Why most planning, budgeting and analysis processes are incomplete and what you can do to change that
There is a common saying that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. We don't know who came up with this saying, although Albert Einstein, among several other notable individuals have been credited with the origin of it.
I don't entirely agree with this definition and imagine it is inaccurate from a clinical standpoint, but understand well that continually performing the same set of tasks and settling for a limited set of results may often be fruitless and in the case of finance operations a poor way to achieve certain goals and deliver meaningful results to management.
One example that really stands out is the planning and budget process that usually begins several months before the start of a new fiscal year and for many companies ends around the beginning of the new fiscal year. This is a mystery to me since I always believed that this process should be a year-round process, always incorporating periodic analysis of actual results vs. budget with periodic reforecasting as needed following the analysis, as well as a clear forecast of the future financial position of the company, derived from the budget and its periodic re-forecasts.
This means that the planning, budgeting and analysis process should be an integral part of finance operations and never stop when the annual budget is approved and the new fiscal year begins.
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For some reason, perhaps more than one, this is not the case in many organizations. It's like running a race and dropping out before reaching the finish line and not for any medical reason, like exhaustion, but simply because of not realizing that there is a finish line ahead. This analogy may seem strange but helps to illustrate this phenomenon.
I've seen more than a few very skilled financial analysts and finance departments equipped with powerful modeling and planning software solutions, spending an incredible amount of time developing elaborate revenue and expense models, with massive consolidations of dozens of business units' budget worksheets. These were presented in a budget book for management to review and approve, at which time the budget process was complete, with the same type of activity repeating year after year. Some companies used their budgets year round to compare with the actual results but to my mind few of these organizations actually reached the finish line.
Where is the finish line in a finance department's budget process, or more importantly, what is that finish line?
My view on this is that the traditional planning and budgeting process is only one piece, though essential, in the entire process The Benefits of an All Encompassing Budget. Adding periodic analysis of budget and actual data is the next logical step towards a complete and useful process, but one more very important step must exist in order for the finance department to be able to claim that they crossed the finish line.
That step is willing and actually being able to forecast the organization's Balance Sheet and have that statement always synchronized to the forecasted Income Statement and all budget data and assumptions used in building the budget model. This is essential, and only by having an accurate and complete Balance Sheet for every period in the budget, can management assess the future financial position of their company.
With the forecasted Balance Sheet comes the benefit of having a complete and accurate forecasted Statement of Cash Flows, an indispensable tool that no business owner or manager should be without.
Most finance organizations don't cross this finish line, at least not yet. Those that do, rely on the next generation of planning, budgeting and analysis software solutions that are becoming more available to even small and medium size companies. You must, however, be careful when selecting such a software solution, as you must choose an application that is an extension of your actual accounting GL, one that uses its own, independent GL Why Have a General Ledger in a Budgeting Software? where future budget period transactions are automatically made by the system, from your supplied budget data and company business rules entered in the software.
Other solutions that don't have a built-in budget GL will never be able to achieve accuracy and completeness of the Balance Sheet and the Statement of Cash Flows. They may be able to arrive at a rough approximation of account balances through high level formulas but this should not be relied on for critical decision making.
By now you certainly realize that expecting different results from your current process is not going to happen unless you are willing to change your outlook about the process and acquire the right tools in order to be able to affect the change. Only when you do that, can management start to receive the data they urgently need to make more accurate and timely decisions. Only then, can you confidently say you have crossed the finish line.