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Jan 232014
 
BOM Away from Hiller Associates

Yesterday, we began a series of articles at one of our media partners, www.ENGINEERING.com.  Instead, of focusing on Product Cost Management, we are focusing on another maddeningly difficult problem with critical implications to the Firm:  structuring the Bill of Material to promote ease of use… and re-use.  We will reprint the article below, and you can view the original here:

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A few months ago, unleaded client and asked me an interesting question.   That question was how does one reconcil the tension between specific parts or hardware vs. the functional use in the product of those parts.    This client was from a major fortune 500 company with a bill of material (BOM) containing thousands of parts on each product.  I was a bit taken aback, at first, by this question.  Although it is a very difficult question and subject, I assumed that most major companies were old hands at dealing with this tension.  I was wrong.

This reminded me that something that might seem old hat or common sense to one person, might be very interesting to another.  For example, when I graduated from the university and went to work for Ford Motor Company, I was taught that the Ford part numbering system.  Ford uses a system for parts that is an intelligent part numbering system, in which the part number makes it obvious which product programs , functional type of hardware, and what version of the part is being described

Hiller Associates - Intelligent Part Numbers

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This system of numbering parts has been around for goodness knows how long.  It is no great secret in the auto industry.  I’m sure every person at Chrysler, GM, the foreign auto companies know the Ford system of numbering parts.  In fact, apparently , eBay even teaches us about the Ford part numbering system.  It’s very straightforward and makes complete sense.  As a young engineer, fresh out of school, who didn’t know any better, I assumed that every company had a similar intelligent part numbering system.  However, when I gained a little bit more experience and maturity, I realized that Ford’s ingenious but simple system was not so common sense at all throughout industry.  In fact, most companies I have met in manufacturing have nothing more than a sequential part numbering system that tells nothing about the part for which you were looking.

The point here is not for me to glorify the Ford part numbering system.  I’m sure there are companies with even better and more intelligent part numbering systems out there.  In fact, we don’t even have to go back into the horrors of the group technology fad in the late eighties or early nineties to know that!  No, my point is that relatively simple and logical ways of classifying (but not over classifying things!) on the BOM can really help us in our management of engineering parts and the product.

Therefore, in the next few weeks, I plan to post a series of articles that talk about these ways that we can view the bill of material and help ourselves and our company.  I look forward to hearing what other experts in the product life cycle management will have to say in comments.

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Nov 222013
 

Hello Product Cost Management World!

We have been off the air for a little while, but we are coming back on with a bang. It’s finally here, the long awaited 2013 Hiller Associates and CIMdata report: Product Cost Management in Discrete Manufacturing

That’s right, this week Hiller Associates, partnering with CIMdata (a leading analyst firm in the area of Product Lifecycle Management), released the most extensive research to date on Product Cost Management.

We surveyed respondents from many industries and drew upon decades of our own experience in the field to provide a comprehensive report that discusses the state of product cost today and how well companies are doing at meeting cost targets. This report defines each of the Product Cost Management techniques and puts them in perspective. It discusses the priority of cost as a product attribute versus time-to-market, quality, performance, and other product attributes. It also discusses how extensively cost targets are set in industry today, what percent of products meet cost targets, what product cost management techniques companies are using, and what software tools can help.Hiller Associates 2013 Product Cost Management Research

If you work on  product cost or in an adjacent field, the report will be useful to you or a colleague in your company.  You can find the press release at the link here:

Do you have burning questions about Product Cost Management?  This report has the answers:

  • Hiller_Associates_2013_Product_Cost_Management_Research_ReportHow well are companies doing versus cost targets?
  • What is the priority of cost versus quality and timing?
  • How are companies setting cost targets?
  • What is holding firms back from profit?
  • What tools and techniques are solving the problem?
  • …and is the DARPA study a hoax!?

CLICK HERE to get the report, and feel free to contact us with questions!

Hiller_Associates_2013_Product_Cost_Management_Research_bar

 

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Jul 122013
 

Today we are reposting the article we wrote this week for ENGINEERING.com.  The original article is here and our announcement of our partnership with ENGINEERING.com is here.  Enjoy!

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One of the most frustrating things for many engineers is understanding the quotes they receive from their suppliers. They want to know how these quotes compare to their own internal estimates. Unfortunately, most engineers are not skilled at getting the right answer.

Strangely, engineers are typically very good at this in their personal lives. Let’s say you’re going to buy a new stereo receiver. In a matter of minutes you have the following options laid out:

  • Option 1 – Amazon ($300) + Shipping ($0) + Squarespace extended Warranty ($50)
  • Option 2 – Amazon vendor ($270) + Shipping ($15) + Squarespace extended Warranty ($50)
  • Option 3 – Stereo Shop ($320) + No Shipping ($0) + Included Extended Warranty ($0)

In your personal life, you not only outline how much costs are, but where they are. That is, in which cost bucket does each dollar reside? So why is this so hard when dealing with a part quote at work? The answer is: it shouldn’t be!

Don’t ask what, ask where

The first step to unraveling quotes is to put the numbers aside – what matters first is to decide into which cost buckets each dollar should go. To illustrate this, let’s consider buying a lightly machined casting.

CastingFirst ask, what resources go into delivering this casting to your shipping dock? Take a look at the figure below. On the top line in orange blocks, we show the various cost buckets for the casting. These include the raw material that is melted, the various processes that are applied, the machining, any painting, and then margin and logistics.

Hiller Associates Matching Estimates and Quotes

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Start with your estimate

We suggest that your starting point should be your own internal cost estimate from your cost expert, your spreadsheet, or from a third party Product Cost Management calculation tool.

It’s likely that the level of detail in your calculation method will be deeper than what you receive from suppliers. Even so, your tool or spreadsheet may not provide a number for each bucket of cost. In our casting example, our initial estimating method did not provide margin and logistics. Becaues these are real costs we will list them, noting that we don’t know what numbers to use for those costs at this point.

 Lay out what you know from the Supplier Quotes

Now, it is time to match up your supplier quotes. We show three different quotes in the casting example. Your purchasing department may give you more quotes or less quotes. However, in our experience, three shall be the number of the quoting, and the number of the quoting shall be three. (If you don’t get that reference, please see the attached video).

The quotes you receive probably won’t line up exactly with your estimates. Suppliers, as in example Quote 3, rarely provide a detailed breakdown. Regardless, it’s important to know which costs are included in the $23.00. Are any costs included missing?

But what if I am missing a cost bucket?

It’s common to not have an estimate for every cost bucket from one single tool or spreadsheet. Thankfully, there are several methods to triangulate to a better estimate.

  • Look at past part quotes for similar parts.
  • Ask an expert. For example, your shipping department may know what it would cost to ship similar casting parts.
  • Use a different estimation tool that does include the missing cost bucket.
  • You can also surgically lift and triangulate cost buckets from the quotes themselves. For example, you could average the cost for logistics between Quote 1 and Quote 2, so your internal estimate of logistics cost becomes $1.50.

The benefits to you and your company

You may think that this exercise is just about whether you should be paying $23.00 for this casting or $20.00. That is an important question, but there are other big benefits to this method.

  1. Missing Buckets – One of the biggest advantages to accounting for cost buckets is to identify any misunderstandings between your company and the supplier. It is better to find out now that the supplier has not included the shipping costs than to find out later.
  2. Your time to shine in front of management – regardless of the final cost that you negotiate, if there is a question later from your management about why you paid what you paid for a part, you have a ready-made, easy-to-understand management slide prepared.
  3. Negotiation power – deep understanding of costs is very useful when talking to the supplier with whom you decide to negotiate. Of course, you cannot show them the numbers from other suppliers’ quotes, but there is nothing wrong with showing your internal should-cost estimates.
  4. Learning by doing – after you go through this exercise several times, you will start to develop an intuitive feel for what drives cost in a commodity class. In our example, you will start to understand the relative magnitude of machining vs. casting cost vs. raw material for lightly machined castings.

They say that “It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.” The good news is that with part quote evaluation, both the journey has value (as shown by the four points above) and the so does the destination (e.g. paying $20, rather than $23 for a casting). Enjoy both!

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Jul 102013
 

 

Hiller Associates has been invited to become an author on ENGINEERING.com.   The Canadian company, headquartered in Ontario, has become one of the most influential voices in engineering worldwide.  ENGINEERING.com reaches thousands of people, who work in the many disciplines of engineering, every day with the freshest and best content on a variety of subjects, including:

 

 

  • Designer Edge
  • Design Software
  • Electronics
  • 3D Printing
  • Education
  • Careers in engineering

Eric Hiller, managing partner of Hiller Associates said,

We are grateful to ENGINEERING.com for the opportunity to share our insights in Product Cost Management and other topics that sit at the nexus between finance and engineering with the readers of ENGINEERING.com.  ENGINEERING.com has a great readership of influential people who are driving the next generation of products around the world and who range from individual contributors to engineering executives.  We look forward to continuing to work with ENGINEERING.com.

Hiller Associates is writing for the ENGINEERING.com feature area called “Designer Edge,” which contains articles on techniques and tools for better design engineering.  HA kicked off it’s authorship with an article focusing on the challenges that engineers face when presented with supplier quotes that the engineers have to understand versus their own internal should-cost estimates.  CLICK on the the title of the article below to read the article at ENGINEERING.com.

engineering.com_logo_new_tagline

 

 

 

Comparing Quote Apples with Estimate Oranges

 

John Hayes, President of ENGINEERING.com, said,

We welcome Eric ‘s authoritative and often humorous voice on the important, yet rarely discussed, topic of product costing.

Hiller Associates will republish the ENGINEERING.com article in its entirety on our own Product Profit and Risk blog later this week.

 

 

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Jun 272013
 

Anyone who has ever heard the famous NPR show the Prairie Home Companion will smile warmly, remembering warm and disarming voice of legendary storyteller Garrison Keilor talking about the fictitious Minnesotan town, Lake Wobegon. Garrison’s sign-off to the show has entered pop culture: “And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

We know of another place called Lake Costbegone.  It’s a magical land of companies tightly clustered around a lake of profit.  Lake Costbegone is the vacation spot of Product Cost Management. Lake Costbegone (and maybe many other corporate disciplines besides Product Cost Management) are similar to Lake Wobegon.

That’s right.  At Lake Costbegone ALL the companies are, at least, average.

The post that we put up a couple days ago (Is the View Worth the Climb in PCM?), showed the effect on a company’s product cost, based on whether a company is best in class, industry average, or a laggard at Product Cost Management. The splitting of the companies into these three categories is almost universal in Aberdeen research reports, and other analyst firms use a similar framework, too.   However, we don’t think we had ever met a client or potential client to that thinks that they are in the laggard category.

Sure, there are people that are more realistic and honest within each firm, who will tell you “off the record” that their organization is doing very badly at Product Cost Management, or whatever corporate initiative we are talking about at the time. However, no one wants to proclaim in the sight of others that their organization is a “laggard.”  Apparently, admitting that your organization is not, at least, average is the corporate equivalent of a stock analyst giving a sell signal. It’s just not done. Stock analysts typically give only three signals: Strong buy, Buy, and Hold. No one really knows what “Hold” means, but we are all pretty sure it means, “You might wanna think about dumping that stock.”

Being “industry average” might mean exactly that, the organization is industry average in whatever technique on which the firm is evaluating themselves. However, they could also be a laggard in need of great improvement, but just don’t want to admit it.

Hiller Associates effect of Product Cost Management

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The funny thing about the post from a couple days ago is that the gap or potential between industry average and best-in-class companies is actually *bigger* than the gap between the laggards and the industry average (see figure to the left).  Therefore, if you are in the industry average, you should be quite excited about getting to best-in-class, because there is a big carrot to do that.

Our opinion is that companies are better off when they mistakenly consider themselves laggards when they are really industry average than when they consider themselves industry average when they are really a laggard. The industry average designation is much more of an invitation to apathy in Product Cost Management. No one wants to be the laggard, and that’s a good thing! What’s the worst thing that can happen, after all? If you misclassify yourself as a laggard and you actually are the industry average, your effort to get out of laggard state will probably move into being best-in-class.

And that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.

 

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Jun 242013
 

 

I worked with a colleague once that used the expression: “Is the view worth the climb?”   That’s an interesting expression and a very visceral way of expressing the fear that we all have when undertaking a new project in our companies. New projects always require not only capital in the form of money, but also to human capital in the form of resources, emotion, and hard work. Careers can be made by a successful project… or destroyed by a major project gone awry.  Is the view really worth the climb? Will the rewards be worth the effort?

For example, it’s easy to say that people should work on increasing their profit by reducing their product cost. We all understand that this intuitively seems like a good thing to do. Mathematically, who can argue? If you reduce your product cost, you create profit that drops the bottom line. The question is: how much profit will drop to the bottom line? Is the view worth the climb?

Hiller Associates effect of Product Cost Management

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To answer this question, let’s take a look at a graph we made of data from a 2010 Aberdeen study on product cost. The graph shows the average effect on product cost over two year period for companies. The companies were broken into the standard three Aberdeen categories (Best-in-Class, Industry Average, and Laggards) based on other criteria of how they manage their Product Cost Management efforts.

The results were pretty impressive. In two years, best-in-class practitioners of Product Cost Management reduced the cost of their products on average by 7%, whereas companies that were average practitioners of Product Cost Management were only able to reduce cost by an average of 1% .

Let’s put this in perspective. The table below shows an example company with $10 billion in revenue, 80% product cost (as a percent of sales), and a 5% net margin. On an annualized basis, the difference between best-in-class and the industry average is the difference between $560 million and $80 million, respectively, of extra profit. Note also that the laggard’s product costs increased 3% per year equating to a $240 million profit loss.

Hiller_Associates_profit_from_Product_Cost_Management

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These numbers represent the view (the results), but what about the climb (the investment)?   The Aberdeen study does not investigate this. However, one should ask:  how much money *should* the company be willing to invest to capture an incremental $480 million per year of profit? 100 million? 50 million? $25 million? What about $10 million? Would your company even invest $10 million?

It’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 

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Jun 172013
 

 

We spend a lot of time thinking about how organizations can improve Product Cost Management. After all, it’s our job at Hiller Associates, but we’re also very passionate about it. We’ve often wondered, why is it that there are so many people in Product Cost Management who are very intelligent and hardworking individuals, and yet the field, in most organizations, does not advance.

Why is this?

 

  • We don’t think it’s due to lack of effort.
  • We don’t think it’s due to lack of intelligence.
  • It may be due, in part, because the tools in the area are not that great, at least until recently. However, we don’t think that’s the cause either.

We have concluded that one of the biggest problems is that most Product Cost Management Experts are independent acoustic live performers.

Sing me a song!

What do we mean by that ? Well, if you go into the average product company and meet the Product Cost Management organization, it usually consists of a very small group of experts. They typically are sequestered in some back office.  They appear to be a covert operation of some large organization, such as purchasing. When you meet them, they are almost always hardworking people , who looked frazzled, but still have their noses to the grindstone.  They are busily trying to avoid product cost before launch and wringing cost out after the start of operations.

Traditional PCM experts are like solo classical musicians. They improvise solo (excel spreadsheets) or play an expensive instrument (an expert tool). They play for command performances before the nobles. In this case, the noble is whatever manager is in the most desperate trouble at the time. The PCM guys are always overworked, but their solution to this is to work harder. Just like a classical live musician, they can only be at one place at one time. Their performances are beautiful to listen to, but there is no recording, nor is there a broadcast, so that others in the world can hear the wonderful music they make. They really are a solo act.

We show this on the diagram below by showing the simple sine wave representing the music they sing. Pound for pound, person for person, no one can save more cost than these soloists, singing their song live and alone. However, as with any organizations that relies on people to scale, it can all only scale so large, and it can only scale so fast . That is why professional services companies are typically very small. The growth of the company is limited by the expert resources they can find. Think of this versus a product company, where once the product is designed, it can be replicated very quickly through the magic of manufacturing.

Product Cost Management Rock Star Hiller Associates

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Time to Crossover to Being a Rock Star

It’s time for product cost management groups to stop being solo live classical musicians  and crossover, as they say in the music biz, to be rock stars. On the diagram to the right, look at the traditional path vs. a maximum performance path. It’s time for PCM experts to spend less time playing alone and move to being Rock Stars (and maybe the director of the band). In this arrangement, the musician continues to do a lot of what he does today. He composes and produces the music. The music itself is the technical expertise needed for product cost management, but the expert should be sharing it with the entire organization, not just a few people in solo performances. This requires that he have a *vision* for Product Cost Management. This is not a vision for how to cost model the next part or assembly, but where the organization is today and where he wants it to get to in the future.

This Amp Goes to 11

The key to success is to amplify the music made by the Product Cost Management expert. To do this, you need to find the right management champion. Management is an amplifier, because their job is to receive the good ideas that their people bring them and then boost the signal on the idea to the rest of the organization. Management also parses the signal to the right speakers in the organization that can most beautifully and powerfully and produce that signal. Think about a modern 5.1 or 7.1 home theater system, where the amp or receiver parses the signal and sends the right frequencies to the right speakers.

And, if you’re going to be a Product Cost Management rock star, you want the biggest and highest quality amp you can get. You would be pitching your vision at the VP or C-level. Remember the movie Spinal Tap? You want the amp that goes to 11!

The Recording Industry

Every rock star is going to both tour and record. The management amplifier lets you to play to stadiums full of people. But you also need to record it, so that your fans can hear it over and over. To generate maximum profit for the organization, the fans (engineering, purchasing, manufacturing, etc.) needs to be able to execute on your PCM vision. Many times that music will need to play when you can’t be there. You record by (1) changing the culture and (2) designing a PCM process that the organization can follow.

Money for Nothing and Your Savings for Free

The rewards to the organization when the PCM team moves from live classical performers to rock stars are very enticing. Although the results of the individual product cost manager experts will certainly be smaller, the rest of the organization now is producing results as well. Together, they will produce many more cost savings and far more the cost avoidance than the Product Cost Management expert could do alone.

The Path to Stardom

We realize that moving to the rock star model will initially be uncomfortable for some people who are experts. It’s hard for experts to let go of control, especially on a complex set of activities like Product Cost Management. There will be mistakes by the organization. There will need to be teaching. The system may be chaotic at first. That’s OK. This is the only way to get to a better state. It also means that the individual product cost expert will have to spend LESS time actually producing results on his own. His time needs to be used developing vision, casting vision, teaching, strategizing, and leading the organization. He doesn’t have to compose that vision and record it alone. His executive sponsor can help get him some great song writers and producers, both internal to the organization and through external consulting partners. And the executive champion will also fund these resources.

Therefore, it is critical to find the right management sponsor who understands the benefits of moving from a solo live performance model to the recorded rock star model. The management sponsor needs to have the authority to reduce the individual PCM demands on the expert. The expert must produce less individually so the organization can produce more as a whole.

Product Cost Management – Behind the Music…

Sadly, looking back at my time as a CEO and then the Chief Product Officer at a company that made Product Cost Management software , and in my current roll as a strategic consultant, I have never seen this rock star transition be driven by the musician (the Product Cost Management expert). Every time I’ve seen organization move the needle on Product Cost Management, the impetus for that change was an executive sponsor who had a vision for a better world. The executive sponsor (typically in engineering, purchasing, or a product owner) was poking his nose into the world of product cost, sometimes knowing very little about it. Paradoxically and sadly, often the existing Product Cost Management organization, instead of being grateful for the help and wanting to get made into a rock star, was resistant or even resentful of the help. That’s too bad, because rock stars make a lot more money than classical musicians, and often have far better job security. (People are going to pay to see Aerosmith until they die.)

So, my advice to you is that if you want to become critical to your management, be noticed in the organization, see your organization produce far better results, and get rewarded for doing it, it’s time to stop playing acoustic solos live.

It’s time for you to become a rock star.

 

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Jun 042013
 

If you have ever written a blog, an article for a magazine, or anything else on the Internet in a forum in which people can comment, you’ve probably experienced the following phenomenon. You put a lot of time and effort into writing an article that you feel is insightful on a particular topic or set of topics. You post that article. You distribute it to a variety of media outlets, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn groups, etc.  Comments start to arise. You’re very excited that someone is commenting, because it appears that people actually are responding to what you have said. Someone is listening!

But then… you read the comments…

Suddenly, you realize that, apparently, these commenters really don’t care about the subject you wrote about at all. They make comments about totally unrelated topics. This is what I like to call blog remoras and redirects.

What do I mean? Well, have a look at the diagram below. In the middle is an orange circle that represents the subjects about which you wrote. For example, let’s say that you write an article about Product Cost Management. Someone comments on your blog site or on a linkedin group where you share the article, etc. They may write about the same topic as the article, but just a different viewpoint on it. Therefore, they’re still in that orange circle However, other people will comment about other topics that I like to call the ring of the adjacent subset and super set topics (shown in blue). For example, using the Product Cost Management example, someone may talk about target costing, design for manufacturing, design for assembly, feature based costing, etc. These are all subsets of Product Cost Management or maybe some would consider them adjacent topics. Then there’s a third level ring around your topic, shown in brown. It’s not directly related to the topic that you wrote about (e.g. product cost management), but it may be related to that second ring of adjacent subset, or super set topics. Maybe the commentor is talking about manufacturing in general, or product design, lean, etc.

Hiller Associates Blog Remoras

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And then, you finally get to the bizarre unrelated topic redirects.  Let’s call these the “asteroid below of totally unrelated topics about which someone wants to talk.”  For example, you write an article called “XYZ of Product Cost Management.” Someone responds with a comment that starts out with glowing praise, such as, “I found this article really insightful. I totally agree and that reminds me about psychoanalytic trouser sprites.” or about “how see CRM will save the world.”

These redirect topics seem to have no apparent connection to anything that you talked about in the initial article. To be fair, perhaps I am not the smartest bear the forest? Perhaps, there are complex connections that my small brain is just too tiny to understand.

However, I think something else is actually going on here. What you’re picking up is a blog remora. This is a person who wants to get their intellectual ideas out. However, they really don’t have the intellectual property developed, or maybe just don’t have the time to write the intellectual property. Therefore, they will attach to your intellectual property like a remora does to a whale or a shark. Some might say they are even parasitically feeding off your work. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about Product Cost Management or the price of tea in China. These people will redirect the conversation to whatever topic they want to talk about.

This phenomenon is very similar to what you see in political candidate debates. For example, the moderator asks the presidential candidate, “What is your position on the problem of millions of illegal immigrants in the United States?” The candidate smiles, pauses, and says “I’m glad you asked that question, Jim. That’s very important. If in my last four years, I’ve instituted policies to help the economy in order to grow home ownership for good hardworking Americans.” What?! Huh?! What does your home ownership policy remotely have to do with the question that you were asked?  I don’t know if the problem of political candidates not answering the question that was asked and the similar problem of blog remoras, are isolated problems or if it is a sad commentary on our society, in general.

I hope I am not guilty of this problem myself. I mean, I get it. These people want to talk about what ever floats their boat (and, whatever topics are the focus of THEIR product or consulting service) . It’s a goal that we all have. I write articles on Product Cost Management for several reasons. One of those reasons is because I’m just passionate about the topic. But let’s be honest, I also do it because it’s good marketing for my consulting practice. Authors, including people that write blogs, are flattered and glad when people respond with comments to the article’s, even when those comments are disagreements with what the author said. Most authors also are happy to get comments that link the author’s article focus to the blue adjacent topic ring, and even to the brown tertiary adjacent ring, IF the commenter CLEARLY explains the link between the author’s topic and the tertiary ring of subjects. However, it’s really insulting when someone brings up a topic in their commentary to your article that has nothing whatsoever to do with the topic that you talked about and is not adjacent to it.

Shark_and_Remora

Perhaps, it’s not a good idea for me to bring up this problem in the public forum. Perhaps any comment, no matter how unrelated, is a good comment that will help your search engine optimization. However, I don’t see how this helps advance the community knowledge on the topic about with you have written an article, whether that topic is product cost management or anything else. I don’t hang out on LinkedIn groups dedicated to quantum physics and push product cost management.  E.G. “That’s a great point Professor Poindexter on the Higgs Boson. But, what is really important is to subjugate the ideas in your article to Product Cost Management.”  This behavior is just intellectually dishonest and it’s vacuous for me to try to hock my wares in a forum that is completely wrong for the topic.

However, let me pause my rant and open this topic to the general community: I’d like to hear from other people that blog, who write articles on specific topics, and even from those people that are just frequent commenters on blogs or articles.

What do you think about blog remoras and redirects to other topics?

Do you find unrelated commentary useful and interesting, or insulting to the author??

Is there any way to stop blog remoras and redirects?

How do we hold people to a higher standard that helps everybody?

 

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Jun 032013
 

Numbers. They have such a comforting certainty to them, don’t they?

Words can be interpreted. But, numbers, they have that beautiful mathematical ring of truth. I was thinking about this the other day, when I got a number from a friend. I was helping him review a model he had made, and I asked him what the median result was from the model. He told me 16.42%. I ask him, “Do you believe it’s 16.42%?” He responded, “Yes, 16.42%.” This was a very smart guy, with multiple advanced degrees in engineering from a great school. However, the data set from which he was calculating this percentage came from a group of people who are giving him estimates of the money they had spent on certain activities, as well as data from an accounting system. And yet, he was quite positive that the result was 16.42%.  I.e., he thought that the result he calculated from the inputs had enough precision to generate FOUR significant figures.

Now, I’m sure that he would have realized, if he had sat down and thought about it for a second, that expecting this kind of precision when the inputs had virtually no precision of all, at least not the precision of four significant figures, was ludicrous. However, that’s the great thing about computers, especially when using spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel.  They will give you as much precision as you want. In fact, to what does Excel default… two significant digits behind the decimal point.

What I find really funny about this is that most engineers have learned the hard way, over time, that there is this thing called “tolerance stack-up.” In other words, no matter what you specify on a CAD model or drawing, a machine only has so much physical capability to hold that dimension. Therefore, engineers become very proficient at specifying tolerances. In recent years, they have even become much better at understanding the stack up of these tolerances on the final dimensions of a part. In fact, there are very sophisticated software packages dedicated to helping engineers do this.

In more general usage, Monte Carlo modeling became all the rage 10 to 20 years ago. Monte Carlo was an attempt to recognize the inherent noise in numbers that we measure, and how that uncertainty affects the models that we make, especially financial models.  However, the funny thing is that when it comes to calculating product costs, people ignore the precision question, and just assume they have the precision they wish they had.

Take a look at the figure below . Let’s go through a simple product costing in concept. For the part we are looking at, we first need to know the physical quantities that are used in making it. For example, we need to know the mass of the part, but that’s a tricky thing, because we have scrap and varying amounts of mass could be used up in certain processes. So, we might be +/-1-3% in our estimate of how much was used. Similarly, we need to know how much time is actually spent on each machine. However, this varies batch to batch, and measurements aren’t always so accurate. There may be many processes that make up the part, including extra inspections and re-work. Let’s say our measurement of the time it takes has a range of 5 to 15%.

Product Cost Management Ignorance is Bliss

Until this point in the analysis, at least we’ve been dealing with physical quantities, not financial quantities. But, if we move to financial qualities, the problem gets much worse. Even material rates are not such a certain thing. They move around over time with various surcharges for this and that from the different material providers. And, the number depends on what material is sent t0 what lines, etc. Labor rates and overhead rates are far more black magic. Accountants with green eye shades spend endless hours calculating these rates from monstrous ERP systems, using Byzantine Activity Based Costing allocation schemes. We hope that the allocated rates are accurate to the real truth on the floor, but I don’t think we can really expect them to be more than +/- 10-20% from what’s really going on.

Never fear though! At the end of the calculation, we have calculated that this particular part cost is $93.45. Why $93.45? Well, that’s what our spreadsheet model or our product cost management software told us. And, of course, a cost NEEDS to be within 10% of what we think the real cost is.

If the product cost management user actually calculated the tolerance stack-up of the uncertainties of the inputs that went into that cost, they would probably find that the costs are more than +/-10% from the true cost. If they seriously considered the possible precision, would they say the part cost $93.40-93.50? I doubt it. Would they say it costs $92.00-93.00? Nope . They probably would say that the part could cost between $88-$97. But, a range like that is not very comforting . It’s much more fun to hit that little “$” format button on Excel or cut & paste the number from the product cost management software .

It’s $93.45. That’s what it is. Because ignorance is truly bliss in the world of Product Cost Management.

 

 

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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:

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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

CLICK TO ENLARGE!

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.

CLICK TO ENLARGE!

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.”

 

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