The budget—For planning and control
Time and money are scarce resources to all individuals and organizations; the efficient and effective use of these resources requires planning. Planning alone, however, is insufficient. Control is also necessary to ensure that plans actually are carried out. A budget is a tool that managers use to plan and control the use of scarce resources. A budget is a plan showing the company’s objectives and how management intends to acquire and use resources to attain those objectives.
Companies, nonprofit organizations, and governmental units use many different types of budgets. Responsibility budgets are designed to judge the performance of an individual segment or manager. Capital budgets evaluate long-term capital projects such as the addition of equipment or the relocation of a plant. This chapter examines the master budget, which consists of a planned operating budget and a financial budget. The planned operating budget helps to plan future earnings and results in a projected income statement. The financial budget helps management plan the financing of assets and results in a projected balance sheet.
The budgeting process involves planning for future profitability because earning a reasonable return on resources used is a primary company objective. A company must devise some method to deal with the uncertainty of the future. A company that does no planning whatsoever chooses to deal with the future by default and can react to events only as they occur. Most businesses, however, devise a blueprint for the actions they will take given the foreseeable events that may occur.
A budget: (1) shows management’s operating plans for the coming periods; (2) formalizes management’s plans in quantitative terms; (3) forces all levels of management to think ahead, anticipate results, and take action to remedy possible poor results; and (4) may motivate individuals to strive to achieve stated goals.
Companies can use budget-to-actual comparisons to evaluate individual performance. For instance, the standard variable cost of producing a personal computer at IBM is a budget figure. This figure can be compared with the actual cost of producing personal computers to help evaluate the performance of the personal computer production managers and employees who produce personal computers. We will do this type of comparison in a later chapter.
Many other benefits result from the preparation and use of budgets. For example: (1) businesses can better coordinate their activities; (2) managers become aware of other managers’ plans; (3) employees become more cost conscious and try to conserve resources; (4) the company reviews its organization plan and changes it when necessary; and (5) managers foster a vision that otherwise might not be developed.
The planning process that results in a formal budget provides an opportunity for various levels of management to think through and commit future plans to writing. In addition, a properly prepared budget allows management to follow the management-by-exception principle by devoting attention to results that deviate significantly from planned levels. For all these reasons, a budget must clearly reflect the expected results.
Failing to budget because of the uncertainty of the future is a poor excuse for not budgeting. In fact, the less stable the conditions, the more necessary and desirable is budgeting, although the process becomes more difficult. Obviously, stable operating conditions permit greater reliance on past experience as a basis for budgeting. Remember, however, that budgets involve more than a company’s past results. Budgets also consider a company’s future plans and express expected activities. As a result, budgeted performance is more useful than past performance as a basis for judging actual results.
A budget should describe management’s assumptions relating to: (1) the state of the economy over the planning horizon; (2) plans for adding, deleting, or changing product lines; (3) the nature of the industry’s competition; and (4) the effects of existing or possible government regulations. If these assumptions change during the budget period, management should analyze the effects of the changes and include this in an evaluation of performance based on actual results.
Budgets are quantitative plans for the future. However, they are based mainly on past experience adjusted for future expectations. Thus, accounting data related to the past play an important part in budget preparation. The accounting system and the budget are closely related. The details of the budget must agree with the company’s ledger accounts. In turn, the accounts must be designed to provide the appropriate information for preparing the budget, financial statements, and interim financial reports to facilitate operational control.
Management should frequently compare accounting data with budgeted projections during the budget period and investigate any differences. Budgeting, however, is not a substitute for good management. Instead, the budget is an important tool of managerial control. Managers make decisions in budget preparation that serve as a plan of action.
The period covered by a budget varies according to the nature of the specific activity involved. Cash budgets may cover a week or a month; sales and production budgets may cover a month, a quarter, or a year; and the general operating budget may cover a quarter or a year.
Budgeting involves the coordination of financial and nonfinancial planning to satisfy organizational goals and objectives. No foolproof method exists for preparing an effective budget. However, budget makers should carefully consider the conditions that follow:
- Top management support All management levels must be aware of the budget’s importance to the company and must know that the budget has top management’s support. Top management, then, must clearly state long-range goals and broad objectives. These goals and objectives must be communicated throughout the organization. Long-range goals include the expected quality of products or services, growth rates in sales and earnings, and percentage-of-market targets. Overemphasis on the mechanics of the budgeting process should be avoided.
- Participation in goal setting Management uses budgets to show how it intends to acquire and use resources to achieve the company’s long-range goals. Employees are more likely to strive toward organizational goals if they participate in setting them and in preparing budgets. Often, employees have significant information that could help in preparing a meaningful budget. Also, employees may be motivated to perform their own functions within budget constraints if they are committed to achieving organizational goals.
- Communicating results People should be promptly and clearly informed of their progress. Effective communication implies (1) timeliness, (2) reasonable accuracy, and (3) improved understanding. Managers should effectively communicate results so employees can make any necessary adjustments in their performance.
- Flexibility If significant basic assumptions underlying the budget change during the year, the planned operating budget should be restated. For control purposes, after the actual level of operations is known, the actual revenues and expenses can be compared to expected performance at that level of operations.
- Follow-up Budget follow-up and data feedback are part of the control aspect of budgetary control. Since the budgets are dealing with projections and estimates for future operating results and financial positions, managers must continuously check their budgets and correct them if necessary. Often management uses performance reports as a follow-up tool to compare actual results with budgeted results.
The term budget has negative connotations for many employees. Often in the past, management has imposed a budget from the top without considering the opinions and feelings of the personnel affected. Such a dictatorial process may result in resistance to the budget. A number of reasons may underlie such resistance, including lack of understanding of the process, concern for status, and an expectation of increased pressure to perform. Employees may believe that the performance evaluation method is unfair or that the goals are unrealistic and unattainable. They may lack confidence in the way accounting figures are generated or may prefer a less formal communication and evaluation system. Often these fears are completely unfounded, but if employees believe these problems exist, it is difficult to accomplish the objectives of budgeting.
Problems encountered with such imposed budgets have led accountants and management to adopt participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting means that all levels of management responsible for actual performance actively participate in setting operating goals for the coming period. Managers and other employees are more likely to understand, accept, and pursue goals when they are involved in formulating them.
Within a participatory budgeting process, accountants should be compilers or coordinators of the budget, not preparers. They should be on hand during the preparation process to present and explain significant financial data. Accountants must identify the relevant cost data that enables management’s objectives to be quantified in dollars. Accountants are responsible for designing meaningful budget reports. Also, accountants must continually strive to make the accounting system more responsive to managerial needs. That responsiveness, in turn, increases confidence in the accounting system.
Although many companies have used participatory budgeting successfully, it does not always work. Studies have shown that in many organizations, participation in the budget formulation failed to make employees more motivated to achieve budgeted goals. Whether or not participation works depends on management’s leadership style, the attitudes of employees, and the organization’s size and structure. Participation is not the answer to all the problems of budget preparation. However, it is one way to achieve better results in organizations that are receptive to the philosophy of participation.