 performance measures. Even if the measures are good, it is impossible for a plant location to try to maximize performance in that many areas, and it forces the plants to make trade-offs. Second, these measures are often disconnected from the real operational issues affecting a plant because they are decided upon by top management and dictated to the plant.

Existing performance measurements that are not lean-focused must be eliminated from the business; otherwise conflict will occur. Performance measures that are based solely on the vertical structure of the company must be eliminated or modified. The modification of these measures requires that the department, such as quality or supply chain, have measures on the department that focus on its ability to support the value stream.  In a traditionally structured company, the department dictates performance to operations; in a lean company, the value stream dictates performance to the department.

Lean performance measures must be simple and easy to calculate so they can be reported frequently – hourly, daily or weekly.  Simple measures which are timely and easy to understand will focus teams on identifying the root causes of poor performance.  This is fundamental to driving productivity improvements.

Basic Lean Performance Measurements

Flow – The best measure of flow is related to inventory velocity – turns or days.  Creating flow will allow more demand to flow through the value stream and will drive revenue growth. Improving flow creates more capacity to meet additional demand without increasing costs.

Quality – Poor quality interrupts flow, causes late deliveries, lowers customer satisfaction and negatively impacts productivity. Measuring defects at the source means defects will be discovered quickly, root causes will be easier to identify and continuous improvement will ultimately reduce defect rates.

Delivery – delivering on-time to the customer request date has the potential to set a company apart from the competition. Meet the customers’ needs in terms of delivery creates value, which will drive growth in revenue.

Order Fulfillment Lead Times – lead time is the total time from receipt of a customer order to delivery of the product to the customer. Lead time is an excellent performance measure precisely because it requires looking at how the value stream performs as a system, rather than just looking at the individual process steps of the value stream.  Short lead times create value for customers and creates a competitive advantage for a company.

Productivity – Lean companies define productivity as output (such as revenue) divided by input (resources required). If lean practices are in place and delivering value to customers, then demand will be increasing. Likewise, if lean practices are eliminating waste, a company will be able to sell, make, and ship more products and services without increasing the resources in the value stream.

Lean companies create and continuously improve flow in value streams. This is the basic business operational model of a lean strategy.  The lean company doesn’t need to measure everything; it just needs to measure the right things.  If the measurements are aligned with the principles of lean the expected outcomes will occur.

4. Alignment of Financial Information

External financial statements must comply with financial accounting regulations, which often times results in a disconnect between operational activities and financial results. Analysis of financial results is a necessary exercise to provide more detailed explanation to the readers of the financial statements  but does not provide much insight into how to change the future, which is what a lean strategy wants to accomplish.

To create alignment between value stream operations and financial results, it is necessary to create value stream income statements for internal use. Value stream income statements provide better insight into the root causes of cost behavior and can be used to create more predictive financial analysis when analyzing business decisions.

The “lean logic” behind a value stream income statement is based on two lean principles:

  1. Value Streams – the definition of a value stream is the sequence of activities from order receipt to shipment that are necessary to create the product or service and deliver either the customer. Lean companies organize, manage & control by value stream. The lean accounting definition of a value stream is it is a profit center. Therefore, internally a company will  want to look at each value stream’s profitability, since each value stream can be considered a separate line of business.
  2. Flow – the definition of flow is to move all orders as fast as possible through a value stream from receipt to shipment by employing lean practices and eliminating waste.  From a lean accounting viewpoint, the reducing the rate of flow maximizes value stream profit. The faster the flow, the more revenue will grow. Eliminating wastes controls total value stream costs. Improving flow impacts both value stream revenue and costs.

A value stream income statement is simply a different way to present the financial accounting information in a company’s general ledger that makes it relevant, timely and actionable to value streams.

Value stream income statements do not attempt assign every cost to a value stream, only the actual costs the value stream can control. Cost allocations or rate-based costs are avoided. Value stream income statements assign costs where the spending decision made or actual operating activity occurs. Value stream income statements avoid using any sort of expense allocation system or rate-based systems.

The value stream organization is the actual people, machines & resources that work in each value stream. Using value stream maps, it should not be difficult for to assign the actual direct costs to each value stream, such a labor, facility and machine costs. Actual value stream material cost is the cost of material consumed during a period, which may not match exactly with the products sold.

These principles of a value stream income statement create alignment between the flow of orders through a value stream, the flow of information through a value stream and the flow of money through a value stream. Improving the flow of money through a value stream will improve the reporting financial results over time.

5. Lean Financial Management Practices

Lean companies organize their entire operations around value streams. The simplest definition of a value stream is all of the necessary process steps from receipt of a customer order to delivery of the order. Value streams cut across the traditional department structure. The goal of a lean business is to flow orders through their value streams as fast as possible, with the highest quality.

Most financial accounting systems are based on a traditional department structure. Accounting uses their financial accounting systems as a source of all internal financial analysis, such as departmental expense reports & profitability analysis. Accounting also uses their financial accounting systems to maintain compliance with external reporting.

For internal financial analysis, a lean organization needs to transition away from departmental-based analysis to value stream-based analysis.  This is necessary to create alignment between internal financial statements, financial management practices and value streams, which are the primary unit of organization and management in a Lean organization.

Value streams are the profit centers of a lean business. This means all internal financial information should be focused on the profit centers of the lean business. All direct value stream expenses should be assigned to value streams, and all relevant expense analyses should be at the value stream level. Analyze expenses and profitability at the value stream level. Think of expenses as the “cost of resources” and learn how value stream performance can be improved to manage these costs by using lean performance measures to link operational performance to financial performance.

Here are 3 general guidelines lean organizations  should follow for creating an effective financial management practices around a lean strategy.

The financial impact of any decision is based on the impact on total value stream profitability. Value streams are the profit centers of a lean enterprise and all financial analysis should be performed at this level. The dynamic cause and effect relationships between value stream operating performance, capacity and profitability are real and can be modeled financially.

Stop using cost allocations! Most cost allocations have a level of subjectivity in them, such as product costs in manufacturing companies. Other cost allocations are an attempt to make a fixed cost variable by linking it to units or services produced. Using rates in financial analysis is dangerous because they can make it look like costs are decreasing, when in reality they are not changing. It is critical to eliminate cost allocations and understand the relationships between operating performance, capacity and costs using problem-solving practices. This is done by creating an environment in which true root cause analysis can be conducted on cost behavior and operational solutions can be put in place to achieve the desired cost behavior.

Here is an example in manufacturing – direct labor costs. Standard costing systems assigns direct labor based on a direct labor rate & volume produced. If a manufacturing business was considering eliminating a product or product line, the financial analysis would show a “direct labor savings”, because direct labor is assumed to be variable. The reality in most companies is your full-time employees come to work every day and get paid a full day’s pay whether they produce 100 products per day or 500 products per day. Actual labor would decrease only if fewer employees were employed.

Lean Accounting Thinking is to begin to understand how costs change in a lean manufacturing company, without using cost allocations. If cost allocations are commonly used in a company’s in financial analysis, it’s time to begin migrating away from them by introducing the value stream income statement.

The lean idea that eliminating waste creates time – the time spent on waste is now available to create value (often described as “creating capacity”). Lean accounting incorporates this into financial management practices: the creation of time has no financial impact, but how the business uses that time does. A lean business can use this newly-created capacity to sell more products or services, and the financial impact will be increasing revenue without corresponding increases in costs.

Lean Material Cost Management

In lean accounting, a value stream income statement needs to show actual material cost, this and is typically defined as actual material purchased. Actual material purchased is used to align material cost to lean operating practices, so lean performance measurements can be used to do root cause analysis.

There are three operational stages for material after it enters a value stream:

  1. Sold – material can be processed through the value stream and sold
  2. Scrapped – material is defective and scrapped during operations
  3. Stored – material can be stored as inventory, and subsequently either sold or scrapped

At the beginning of the lean journey, material in most value streams will likely be in all 3 stages. Then as quality & flow improves, the quantity of material scrapped & stored will reduce. Eventually if a company can reach 30 days of inventory, actual material cost will be what is purchased & sold within period.

As lean manufacturing operations improves quality, value stream material cost will decrease because less material is being consumed. Using a standard lean performance measure such as first time through or scrap rate, it’s not difficult to calculate the financial impact of better quality.

As lean manufacturing operations improves flow, it will also lead less material being consumed. Using a standard lean performance measure such as inventory days or inventory turns, the financial impact of inventory reduction can be calculated. This is very important to show on a value stream income statement, because the external financial statements will not show this as reducing inventory only has a balance sheet impact – improving cash.

One financial analysis accounting needs to move away from in a lean manufacturing company is simply analyzing material price. Don’t get me wrong – the logic of lowering material prices does have a positive impact of profits. But in lean manufacturing operations, material price is balanced with supplier quality, delivery & lead time.

The price of anything is a reflection of value. Lean manufacturing operations values short lead times, high quality and on time delivery from its suppliers because this type of supplier performance will increase flow, and thus increase revenue. Suppliers that provides the best overall performance with lowest price usually become preferred suppliers.

The danger of focusing financial analysis simply on lowering material prices is the only short-term solution is large volume purchases from suppliers that offer volume price discounts. But this is “anti-lean” because it increases inventory.

Lean Production Cost Management

The purpose of a value stream income statement is to analyze current value stream costs compared to current value stream performance measures to determine root cause analysis of current costs.

Actual production costs for any value stream include the labor costs for people that work in the value stream, costs to own, lease, operate and maintain machines in the value stream, a portion of the facility/factory costs and any other production cost that can be directly attributed to the operation of a value stream.

It’s important for the entire lean organization to learn & understand the relationships between value stream performance measures and actual production costs on a value stream income statement. Understanding the root causes of value stream performance measurements reveals direct insights into the current state of production costs and also what improvements can be made operationally to reduce and/or better control production costs. Let’s look at some examples.

The cost of labor & machines in any value stream can be explained by understanding value stream productivity. A typical lean productivity measure is output divided by the number resources to produce the output. The numerator “output” is usually related to revenue. The denominator “resources”  is usually based on number of people or actual hours worked by people or machines.

The primary root cause of low productivity is that the resources are spending too much time on wasteful activities, rather than the activities that generate revenue. Eliminating the waste frees up capacity, increasing revenue without a corresponding increase in costs.

On a typical value stream income statement, actual material, labor and machine costs will account for the overwhelming majority of value stream costs, possibly up to 80% of total costs. Concentrating all efforts understand the root causes of these 3 costs using lean performance measures will create very strong cost management practices.

Financial Impact of Continuous Improvement

A lean business strategy is a business growth strategy. How this strategy works can be best summarized as follows: lean practices, tools and methods are adapted to create a culture of continuous improvement, which reduces and eliminates wasteful activities, creating available capacity. Lean companies use this available capacity to create value for their customers, which increases sales without increasing the costs related to capacity, such as labor cost.

Calculating the financial impact of continuous improvement aligns the lean strategy and lean operating practices directly with the actual impact on profitability. The financial analysis is very dynamic in the fact that value stream operating performance, capacity and profitability must be analyzed simultaneously for every improvement event. Following is the standard work for performance such a financial analysis

The first step is to understand the specific operational impact of a lean improvement, which usually results in the creation of capacity (or time). There may be some direct cost savings, such as decrease in scrap or overtime, but the primary impact of most improvement events is the creation of capacity. The resulting financial analysis is based on determining how to use available capacity to grow revenue and/or making other decisions about the available capacity.

Revenue growth opportunities should be looked at in the classic marketing approach:

  • Can we sell more existing products to existing customers?
  • Can we develop new customers for our existing products?
  • Can we develop new products for existing customers?
  • Can we develop new products for new customers?

Here are some issues to consider when a company is reviewing options of revenue generation:

  • What impact will lead time reduction have on your competitive position in existing markets?
  • How can you position yourself against your competitors if you lead times are less that theirs?
  • If lean principles are applied to the product development process, what impact will this have on generating revenue from new products?
  • How much available capacity will be required in generating this revenue?

Based on the different scenarios of using the available capacity to increase revenue, a future state value stream income statement can be created to show the actual impact on value stream profitability based on each scenario.

After taking into account all sales opportunities, he next step is looking at capacity. In the area of capacity management, the focus should be reallocating available capacity created through improvement efforts.

Reallocating capacity:

  • Cross train employees to create a more flexible workforce. A cross training program should be part of continuous improvement and progress measured by performance measurements
  • Assign available employees to continuous improvement activities when productive activities are not available. A formal company-wide continuous improvement program should be created that identifies employees with available capacity and matches them to continuous improvement activities.
  • Bring outsourced activities in-house. All outsourced production activities should be analyzed to determine if the company possesses the resources to perform these activities in-house. If the resources exist, bringing outsourced activities in house will reduce costs

The financial impact of reallocating capacity between value streams is to shift expenses between value streams. Transferring capacity to another value stream creates available capacity in that value stream, and sales scenarios must be modeled again.

Wrap Up

When a company commits to a lean strategy, the fundamentals of how the business operates will change as lean practices are put in place. How the business is controlled, what needs to be measured and the relevant information for business decisions will be different than “before lean.” Internal financial reports, financial analysis, measurements, data used to control the business and decision-making criteria all must support “Lean Thinking.”

Lean thinking requires the creation of a lean management accounting system. This is a journey, much like lean is a journey. Without a lean management accounting system, there is a no alignment between lean practices and the information company management will be receiving to understand how well the lean business is performing. Because management accounting systems are not externally regulated, they can be changed by companies. And changing management accounting systems in no way compromises external financial reporting.

The accounting function must assume leadership in creating a lean management accounting system. It’s vital to every lean company that this is created, maintained and improved, as it will provide all levels of management the relevant, timely financial and operational information needed to drive a lean business strategy forward to financial success.

About Nick Katko

Nick is President and Owner of BMA. Since 2002, Nick and has leveraged his Lean Accounting experience and philosophy in assisting BMA clients in developing, leading and coaching them in their Lean Accounting transformations. Clients Nick has served range of organizations world-wide from family-owned businesses to multi-national companies in industries such as manufacturing, healthcare, software, engineering and service.

Nick is an early pioneer of Lean Accounting. In the 1990’s, as CFO of Bullard, Nick implemented a complete lean management accounting system in conjunction with Bullard’s Lean transformation, which included eliminating standard costing.

Nick is a regular speaker at the annual Lean Accounting Summit and has also presented at conferences in the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Nick is the author of “The Lean CFO” (2013), which has been translated into Turkish and Italian, and co-author of “The Lean Business Management System” (2007).

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