Case Studies

Luxury Products Retailer, Finance Group & Procurement: Strategic Standardization Simplifies Reporting & Improves Operating Cost by 20%

Luxury Retailer
North America

Project Background

This company operates a chain of more than 500 luxury department stores and off-price designer outlets, as well as a direct-to-consumer ecommerce division. The “new” CFO was a longtime employee recently promoted from within—after a brief stint in IT as part of a management rotational program. From this IT assignment, he learned that the company’s technology was as modern as practical without crossing the line into unproven, bleeding-edge applications.

He also discovered that valuable technology features were under-utilized due to a lack of data standards. Everything from intake forms to data fields, event log definitions, and workflow sequences were designed differently—if designed at all. The inconsistencies caused the internal robotic process automation (RPA) team to struggle to find use cases for “business processes.” Even that term was defined differently, depending on the organizational location. These insights shaped the “standardization” agenda for his new job assignment.

Whenever technology failed to meet the business organization’s expectations, they pushed for upgrades. The CFO felt differently. He was confident that the technology was up to date; standardization was needed to unleash its potential. For example:

  • Ever since the deployment of a new “automated” reporting app, management reporting had grown more cumbersome, not easier.
  • A new “auto-reconciling” feature in the general ledger system required so much preparatory effort for each auto-rec that it was just as easy to perform the task manually—which many employees still did.
  • A recently-installed accounts-payable technology was supposed to process over 85 percent of invoices with “zero touches” from finance employees. After 18 months of effort, they achieved less than half of that target. Once again, the organization clamored for new technology. Technology sales reps encouraged this misperception.

But the CFO knew that the current technology’s under-performance resulted from his company’s lack of capabilities in two, related areas: standardization and automation use-case discovery. He also knew that it was unrealistic to expect already-swamped employees to develop these capabilities. He needed outside help—and contacted The Lab. 

Project Overview

Project Sponsor: Chief Financial Officer

Client: Top 30 Global Retailer

Implementation Results
  • Operating cost: Down 20%

  • Service improvement: Up 60%

  • Productive capacity: Up 25%

  • Annual savings: $3.5M

  • Break-even point: 6 mos.

  • 12-month ROI: 4x

Client Description, Project Scope, Objectives

Over a period that spanned generations, this retailer maintained a storied reputation for customer service by means of a large, well-compensated employee base. However, like all other traditional retailers, its business model was challenged by decades of unrelenting, structural change in the industry. Now, “storied service” would require “storied automation”—doing radically more with less. 

The CFO wanted the finance group to lead the way. Its structure was typical of its peers. Over 80 percent of the headcount in finance was concentrated in accounting, reporting, A/P, A/R, and internal audit. Additionally, the CFO position included operational responsibility for the non-merchandise procurement group, which handled everything from real estate and store fixtures to IT assets and supplies of all types. This organization managed a $3 billion annual spend, served more than 3,000 vendors, and operated across 20 purchasing sites.

The project scope included both the finance and procurement groups. In addition to massive productivity gains, the CFO had another, aggressive strategic objective for the initiative: He wanted to stealthily initiate transformation across the entire business by upgrading the finance group’s margin analysis and management reporting to unprecedented levels of highly-visible operational detail.

The Lab’s “Super KPIs” promised to document where value was made and lost in the business, i.e., “leverage points.” The objective was to provide executive visibility of inarguably-valuable opportunities with obvious improvement actions. Examples within finance and non-merchandise procurement:

  • The costs of under-managed, “drop-everything” analytical requests for finance staff
  • Non-merchandise suppliers with high “costs to handle”: unexpected delays, charges, and risk

The CFO planned to pilot Super KPIs in his organizations for possible expansion across the business.

Initiative Objectives:
  • Productivity improvement

  • Simplified, standardized reporting

  • Enterprise-wide performance visibility

Overview: Phase I, Analysis and Discovery

The initiative began with a six-week Phase I Structured Discovery analysis covering all major end-to-end business processes, including:

  • Finance
    • Accounting
    • Reporting
    • Accounts Payable
    • Accounts Receivable
    • Internal Audit
    • Fixed Assets
  • Procurement
    • Supplier Relations
    • Supplier Services
    • Purchase Order Issuance
    • Rebates
    • Incident Management

The Lab’s database of patented standardization tools, analytical models, and documentation templates enables an approach that we call Structured Discovery. It takes advantage of the high level of similarities found across all businesses and industries.

First, we gather clients’ business data—directly from systems—and load it into The Lab’s pre-structured data models to generate preliminary insights. Next, we use our database of templates to rapidly create business process maps that identify the most valuable “leverage points” in the business, where standardization can reduce rework and variance while enabling automation—using existing technology or robotic process automation (RPA). Finally, we select the most valuable automation use cases from The Lab’s catalog of RPA bots.

Spoiler alert: These leverage points are highly similar across businesses and even industries. But that’s also the beauty of Structured Discovery—less mystery means less uncertainty. Structured Discovery identifies the usual, proven opportunities and fine-tunes these to your business. It is also: 

  • Economical. Performed remotely, worldwide
  • Efficient. Frugal use of client time, subject-matter experts (SMEs)
  • Effective. Captures 85 percent of work activities (approx. two minutes each)
  • Valuable. Automation use cases, customer-experience gains, increased margins
  • Incremental. Do as much as you like: an enterprise, a process, an organization

For the finance organization, The Lab documented and analyzed current-state operations, from journal-entry recording to routine reporting—management, financial, tax, and regulatory. Non-routine or ad hoc reports were inventoried, sampled, and analyzed for content accuracy, integrity, and redundancy with other reports. The procurement organization was analyzed concurrently, using the same approach.

Assets and Deliverables: Analysis and Discovery, Phase I
  • 10+ major end-to-end business processes documented at nano-scale detail

  • 30+ process-standardization “leverage points”

  • 200+ costly, “downstream” impacts

  • 70+ automation candidates identified

  • 45+ advanced analytics and KPI use-cases identified

    • Upgraded dashboards and reports (financial, operational)

    • AI/ML-driven alerts and recommendations

    • Improved insights: operational, strategic

Phase I: Findings, Insights  

During the Phase I analytical effort, The Lab identified roughly 30 leverage points. Problems at these points generated over 200 costly impacts further down the business process. For example, in finance, additions to the general ledger often increased complexity, errors, and workload without adding insights. Many management reports did the same. Within procurement, errors and omissions in master data during new supplier onboarding created rework tasks that could last indefinitely.

Most leverage-point-related issues translate to non-technology standardization improvements that boost operational effectiveness, reduce avoidable rework, and enable automation. For this client, just over 60 percent of the improvements were non-technology. For the remaining 40 percent of technology-dependent improvements, no new IT systems were required: 

  • Roughly half could be automated using the existing technology after the work was standardized.
  • The remainder were automated using RPA, and small, low-code applications (e.g., automated forms, onboarding apps, add-ins, etc.).

The necessary technologies were already deployed in the business. After initial automation, most of the technology-dependent leverage points could be further augmented with artificial intelligence (AI) for simple decision-making and proactive, real-time notifications.

Phase II: Standardization Implementation

Working with management across both finance and procurement, The Lab designed a 30-week, “minimally invasive,” self-funding implementation program to increase standardization and automation.

Although work proceeded simultaneously across all segments of the two organizations, The Lab sequenced the emphasis to reduce disruption and ensure early documentation of results. Data standardization, KPI implementation, and operational reporting were the primary focus of the early weeks.

Once operational tracking and reporting capabilities were functional, work standardization increased in scope and intensity. The goal was to reduce or eliminate the causes of rework and needless variance. As each leverage point was standardized, as much work activity as possible was configured for processing by existing technology and/or RPA bots.

Improvement Examples: Finance Group & Procurement

The Lab worked to improve all 30 leverage points. Some improvements applied to all, while others were specific to each. However, greater emphasis was invested in the top 12 leverage points, which accounted for more than 70 percent of the total available benefits.

Management Report Standardization. The Lab quickly rationalized, standardized, and centralized over 5,000 management reports documented during the Phase I discovery. More than 80 percent were candidates for elimination over an 18-month transition period. Content analysis revealed that only one percent of these monitored operational productivity, quality, and work capacity management. Two-thirds of all reports tracked revenues, expenses, and assets, but in redundant, non-standard ways that required extensive manual reconciliation to actually use. Only about a quarter of all reports documented service and margin performance—again, in non-standard terms.

Vendor Onboarding. The procurement team consistently received poor-quality inbound information, e.g., blank fields, incorrect data, and outdated addresses. Nearly one-quarter of the improvement opportunities focused on low-value, corrective activities related to this original not-in-good-order (NIGO) onboarding information. The Lab’s analysis identified “frequent offenders” and the root causes of these mistakes to free employees for higher-value work.

Reporting Automation. More than 200 reports of varying complexity were scheduled for eventual automation over a two-year period. During implementation, The Lab and the client management team prioritized the top 50 for full or partial implementation within six months. Reports that enabled acceleration of the monthly close process and facilitated external reporting (financial, regulatory, tax, etc.) were moved to the top of this list. Roughly one-third of these activities were automated with existing applications (GL, A/P, etc.) once the work was standardized. RPA and automated workflow addressed the remaining opportunities. 

The Lab Makes it Easy

Organization-friendly engagement design

At The Lab, we’ve spent three decades refining every aspect of our transformation engagement model. We’ve made it easy for clients—from the C-Suite to the front line—to understand and manage the initiative:

  • Minimal use of client time: One to two hours each week, maximum.
  • Measurable benefits: Typical 12-month ROI is 3x to 5x.
  • Pre-built templates and tools: Process maps, data models, bots, and more.
  • U.S.-based, remote delivery: Nothing is ever outsourced or offshored.

Designed to reduce risk, increase success

Since 1993, The Lab has led the industry in eliminating risk for our clients. Whether your engagement involves a handful of bots or wall-to-wall transformation, we make it easy to do business with us:

  • Fixed pricing and clearly defined scope
  • Early-out checkpoints and options
  • Money-back guarantees

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