Activity-Based Costing: Is It Still Relevant?

Article excerpt

Over the past several years, consultants, practitioners, and academic investigators have noticed that activity-based costing (ABC) methods, developed to improve decision support and the accuracy of cost- and profit-measurement systems, too often have yielded less than the desired results. For example, Robert S. Kaplan and Steven R. Anderson state, "Many companies abandoned activity-based costing because it did not capture the complexity of their operations, took too long to implement, and was too expensive to build and maintain." (1) Further criticism of ABC appeared elsewhere. "Straightforward in theory, ABC proved notoriously difficult in practice. It involved defining 'activities' and trying to judge (often subjectively) how much overhead each used. And it had to be done regularly. Companies got fed up, and many abandoned it. From 11th position in the 1995 annual survey of the most widely used management tools (Bain), it fell to 22nd place (in 2002)." (2)

Studies of ABC use have reflected this dissatisfaction with the technique. The Bain & Company annual tools surveys in 2003 and 2005 reported use of activity-based management (ABM) at 50% and 52%, respectively, with associated satisfaction scores below the average for all tools used. Similar results were reported in the SUNY-Albany, Hyperion, and Pepperdine Study (SHAPS surveys): During the same period, they found a decline in the perceived value of ABC compared to its usage. (3)

Despite the negative results of these studies, there are many case studies and anecdotal reports of organizations that have adopted ABC methods and reported satisfaction with the value they provide. These companies consider their ABC methods an investment worth the time and resources committed to them. One motive for conducting this research was to seek an answer to the question: "What distinguishes successful implementations of ABC methods from those that have not succeeded?"

BRAG SURVEY

In order to study the use of ABC methods (and other issues related to the design and use of costing and profitability methods), we formed the Business Research and Analysis Group (BRAG) and conducted a survey sponsored by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA[R]) and other professional associations. (4)

Table 1 shows the distribution of survey respondents by region, type of unit, and business sector. Of the 348 survey respondents, slightly more than half were located in North America. The survey was completed most frequently from the perspective of the respondent's organization as a whole. Fifty-four percent of the respondents were in the service sector, and 40% were from manufacturing. The positions held by respondents were fairly evenly distributed among executives (16%), directors (13%), senior managers (16%), analysts (19%), managers (23%), and others (14%).

COST- AND PROFIT-MEASUREMENT METHODS ACROSS THE VALUE CHAIN

The assignment of costs to products, customers, or other cost objects has always been a thorny issue. For external reporting, production costs must be assigned to products for both income and asset reporting purposes. For operational cost control, strategic decision making, and performance measurement purposes, however, many organizations also capture and assign costs from the other functions in the internal value chain.

What methods are used to measure costs and profits across the value chain, and does their usage vary by function? We identified the most frequently used types of methods as:

* Actual costing,

* Normal costing,

* Standard costing, and

* Activity-based costing.

While the set of costing method types is as diverse as the kinds of operating systems, most organizations in the survey chose from this short list. In fact, most companies used more than one of these methods. Figure 1 shows the use of these method types across the value chain. From Figure 1 we can reach the following conclusions:

* With the exception of production-related costs, a significant proportion of costs is not assigned to cost objects. …