Academic journal article Management Accounting Quarterly

The Selection of Actionable Cost Objects for an Activity-Based Costing System

Academic journal article Management Accounting Quarterly

The Selection of Actionable Cost Objects for an Activity-Based Costing System

Article excerpt


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY This article discusses the selection of cost objects that enable an activity-based costing (ABC) system to provide meaningful information to those developing a coordinated operations and marketing strategy to enhance company profits. As a result of having supervised many MBA student team projects that used ABC to help create business plans for small businesses, the authors have developed some guidelines for selecting cost objects that provide information to suggest profit-enhancing actions by the business. Those guidelines are discussed and examples are provided from some of the more successful student projects conducted for small businesses.

For several years, we have team-taught an MBA module that integrates marketing, operations management, and management accounting. The module involves a practicum in which the students work in project teams to develop a business plan for a small business of their choice. The business plan focuses primarily on a coordinated operations strategy and marketing strategy for the small business. As part of the practicum, however, the project team supplements the traditional accounting system of the small business with an activity-based costing (ABC) system. The team is encouraged to use the information from the ABC system as a basis for coordinating the operations and marketing strategies in the business plan.

In the early years of this integrated module, the project teams would choose the company's various products or services as the cost objects and develop their ABC information systems to determine the profitability of each product or service. The business plans that focused on the products or services were often less than satisfactory because of the highly competitive environment in which the companies operated.

As one might expect, the ABC information system often revealed that some products or services were unprofitable. From the project team's viewpoint, the obvious solution to enhancing the company's profitability was to increase the prices of those products or services; but the owners of the small businesses were quick to point out that the price is determined by the market and that their businesses were "price takers," not "price makers." This was especially true of products or services that were like a commodity. If the business owner were to raise the price above the market price, unit sales would drop off considerably.

After supervising several project teams working with small businesses during the early years of the module, we realized that the proper selection of the cost objects could make a positive difference in the extent to which the resultant business plan could guide the small business owners to enhanced profitability.

This article attempts to expand the definition of "cost object" in a manner that is meaningful to both operations and marketing management as they seek to make better use of activity-based cost information to enhance profits. The article also offers real world examples to support our arguments related to the selection of "actionable" cost objects. An "actionable" cost object is one that, when used in conjunction with ABC, yields information that permits management to make decisions that enhance company profits.


When it was first introduced in the mid-1980s, ABC was touted as a cost assignment method that would result in more accurate product costs. Robert S. Kaplan wrote many Harvard Business School cases in which he demonstrated the power of ABC to get more accurate product costs in situations where the various products used activities with differing intensities. Even though the focus of many of the ABC cases was on product cost and product profitability, Kaplan and others made it clear that ABC could provide more precise cost information for any cost object. …

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