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Facts about Cost Accounting

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Harvard Business School 9-192-068 Rev. May 1, 1993 DO A Brief Introduction to Cost Accounting T NO Organizations and managers are almost always interested in and concerned about costs. Control of past, present, and future costs is part of every manager’s job. In companies that try to earn profits, control of costs directly affects the amount of profit earned. Knowledge of the cost of products or services is indispensable for decisions about pricing or product and service mix. In nonprofit organizations, control of costs influences the level of services that can be provided and the future survival of the organization.

Cost accounting systems can be important sources of information for managers. For this reason, effective managers understand the strengths and limitations of cost accounting systems and actively participate in the evaluation and evolution of cost measurement and management systems. Unlike accounting systems that support the preparation of periodic financial reports, cost accounting systems and reports are not subject to rules or standards such as generally accepted accounting principles. Managers are permitted to exercise as much creativity and ingenuity as they wish in the quest for information on costs.

As a result, there is much variety in cost accounting systems used in different companies and sometimes even in different parts of the same organization. PY CO This brief introduction to cost accounting will review the principal uses of cost data, provide some vocabulary for cost accounting, and present several of the questions managers have to answer in designing or using a cost accounting system. Its purpose is to provide the beginner with some vocabulary and ideas to use in learning about and exploring how cost management systems are designed and used by managers.

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While many of the references are to products and manufacturing environments, the vocabulary and concepts are equally applicable to services. Some Uses of Information About Costs Information about costs is used for two purposes in most organizations. Cost accounting systems provide information for evaluating the performance of an organizational unit or its manager. They also provide a means for estimating the costs of units of product or service that the organization may manufacture or provide to others. Professor William J. Bruns, Jr. prepared this note as the basis for class discussion. Copyright © 1991 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies, call (617) 495-6117 or write the Publishing Division, Harvard Business School, Boston, MA 02163. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business School. 1 192-068 A Brief Introduction to Cost Accounting Performance Measurement

DO Reports on the costs incurred by part of an organization—department or a division, for example—are one means by which efficiency and effectiveness can be evaluated. By comparing actual costs to those that were expected—to standard costs or budgeted costs—the degree to which costs have been controlled can be judged. Deviations from expectations—variances—can be identified, evaluated, and discussed by managers. If needed, corrective actions can be taken or expectations can be modified to incorporate previously unexpected efficiencies.

Performance measurement reporting is usually periodic and systematic. Costs are assigned to parts of an organization that are identified as cost centers. When managers are held accountable for the costs incurred in a cost center, they are sometimes called responsibility centers. Performance reports provide information on the achievement of established objectives, efficiency of operations, and opportunities for cost control or cost reduction. Performance reports are used for both information and performance measurement and evaluation. T NO Product Costs and the Cost of Services

Inventory cost In manufacturing companies, product costs must be measured to determine the cost of items transferred from work-in-process to finished goods inventory. To satisfy the demands created by the cost concept used in financial reporting, a cost accounting system must measure all of the costs of the manufacturing process and assign some part of those costs to each unit of product. The costs of obtaining, maintaining, and managing the manufacturing facility need to be added to the costs of material and productive labor that each unit requires.

The former costs are called indirect costs, and the latter are called direct costs. Generally accepted accounting principles require that inventory cost includes a "fair share" of total manufacturing costs, including indirect costs. In practice, there is considerable variation in how indirect costs are assigned to products. Information on costs is indispensable for analyzing the profitability of a product or product line. Product cost information allows managers to evaluate contribution margin—the difference between price and variable costs—and gross margin—the difference between price and total product costs.

Information about sales, marketing, and distribution costs allows managers to evaluate the profitability of a product or product line. Without good information about costs, managers have no way to associate net income with actions or products about which they make decisions and over which they exercise control. Profitability analysis PY CO In companies that offer more than one product or service, information about costs is a key to managing the mix of products or services offered to customers or clients.

With cost and profitability information, a manager can direct sales and marketing effort to the most profitable products. Unprofitable products can be eliminated, repriced, or bundled with more profitable products. The importance of product line decisions to future profitability requires confidence that product costs have been accurately determined. Product mix Although prices are determined by market forces of supply and demand, product differentiation and marketing offer many managers some degree of latitude in setting prices.

Product costs and trends in product costs often provide signals to managers that prices should be changed. In particular, a change in the cost of a critical material or component may signal the need to reconsider the prices asked for products. Pricing 2 A Brief Introduction to Cost Accounting 192-068 DO Cost of service Many products require the seller to provide additional services to customers. In such cases, information about the cost of services is as important to managers as product costs.

The same is true for managers of companies or organizations that provide only services. Unless the cost of service is measured, there is no way to know if providing the service is profitable or not and whether changes in pricing or marketing strategy are needed. Cost Behavior T NO Basic knowledge about cost behavior is a prerequisite for understanding, using, or designing cost accounting or cost management systems. The level of cost can be a function of either or both the volume of activity or time when the cost is incurred.

Because prices of material, labor, and other resources change as time passes, and because time allows changes in manufacturing methods or service delivery, comparing costs at two points in time can be informative about efficiency. However, understanding the effect of changes in volume on costs is essential to measuring, analyzing, and using information about costs for both performance measurement and product costing. Relation of Costs to Volume If a company changes the amount of product or service it provides to customers or clients, its total costs will usually change as well.

If more product is manufactured and sold, then we should expect the higher volume to cause costs to increase. However, in many instances, the increase in costs will not be proportional to the increase in product volume. To understand why, the concepts of variable costs and fixed costs must be understood. PY CO Variable costs A cost which changes in strict proportionality with volume is called a variable cost. That is, if volume increases by 50%, a variable cost will increase in total by 50% as well. Materials used to create a product are a common example of a variable cost item.

The total cost of materials to manufacture 20 units is double the cost to manufacture 10 units. Nonvariable costs A cost that does not vary at all with volume is called a nonvariable, or fixed, cost. Over time the level of a fixed cost may change, but the change is independent of the volume of activity. Building rent is usually a nonvariable cost. The rent paid is independent of the number of units of product or service produced in the building or the number of customers served. Nonvariable costs can often be changed by management decisions, but they do not change simply because the volume of activity changes.

Semivariable costs Many costs include a combination of variable costs and nonvariable costs. The total amount of these costs varies in the same direction as volume, but less than proportionately with changes in volume. Sometimes semivariable costs can be separated into a fixed portion and a variable portion by isolating elements of the cost. The total cost of driving an automobile is semivariable with respect to the number of miles driven, but the cost of gasoline, oil, tires, and maintenance may be variable, whereas insurance and registration fees are probably fixed.

Often costs are assumed to be variable when they actually are incurred in chunks. Such costs, also known as step-function costs, are fixed for a range of volume of production but change in a chunk when volume drops below or exceeds the limits of the relevant range of volume. The costs of stockroom employees are often chunky. As volume of inventory or products increases, one stockroom employee may be able to handle material and finished goods until the volume level Chunky costs 3 192-068 A Brief Introduction to Cost Accounting ncreases to the point where another employee must be added. The new staffing level will then be sufficient even as volume rises further until another "step" is reached. Chunky costs and costs that are not easily related to volume measures usually require special analysis and management. DO Accounting for Costs Classifying Costs The word cost is used many different ways in accounting and by managers. For clarity, other words are often attached to the word cost to enhance its meaning. In cost accounting, costs are usually classified into two categories: direct costs and indirect costs.

Direct costs can be specifically traced to or are caused by a product, project, organizational unit, or activity. Materials specifically used in the manufacture of a product are an example of a direct cost. Labor specifically employed to provide a service would be another example. Many direct costs are variable costs, but nonvariable costs can also be direct costs if they can be traced directly to a project, organizational unit, or activity. Direct costs T NO When a cost cannot be traced directly to a single product, project, organizational unit, or activity, it is classified as an indirect cost.

The rental cost of a factory building making more than one product is an indirect cost with respect to each product. There is no feasible way to associate specifically an indirect cost with an individual unit or batch of products. Indirect costs Indirect costs are included in overhead cost, or burden. To account for the full cost of manufacturing products, some portion of the overhead cost must be associated with each unit of product. The methods by which overhead costs are associated with products or services comprise the essence of most cost accounting systems. PY CO

Accounting for Direct Costs A simplified cost flow chart for a manufacturing company is shown in Exhibit 1. Resources are acquired for cash or on credit and are classified as materials, payroll, or overhead. Payroll, which is classified as indirect cost, becomes part of overhead. In the production process, material, labor, and overhead cost becomes the cost of work-in-process inventory. When completed, work in process becomes finished goods and, later, cost of goods sold. It is easy to understand the accounting for direct costs such as material and productive labor.

As material is converted to product by the effort of production labor, the costs of material used and labor can be associated with products. As products are completed and transferred to finished goods and cost of goods sold, these direct costs are transferred with them. All the cost accountant has to do is keep track of how much material and labor cost is used in producing each unit of product. (Actually, this is a little more complicated than it may sound here, but this brief description captures the essence of the accounting process for these direct costs. ) 4 A Brief Introduction to Cost Accounting 192-068

Accounting for Indirect Costs DO Accounting for indirect costs is more complicated than accounting for direct costs. Costs must be collected and associated with activities before they can be assigned to products. The relationship between expenditures or costs and products or services is often far from obvious. Assignment to activities is often based on arbitrary decisions about the possible relationships between the reason for an expenditure and an activity. For example, rent for a building that houses both manufacturing and sales activities might be assigned to each activity in the same ratio as the floor space occupied by each.

Then, the manufacturing rent cost may be assigned to products manufactured using a measure of volume or some other measure of effort or activity. Almost all cost accounting systems use a two-stage procedure for assigning indirect costs to products or other cost objects. First, costs are assigned to cost centers, or cost pools. Second, costs are assigned from each pool to products using cost drivers. The concept of a cost driver is based on the idea that products drive the consumption of resources. T NO The first question that the cost accounting system designer has to answer concerns how many cost centers to use.

Using more cost centers than necessary adds complexity and cost to the cost accounting process itself. But using too few cost pools can create a risk that assigned costs will have little relationship to the activities and products that caused the cost to be incurred and resources to be consumed. In a manufacturing plant, the number of cost pools needed may be as small as one if machines, labor, and products are homogenous, or the number needed may be much larger if there is greater diversity in activities or products. In some manufacturing plants, each department, or even each machine, may be treated as a separate cost center. PY CO

The second set of questions the cost accounting system designer has to answer concerns how to assign costs to each cost center or cost pool. Expenditures for indirect costs may be assigned based on direct labor cost, floor space, headcounts, or direct costs. More complex systems will attempt to implement as much direct charging to each cost pool as possible by using actual measures of the resources used by each cost center. The third set of questions the cost accounting system designer has to answer concerns how to assign the costs collected for each cost center to the products that are manufactured by or pass through that center.

Often the costs are assigned in proportion to the use of a resource that is easily measured. Each unit product may be assigned the same proportion of indirect cost as it consumes labor time, labor cost, machine time, or material cost, for example. Given the number and complexity of choices facing the cost accounting system designer and the fact that there are no constraining "generally accepted principles of cost accounting," it should be obvious that there is great diversity in the cost accounting systems used by different organizations.

A new manager or employee has no choice but to learn about the systems the company uses before using the cost information the system has produced. Every manager has to be continually alert to be sure the cost information available is the right information for the decision or task at hand. 5 Material Inventory Payroll Other Asset and Liability Accounts Overhead PY CO Cash Acquiring Resources Cost Flow Chart for a Manufacturing Company Work-in-Process Inventory Production Finished Goods Inventory T NO Exhibit 1 192-068 Cost of Goods Sold Sale of Products DO -6-

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