May 222013

As we posted on Monday, Hiller Associates has a new article in IndustryWeek titled:

If Your Company Does Product Cost Reductions, It’s Already Too Late

Here’s the full re-print of the article:


Refocusing product cost management efforts from cost reduction to cost avoidance is less comfortable but far more profitable.

Executive Summary

  • Product cost is the largest expense for manufacturing and the key to profit.
  • Companies today focus on reducing cost after start of production, rather than meeting their product cost targets initially at launch.
  • A pure cost avoidance strategy is far more profitable than a pure cost reduction strategy.
  • Product cost management teaches us that the most profitable strategy is a combined strategy of both avoidance and reduction, with the majority of resources focused on avoidance.
  • The combined strategy requires culture change and process design, before hiring people or buying software. It is challenging, but the added profit gains are worth the effort

Product cost, which is roughly equivalent to cost of goods sold on the income statement, is the biggest expense for manufacturing companies, typically 70% to 90% of revenue. You can see COGS as a percent of sales for a random sample of companies in the table below.Cost of Goods Sold Hiller Associates

Given the magnitude of product cost, one would think that manufacturing companies would have the process of controlling product cost down to a fine art. Sadly, this is not true, and meeting cost targets at start of production in most companies is black art with the predictability of the stock market.

In this article, we will talk about two different strategies that companies use to control product cost. Let’s call them “cost reduction” and “cost avoidance.”

Cost Reduction vs. Cost Avoidance

Figure 1 shows a graph of product cost over time in the product life cycle. In the cost reduction strategy, the company goes through product development putting little or no effort into controlling product cost. Cost increases as parts are designed and added to the bill of material. The product is almost assured to exceed its product cost targets at the start of production. After start of production, the cost reduction efforts begin in earnest through a variety of techniques, such as lean, value analysis/value engineering, purchasing demanding year over year cost reductions, etc.

Hiller Associates Cost_Avoidance vs Reduction


A cost avoidance strategy is exactly the opposite of cost reduction. In cost avoidance, a large amount of effort is spent as early as possible in product development to meet the product’s cost target at launch. However, post launch, little effort is spent on year-over-year savings.

On the graph, we have shown the extremes of the cost reduction vs. cost avoidance strategies. Most companies are doing something in between. However, on which strategy do you think most companies focus? It’s pretty obvious from the graph, correct? Most companies obviously are going to focus on cost avoidance, correct? Right?

Why people reduce cost instead of avoiding it

The sad truth is that most companies focus the majority of the resources they use for product cost control after launch, not before. Why is this? Many who have worked in product development have heard management and others disparage cost avoidance as “not real.” Cost reductions can easily be measured; cost avoidance cannot. For example, I was paying $10 and now I am paying $8. That’s tangible and real. But, if I say, I am paying $7 now, but had I not been careful in my design, sourcing, and manufacturing decisions, I likely would have paid $10, management considers that ephemeral.

This attitude of most management is detrimental to the company’s profit. Can you imagine living your personal lives like this? Let’s say you need to get cable TV service. Would you search around carefully and find the TV channel package you wanted for $60/month? Or, would you do the following: First, do minimal shopping around and take a package for $100/month. Then, a year later, you investigate to find the “low hanging fruit” of a new deal for $90/month. Another year later, you beat on your cable supplier to reduce the price to $80/month. Next year, the “easy wins” are gone, so you really work hard to find a deal for $70/month.

We don’t shop this way in our personal lives, but most companies manage cost in this way. They do it because accountants can measure reductions. Reductions are real. People get rewarded and promoted for reductions.

Why focusing solely on cost reductions doesn’t work

Looking at Figure 2, we can split the difference between the cost reduction line and the cost avoidance line into two parts. The first is the triangular region. Even if, after years of cost reduction efforts, we were able reduce cost to the point at which the cost avoidance line starts at launch, we have still failed. In has taken years to reduce cost, and that triangular region has a name: lost profit.

Cost Avoidance Maximum Profit vs. Cost Reduction Hiller Associates.


It is actually worse than this in reality. We will NEVER get down to the same price as the cost avoidance line. We know from the legendary DARPA study from the 1960s that the vast majority of product cost is “locked in” very early in product development. Products are systems, and it’s very hard to extract cost fully without changing the whole system. Furthermore, the cost of making the change is much higher, post launch. Per a 2010 Aberdeen’s study[i], engineering changes made after release to manufacturing cost 75% more than those made before release. These trapped costs that we cannot get out are shown in the rectangular region on Figure 2.

What’s the solution? Do both and flip the focus

So far in the article, we have been talking about a 100% cost reduction strategy vs. a 100% cost avoidance strategy. The field of product cost management would teach us to focus on what practically works and generates maximum profit. In this case, the solution is to do the following two things.

  1. Do BOTH cost avoidance and cost reduction– As shown by the orange line on the graph, the most profit can be made if you meet or come close to your product cost target at start of production and then focus some effort on reduction after launch. Realize that this means that management needs to expect LESS reduction each year in production (e.g. 1% to 2% a year, not 3% to 5% a year).
  2. Flip the focus of the majority of product cost management resources before production begins– Today 70% to 90% of product cost management resources are focused on reduction. Management needs to flip the focus so the majority of effort is on avoidance.

These improvements require cultural changes in how people are incentivized and motivated. Management needs to cast the vision, educate, and walk the walk. This also requires that companies have a solid process for product cost management. Most do not. A common pit that most companies fall into when attempting this transition is to focus first on hiring more resources or buying software tools, rather than first designing a process and starting cultural change. The right people are critical, and tools can greatly enable the process. However, if the cultural and process elements are not in place FIRST, the company will waste a lot of time and money in failed attempts at product cost management and re-starts to the effort.

These are not easy changes to make, but they are worth the effort.

Consider the table at the beginning of the article again. If your company has 80% cost of goods sold and 5% net margin, then reducing COGS to 79% means a 20% increase to profit! What do you think, managers and executives? Is 20% increase in profit worth the effort? We can ponder that question in another article.

In the meantime, the next time someone disparages cost “avoidance,” show them this article and tell them, “You call it ‘cost avoidance’; I call it maximizing profit.”


May 202013

In the last few weeks, there has been a hearty discussion on this blog about controlling costs before versus after a product launches.  This got us thinking about this situation, we thought that it could be plumbed to greater depth.

Therefore, Hiller Associates is proud to announce its latest article in IndustryWeek, entitled:

If Your Company Does Product Cost Reductions, It’s Already Too Late

If you would like to read the article, click the link above to go to  Later in the week, we will post the article, in it’s entirety, on this blog.


May 062013

In last week’s post we talked about where Product Cost Management sits in the organization . We concluded that Product Cost Management lives in a weird no man’s land between purchasing, engineering, finance, and manufacturing. Because the area is a wilderness, we used the analogy the people seriously pursuing Product Cost Management in companies are similar JRR Tolkien’s legendary Rangers in the Lord of the Rings trilogy . The Rangers go about doing good and benefiting the general public, even when the public does not recognize the good they are doing.  Sometimes, the general public even considers these solitary trackers and warriors as meddling, or even, sinister. We even compared the best product cost management folks to the most famous of all Rangers, Aragorn, son of Arathorn .

Several people wrote us about this article, very pleased with the analogy comparing product cost management people to Tolkien’s Rangers. They also validated our assertion that Product Cost Management in the organization, lives between other major functions.  We must say that EVERYONE was on board with the post and feeling very good about it.

This week we’re going to burn through all that good will and make everybody angry!

We’ll do this by explaining why people from every one of the major functions in a manufacturing company are ill-equipped for Product Cost Management.  Are we doing this for the schadenfreude* of internet lulz? No, we’re doing it because we believe these paradoxes are true. These are the unspoken but often thought, truths that need to come to the light of day.

*For a PG-13 musical definition of schadenfreude from Avenue Q, click here.

It’s unfortunate we have to say this, but we’re not embarrassed of it either.  First, one disclaimer:

The statements below are obviously generalizations of the functions within the organization, as well as of the people of that make up those functions. Throughout our firm’s long experience in industry with Product Cost Management, we have met many individuals within each of these functions that do not fit the stereotypes below. However, the paradox below truths hold in general.  Any resemblances to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Why each major function in a manufacturing company is so poor at Product Cost Management


The short answer is, that engineering really doesn’t care about product cost that much. Product cost is a distant second or third , or maybe a fourth priority, compared to other product attributes such as time-to-market, quality , or performance.   We say this despite the fact that we have data of our own, as well as data from other analyst firms, that show that when asked about product cost, product development executives will prioritize it near the top (usually 1st or 2nd). However, our experience in practice is that when the rubber meets the road, product cost is not the first or second priority. On a personal level, the paradoxical thing is that engineering is actually better equipped than almost any other function to do a good job at Product Cost Management.

Product Cost Abilities by Functional Group


The reason for this is that a major challenge of Product Cost Management is linking the physical characteristics of a part (e.g geometry, features, mass , time to produce the part, etc.) to the financial (dollars and cents). Engineering lives and breathes the physical world. Engineers are trained to understand the physical world and to control it from the very first day they stepped foot into engineering school . They’re not afraid of the physical world . The problem is that product cost, despite the statements of most engineering executives, really is one of the last priorities to address when you’re in the middle of a product development program.


Finance relationship to PCM is the exact opposite of engineering . Finance DOES have the incentive to control product costs. In fact it, it’s their whole world.  The problem is, most finance people are not from an engineering background, and are, quite frankly, terrified of the physical world of 3D CAD , features , and even if the manufacturing floor.  To them, it is very uncomfortable to leave the safety of dollar numbers on an excel spreadsheet. They are also often hampered by the accounting classes they took in college.  Specifically, Financial Accounting thinking has come to dominate the way they perceive Managerial Accounting in a way that is wholly inappropriate.  Accounting , in reality, has a backwards looking allocation-of-cost viewpoint, rather than the forward looking predictive cost paradigm, which is needed for product cost management . The problems with the current accounting paradigm are certainly worth a future blog post, if not magazine articles or whole books !


Purchasing often suffers from the same malady as finance. They don’t understand the physical world very well. Many buyers also have a bit of a multiple-personality problem when dealing with product cost. On one hand, buyers are suspicious that the supplier is not telling them the truth and charging them too much. On the other hand, if a Product Cost Management person or another should-cost source provides the buyer with a product cost for a part that doesn’t match with the supplier gives them, the buyer often immediately concludes that the should-cost (not the quote) must necessarily be wrong . Riddle me that? They also have a a commodity worldview.  It’s more beneficial for them to focus on large groups of parts within a commodity, as opposed to single parts within a product that is being developed.  Finally, the incentive of RELATIVE cost reductions (i.e. “year over year” cost reductions) sets up a very bad dynamic with Product Cost Management.  PCM is first focused on making sure the product comes to launch AT the right cost, rather than reducing cost year over year later.  All these topics are worthy of extensive articles, in and of themselves, but that must wait.


In some ways, manufacturing is probably currently better equipped to deal with Product Cost Management than anyone else in the organization .  Manufacturing people are usually comfortable with the physical attributes of the product, just as engineering people are (although they do not have the depth of knowledge in this respect that engineering typically does). Manufacturing does care about cost, just as finance does. They also have a practical nature like purchasing and are quite likely to be comfortable dealing with suppliers.  However, there are PCM challenges and paradoxes for manufacturing, as well.  First of all, due to rampant outsourcing in most organizations, the only manufacturing left in many companies is final assembly. Therefore, the manufacturing guys are often absent from the PCM ballgame. Their concern about how they’re going to assemble the parts together for the final product, not how to make the parts. Secondly, manufacturing is a very busy place, concerned with the here and now and fighting fires, rather than more strategic pursuits such as Product Cost Management.

What to do?

PCM_Funtion_SummarySo, we’re all in a bit of a pickle functionally with Product Cost Management. The table to the right gives a summary of the paradoxes we face functionally. It also adds one global problem that we talked about last week, which is  that PCM doesn’t really fit nicely within any of these functions.

Given these structural problems in the organization’s functional cultures, is it any surprise that most companies struggle with Product Cost Management?

What’s the solution? It’s probably too complex of a problem for one Silver bullet. However, hopefully in the next post we can propose at least one possible way to move beyond the organizational problems and paradoxes discussed today.



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