Of course, companies must also omit allocated costs, which can confuse the issue. A business unit’s support infrastructure, for example, could include human resources, physical plant, and product engineering, all of which must be considered from a financial point of view. But such costs do little to determine productivity and are something of an obstruction when companies try to spot variance and waste. Once these obstacles are removed, managers can stop trying to cut costs that may be beyond their control and instead address the drivers they can improve. Before measuring the financial costs, it’s often helpful to measure the items and events that drive costs, such as people, machines, incidents, service calls, and change orders.
Measure deep and broad. When service companies try to measure only their selected costs — rather than taking a comprehensive approach — they are often surprised to see that their teams hit every budget target while still losing money. That’s because services are fungible, and it’s easy to measure the wrong things or to shift costs, intentionally or not, to unmeasured areas.
Consider the case of a cable company that was trying to reduce the resolution times of its help desk and service calls. After setting goals, managers saw resolution times shrink, but total service costs were rising. In this case, help desk representatives, eager to meet their goals, spent less time trying to resolve problems remotely. After asking only a few questions, these employees referred cases to field service reps, who were happy to have a series of fast and easy calls to boost their own metrics. Unfortunately, the number of field service calls, which are far more expensive than help desk calls, rose dramatically.
To resolve this problem, management combined call centers and field services into a single cost tree and monitored the percentage of calls passed from the one to the other, as well as the time spent on each type of call. Managers then encouraged the call center reps to spend more time trying to resolve difficult calls before passing them along to field services, thereby increasing the average call time but helping to reduce total costs. Thus a critical purpose of any cost tree is to yield insights about how better (or worse) performance in one area of the tree might affect another.
Setting up Measurement Systems
With these principles in mind, executives can begin to define their metrics, collect data, and implement processes that will drive their efforts forward.
Build the tree and choose your metrics. Cost trees should be detailed enough to spot efficiency problems and broad enough to be comparable across operating units. Once companies have identified the allocated costs and cost drivers, they can begin to build the cost tree. Broad input from the field (line managers, engineers, field and service reps) is vital, along with input from senior executives, who are generally better able to focus on the total costs required to deliver a service to customers. In this way, the tree captures all the costs of (and details on) the most important cost drivers. The tree should also be constructed to compare key metrics across a range of environments — for example, all call centers, whether they operate 24 hours a day or 9.