Traditional Incremental Budgeting
As part of the traditional budgeting process, managers tend to roll their budget over from one year to the next. In addition to accounting for any strategic initiatives or headcount changes, they simply add to every line-item in the previous year’s budget a certain percentage “and then some” to account for cost inflation. They assume that the ‘baseline’ is automatically approved, so they justify just the variances versus prior years.
The drawback of this budgeting process is that nobody questions the underlying ‘baseline’ costs. Further, these cost increases are carried from year to year.
In the 1970s, Peter Pyhrr, a Texas Instruments accountant, formally developed zero-base budgeting. In his influential Harvard Business Review article and a book titled Zero-base Budgeting, Pyhrr advocated that a prior year’s budget should not be used as a benchmark for the next year’s budgeted costs.
With zero-base budgeting, managers prepare a fresh budget every year without reference to the past. Consequently, they start every line-item in the budget from a zero-base even if the amount didn’t increase from the previous year. They are thus forced to justify all claims on their organization’s financial resources as if they were entirely new claims for entirely new projects.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Zero-Base Budgeting
Zero-base budgeting advocates say that it detects inflated budgets and unearths cost savings by focusing on priorities rather than simply relying on the precedent. Managers secure a tighter focus on operations by justifying each line-item in their budgets, thereby reducing the money they allocate to the lowest level possible. Managers can also contrast competing claims on their ever-scarce financial resources and therefore shift funds to more impactful projects.
Zero-base budgeting critics call attention to the many practical difficulties of implementing this time-consuming tool. More importantly, since zero-base involves give-and-take, the budgeting process is susceptible to favoritism, cronyism, and political influence.
3G Capital’s Success with Zero-Base Budgeting
Zero-base budgeting has garnered much attention in the last few years as the centerpiece of an aggressive cost-cutting recipe used by 3G Capital, a thriving Brazilian buyout firm that’s renowned for its parsimonious operations. 3G’s predominant investment strategy is to acquire and then squeeze value out of companies, particularly in the food and restaurant industries.
At Anheuser-Busch, InBev, Tim Hortons, Burger King, Heinz, Kraft, and other acquired companies, 3G’s hard-nosed managers have used zero-base budgeting to initiate sweeping cost cuts. They’ve shut down factories, laid off thousands of factory workers, eliminated hundreds of management jobs, sold off corporate jets, forced executives to fly coach, restricted employees’ office supplies to $15 a month, and even asked employees to seek permission to take color printouts.
Inspired by 3G, many other companies have adapted zero-base budgeting to root out bloat. Some have even gotten carried away—for example, Pilgrim’s Pride (an American meat-processing company) used zero-base budgeting to measure how much soap employees use to wash their hands and how much Gatorade hourly employees consume during breaks.
Idea for Impact: Zero-Base Budgeting Is an Effective Cost-Management Tool
Cutting operating costs is an ever-bigger priority at many organizations. For each line-item in your budget, ask “Should this be done at all?” and “Is this the most efficient and effective use of our resources?”
Consider zero-base budgeting to rigorously find cost-effective ways to improve your operations. It can bring about cost discipline, force your operations to become lean, and ultimately boost your bottom line.