(Internal) Early Warning Signals of Decline

As ominous as uncontrollable external elements may appear, they are not the major cause of business failure. Rather, controllable internal elements are most frequently the problem. The internal elements that affect businesses are finance, operations, and marketing and sales. These are the basic functions over which a company’s executive team exercises direct control. Any business function can be placed within these categories. 

Business management is the force that drives these functions; yet changes in internal elements are at the root of the majority of business failures. These failures do not occur overnight; rather, such business decline usually occurs in stages. Extensive research that the founder of our organization performed suggests that the basic reason companies fail to recognize the onset of decline is simple management myopia or ignorance.

When your team fails to recognize the internal signals of decline, rationalization often ensues, with blame attributed to uncontrollable external elements. This approach appears on the surface to absolve management of responsibility for the company’s problems. For example, a shortage of cash might be blamed on stricter banking standards or lack of demand for the product/service. This “problem” can then be attributed to the nation’s economy.

Management can then take smaller “leaps of logic” to shift the blame to increased competition, which has made the marketplace unpredictable. While a shortage of cash is a symptom of a problem and surely a major signal of decline, the shortage of cash itself is not the actual problem; the problem may be buried deep within the business’s management and accounting information systems. You may be making sales at a price that does not cover the fixed costs of operations, or accounting personnel may not have developed contribution margin, product cost, and direct cost of sales standards. If your “system” cannot measure the causes of unprofitability, how do you know what changes to make?

As with external elements, internal elements can also interact with one another. Finance, operations, and marketing and sale shave a natural interaction with each other and are, in fact, related to one another. any one of these internal elements may cause decline. As the problem persists, the other functions become involved. Operations techniques may become antiquated. Marketing and sales can be in the wrong market with the wrong product. Finance may be unaware of other departments’ changing financial requirements. Such a lack of information flow between departments also signals decline. Businesses cannot survive without information about both internal and external environments.

Coping With Internal Elements

It is unfortunate when managerial tools are not used for maximum benefit. Many companies fail to manage by cash projections; instead they rely on “looking backward” statements like balance sheets and P&L. Budgets comparing projections to performance are critical to effective management. When budgets are tasks rather than tools, your management is weak. Balance sheets can show working capital reserves even when a company is in decline. Changes in accounts is important to track–it can point you to root causes and symptoms of real problems.

Controlling Internal Elements

The internal elements are the factors that should be most familiar to executive teams, but they are often the most overlooked. The very nature of the internal elements is dynamic; they are continually evolving and require constant monitoring. Since managers may be unable to understand the dynamic nature of the internal elements, a decline may go unnoticed for a while. Management’s primary role is to use these elements to maximize profits. Controlling finance, marketing, and operations requires monitoring of all the functions to identify potential signals of decline.

 

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