Effective Activity-Based-Costing and Optimal Cost Management

How do firms choose their overhead cost assignment? How do firms choose optimal cost management based on critical production activities that create and capture values? What is the nature and function of expense assignment? What are sources of expense indicators or cost drivers? What are some policy implications of the Activity Based Costing in formulating effective cost assignment and cost management strategies?

These managerial accounting questions relate to effective cost assignment and optimal cost management strategies of a business enterprise-the appropriate mix of costs management strategies that maximizes the return on investment and shareholders’ wealth while minimizing the cost of operations, simultaneously.

The correlation between optimal cost management and effective activity-based costing is critical to sound business strategic options designed to maximize the wealth producing capacity of the enterprise. In these series on effective cost assignment and optimal cost management, we will focus on the pertinent strategic cost questions and proffer some operational guidance.

The overriding purpose of this review is to highlight some basic cost theory, strategic costs relationships, and industry best practices in effective cost assignment designed to optimize cost management. For firm-specific cost management strategies, please consult a competent professional.

Activity-based costing (ABC) is an effective management technique for assigning and controlling the overhead costs. Overhead expense analysis and assignment can be made more accurate by using ABC techniques for a wide range of products, for product expenses and profitability analysis and for appropriate distribution and control of the overheads.

Please note that the optimal cost management and effective activity based costing for each firm differs markedly based on overall industry dynamic, market structure-degree of competition, height of entry/exit barriers, market contestability, stage of industry life cycle, and its market competitive position. Indeed, as with most market performance indicators firm-specific cost management position is insightful only in reference to the industry expected value (average) and generally accepted industry benchmarks and best practices.

Phases of Cost Assignment:

In the first phase, major activities for manufacturing or sale of finished products are properly identified and classified according to the expenditure hierarchy. Expenditure hierarchy facilitates classification of activities based on the ease with which they are traceable to a product or product lines. Such activities may include material procurements, production runs, material handling, order processing, inventory management, warehousing, and transportation.

In the second stage, activity expenditures are assigned to each product or product lines and cost indicators or cost drivers, and overheads are listed in accordance with the major activities required to create and capture values. A brief review of the extant academic literature suggests that the nature of production activity or transaction decides appropriate expense indicators or expense drivers.

Activity-based costing system uses an appropriate cost driver that differs with the nature of production activities that create expenses. Additionally, there are several levels of activities: Unit level, batch level, product level and facility level. Moreover, facility level activities are carried out at the plant level and a bit difficult to trace while unit-level activities are product-specific and most easily traceable to products.

In practice, proper identification and careful analysis of cost incurred for each cost pool are required and critical for appropriate cost driver rate determination. Finally, firms trace and allocate the cost of activities or operations to the final products-goods and services. As you know, cost tracing is the process of directly matching an expense with a product being produced, where expense allocation uses estimates to apply costs to products or product lines. While many costs can be allocated to products directly, some costs relate to multiple products or change on a per-unit basis and should be allocated proportionately.

Some Operational Guidance:

Effective cost assignments require management accounting staff to identify the objects to which the relevant costs will be assigned, accumulate the relevant costs in different cost pools, and identify the most appropriate basis/method for allocating relevant costs. Please note that not all expenditures are relevant and expense controls are subject to vertical differentiation-level organizational authority.

Additionally, not all expenses should be unitized. For example, fixed costs do not change with an increase or decrease in the quantity of goods or services produced or sold. Indeed, fixed costs are expenses that must be paid by firms, independent of any business activity within a specific scale of production. Therefore, it may be misleading to unitize fixed costs of production, ceteris paribus.

To formulate optimal cost assignment strategies, management should understand and anticipate some challenges derivative of expense allocation and activity based costing. Some of these challenges include: traceability, materiality, method, accuracy, and timeliness. As I have already explained, some expenses are not easy to trace. Appropriate expenditure identification, analysis, tracing and assignment should be conducted using multiple methods and defensible assumptions.

In practice, expenses allocation are data driven and managerial analytics aided by computer technology. However, sound analysis of expense drivers and assignments, should be guided by full grasp of well-established cost theory and generally accepted accounting principles. For example, when examining cost tracing and assignment, firms should determine how closely to allocate individual expenses. With modern computer systems and cost analytics, it is often possible to trace every expense driver even when there are multiple products -goods and services.

Further, not all expenditures are material. And because there are costs and benefits associated with search, analysis and assignment of expense data, firms must decide to what extent to account for expense drivers. This is the accounting concept of materiality. Firms must always weigh the costs and benefits of all managerial decisions. Business managers must decide whether the benefits justify the costs and what amount of cost analytics is optimal as it pertains to firm profitability.

Finally, firms should create and maintain multiple costing systems. And use appropriate techniques such as traditional costing, job-order costing, process costing, or variable costing to facilitate internal managerial decision making and external financial reporting requirements. Please note that variable costing is not permissible for external reporting but may be useful in assisting managers to make resource allocation and other business decisions, efficiently and effectively. Often, successful businesses maintain managerial accounting costing systems to facilitate internal planning and financial accounting costing systems designed to support the external financial reporting function.

In sum, cost accounting systems and activity based costing facilitate accurate estimation of expenses of products-goods and services which is critical for profitable business operations. Business managers should know, understand, and anticipate which products are profitable and which products are not profitable. Therefore, cost analytics must be relevant, accurate, timely, and consistent with the calculus of economic advantage. To create and sustain competitive advantage in the global marketplace, firms need effective identification of cost drivers, cost assignment and optimal expenditure management strategies-the appropriate mix of expenditures management strategies that maximizes the return on investment and shareholders’ wealth while minimizing the cost of operations, simultaneously.