Michael Bremer has spent the last 25 years as president of The Cumberland Group, a process improvement consultancy firm. He has worked inside and outside finance to help companies evolve into better versions of themselves as organically as possible. We recently spoke with Mr. Bremer about the benefits and hazards of process improvement, and why CFOs play a central role.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell us a little about your background.
I consider myself an improvement nutcase. Most people think they’re doing a better job of improving than they really are, and there’s a big distinction between companies that are highly effective at improving and those that aren’t. So over the last 20 years, I’ve studied what distinguishes the highly effective companies and tried to teach various organizations how to improve.
Why do you think companies overestimate their own ability to improve?
It’s amazingly simple; I think most people struggle to know what true excellence looks like because they’ve never actually seen it. When people try to emulate Toyota’s lean philosophy, for example, they can copy parts without actually recreating the results. That leads people to think any improvement is enough instead of thinking about how much improvement is actually possible; why settle for 5 percent when 50 percent is attainable?
Do you think a problem companies encounter is thinking there’s a one-size-fits-all way to approach process improvement?
Certainly. One of the difficulties I discovered when I first started consulting was that people expected a ready-made solution. They wanted tools that could offer automatic improvements without really understanding what needed to improve and why.
Given that, what is the role of technology in process improvement?
A mistake I see a lot is companies that choose technologies that can replicate what they already do. Technology is much more valuable when it fixes fundamental problems or complements the core business strategy. For instance, a lot of companies are looking to AI to deliver slight improvements to speed or efficiency, but the better application is using AI to understand what’s really going on with the business and the customers.
It sounds like choosing the right technology is especially important. Do you have any advice on selecting correctly?
In today’s world, everyone understands the fundamentals of process performance, yet they still have a silo mentality. They want to make sales or finance perfect instead of working to harmonize things across silos. The CFO is in a unique position to lead this effort because they are already pulling in insights from across the business. Their goal should be identifying technologies that support the organization’s value proposition and strategic objectives. Once those things are clearly defined, it’s relatively clear what technologies you need.
Are you in favor of activist CFOs who try to expand their role outside finance?
I think CFOs should be in more of a coaching mode than a control mode. Presumably, the finance team has the best analytics skills in the company. They should be using those skills to show other departments how to track their own performance metrics and make better decisions faster. The CFO can be an excellent champion for getting everyone in the organization looking closer at performance feedback.
Lastly, what resources do you think CFOs need to succeed in 2019 and beyond?
If I were coaching a CFO, I would recommend four things. The first is to look at things from new perspectives to gain a deeper understanding of the company. Next, I would recommend that the CFO use that understanding to help their company define and refine their own stated objectives; they shouldn’t be fuzzy in any way. Once the objectives are clear, the goal becomes finding ways to keep average performers engaged, not just the top performers. It’s up to the CFO to eliminate friction and confusion so that more employees make a bigger contribution. Finally, the company should highlight progress toward improvements by releasing announcements and displaying charts/graphs around the office. I recommend that because visual, public reporting creates shared goals and drives more honesty across the organization. If a CFO follows those four pillars, I think they’re a lot more likely to be successful.
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