Company News » Lean, mean machine

THE NEW year for the FD starts with the cash flowing out like a raging river. I am wading in auditors, the tide of the budget appears already to be against me and last year’s sodden results need to be finalised. After the cruise of the party season, the voyage starts again with boring alacrity, but the beach is in sight.

Last year, as in previous years, all my New Year’s resolutions were broken because they were impossible: show respect to the bankers, take HR seriously, seek advice from the non-executive directors who know everything, wish the chairman (94) continued good health. And avoid the quarterly cash push, show enthusiasm for the governance processes, and avoid the pain of investor roadshows.

We have the eurozone crises, the public sector cuts, the popular belief that the UK is in a double-dip recession, the international forces of the US presidential election, the Arab Spring and the uncertainties in the BRIC economies – but this is also the Year of the Olympic Games.

During the last year, I suddenly realised that we had accidentally forgotten to budget for the impact of the Olympics with its inevitable disruption, gridlock, absenteeism and business interruption to our customers and suppliers. However – negatives aside – the Olympic showcase promises to be a momentous occasion for the country, and has already revitalised parts of the economy, local communities and volunteer sectors. This is a spectacular opportunity.

The topical focus is on athletic performance: to be lean, fit and at the top of the game. This is true not only for athletes but for organisations of all types throughout our economy.

This year I have made no resolutions at all. But I have once again found religion on the subject of leanness and I am determined to reapply the principles of continuous improvement, lean manufacturing and six sigma to the finance function. Having done this already, I can see that we have slowly drifted towards inefficient practices again.

I intend to inject the Olympic spirit into everything we are doing in the finance function this year. I have set individual and team targets and I am using Olympic case studies in our staff briefings. We discuss the eurozone struggles between the Greek Olympiads, the French Resistance, the undeviating Italians and the almighty Germans, and we continually question what Sebastian and Boris would say about the way we do things. As a multi-cultural organisation, we compare ourselves with the Olympic challenges of recruiting, training and managing 250,000 volunteers who, between them, speak 500 languages. We review the project management and financial control aspects of the construction, the letting of contracts, the infrastructure improvements and the attention to design and planning.

All this is an attempt to benchmark our own performance and to learn to do things better. My goal is to re-examine our financial and business processes for efficiency, duplication, relevance and necessity. Obviously, our budgeting processes need some improvement. We will become lean, fit and best in class; we will delegate and empower the staff; we will take no prisoners; we will shoot the stragglers. Everyone is expected to be committed to this drive, and there will be prizes for the best.

Have we started too late? No, because high intensity initiatives such as these tend to be short-lived. We need as much short-term enthusiasm and momentum as we can achieve in order to implement some meaningful improvements to the finance function. Hence the link to the Olympics. We are eager and having fun for the first time in the January gloom. Without the Olympics, 2012 could be just another year of broken resolutions. ?