Performance Perspectives

Managing Those Elusive Overheads

One of the biggest challenges faced by operations management is how to improve costs and service levels, especially when such a large portion of these costs are perceived to be “outside” of their control.

Despite recent attempts to control corporate overheads, it’s still very common for corporations to laden operating management with an “automatic” allocation for overhead costs such as Employee Benefits, IT, Legal, Facilities Management, Accounting…the list goes on. Our studies show that most of these costs are still allocated back to management as a direct “loader”, or percentage markup, on staff that is employed in the operating business units. Not only is this an unfair disadvantage to operating management who has little perceived influence on these costs, but it also results in a “masking” effect as these costs mysteriously get buried in the loading factor itself. Operating units struggle from year to year, trying to capture that next 1,2, 5 % of efficiency gains, while over 50% of their costs are, in effect, off limits.

But there are some organizations that clearly understand the challenges, and have begun to make nice strides in this area of corporate overheads. For some, it has involved ugly corporate battles, political in- fighting, and the “muscling in” of allocation changes. For others, the challenge has been a bit easier, by focusing on what really matters- visibility of overheads, and a direct path toward managing them.

Here’s a quick list of areas you can focus on to improve the way overheads are managed:

Transparency– The first, and most important driver for successfully managing overheads is making them visible to the enterprise. All to often, overheads from shared services functions are not visible to anyone outside of shared services organizations themselves. In fact, the word “overhead”, has an almost mystical connotation- something that just shows up like a cloud over your head.

One of my clients once said, “The most important thing leadership can do is to expose the ‘glass house’. Overheads need to get taken out of the “black box” and put into the “fish bowl.” Once you can see the costs clearly, both operating and corporate management can begin making rational assessments about to best control them.

Accountability– This is arguably one of the trickier overhead challenges, since managing overheads involves accountability at multiple levels. To simplify this challenge, most companies simply define accountability at the shared service level (VP IT, or VP Legal, for example) and leave it at that.

More successful organizations, on the other hand, split this accountability into its manageable components. For example, management of shared services functions can be accountable for policy, process, and the manner in which work gets performed. But there is a second layer that deals with “how much of a particular service” gets provided- and it’s that component that must be managed by operations, if we are to hold them accountable for real profit and loss (discussed below).

To do this right requires some hard work on the front end to appropriately define the “drivers” of overhead costs that are truly within line management’s control. A simple example is the area of Corporate IT, in which the IT department defines overall hardware standards and security protocols, while the variable costs associated with local support is based on actual usage and consumption of IT resources. That’s an overly simplified example, but still illustrative of how the process can work. Most overhead costs have a controllable driver to them. Defining those unique drivers, and distributing accountability for each will go a long way in showing how and where these costs can be managed.

“P&L” Mindset– There’s been a lot of debate around whether shared services functions can truly operate like real profit centers. The profit center “purists” will argue that internal services should behave just like “best in class” outsourcers, and if they can’t compete, they should get out the way. The more traditional view is that once a service is inside of the corporate wall, they become somewhat insulated from everyday price and service level competition. The reason being that “opening these services up to competition” would be too chaotic, and ignore the sunk cost associated with starting up, or winding down one of these functions.

A more hybrid solution that I like is to treat the first few years of a shared service function like a “business partnership” with defined parameters and conditions that must be met for the contract to continue. It takes a little bit of the edge, or outsourcing “threat”, off the table, and allows the operating unit and shared service function to collectively work on solving the problems at hand.

Still, shared services functions must look toward an “end state” where they begin to appear more and more like their competitors in the external marketplace and less like corporate entitlements. In the end, they must view their services as “universally contestable” with operating management as their #1 customer. For many organizations, particularly the larger ones, that’s a big change in culture.

Pricing– Save for the conservationists and “demand-siders”, most modern day economists will tell you that the “price tag” is the way to control the consumption of almost anything, from drugs to air travel. And it’s no different in the game of managing corporate overheads.

Once you’ve got the accountabilities squared away, and you’ve determined the “cost drivers” that are controllable by operating management, the price tag is the next big factor to focus on. One of the most important pieces of the service contract you have with operations management is the monthly invoice, assuming its real and complete. It needs to reflect the service provider’s true cost, not just the direct, or variable costs of serving operations. Otherwise, it’s a meaningless number. In the end, the pricing mechanism needs to be something that can be compared and benchmarked among leading suppliers of a particular service. For that to be possible, price needs to reflect the true cost of doing business.

Value Contribution– So far, we’ve only focused on the cost side of the equation. Now, let’s look at service levels.

For the more arcane areas of corporate overheads, where a pricing-for-service approach is more difficult, it is usually worth the time to understand the area’s value contribution to your business unit. Finding the one or two key value contributors is now the task at hand. For example, in US based companies, the Tax Department is generally staffed with high-end professionals, and often is the keeper of a substantial tax attorney budget. When treated from a pure cost perspective, a common rumbling among operating management becomes: Why am I paying so much for my tax return?

A better question would be: what value am I getting for my money? In this case, taking advantage of key US Tax code provisions can be expensive, but the cash flow impact (in terms of lower effective tax rates) can be a significant benefit to the operating unit. Clearly delineating and quantifying the value, combined with presenting an accurate picture of the cost to achieve that value (OH charges from the Tax department) can bring a whole new level of awareness to these types of overheads.

Of course, for this to work, you need to ensure that parity exists between the function benefiting from the value generated, and the function bearing the costs. So before you allocate costs, make sure you effectively match the budget responsibility with the function who ultimately reaps the benefits you define.

Service level agreements-This is the contract that manages the relationship between you and your internal service provider. It contains everything from pricing, to service level standards, to when and how outsourcing solutions can and would be employed. There must be a process in place to negotiate the standards, bind the parties, and review progress at regular intervals. While this can be a rather time consuming process (especially the first time out of the gate), it is essential in setting the stage for more commercial relationships between the parties.

Leadership– As with any significant initiative, competent and visible leadership is key. A good executive sponsor is key in getting through the inter-functional friction, and natural cultural challenges that will likely emerge during the process. Leadership must view controlling overheads as a significant priority, one that makes the enormity of the problem visible to both sides, and effectively set the “rules of engagement” for how to best address the challenges at hand. Without good leadership, the road toward efficiency and value of overheads becomes much more difficult to navigate

So there you have it…my cut at the top ingredients in managing corporate overheads and shared service functions. The road is not an easy one, but if you build in the right mechanisms from the start, you will avoid some of the common pitfalls that your organization is bound to face in its pursuit of a more efficient overhead structure.


Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at

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