March 2006 | How-To | Ten Tips

Devising a Logistics Budget

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A logistics budget that is off the mark can cause problems, as well as lost profits. If you don't plan properly, logistics costs can spiral, leading to an end-of-fiscal-year disaster. Here are 10 tips for devising your logistics budget, from Michael Bravo, senior director of finance, APL Logistics America.

1. Watch the calendar. When it comes to budgeting, timing is everything. A good rule of thumb is to begin budgeting approximately 10 months into your current fiscal year, and complete the final iteration no later than two to three weeks into your next one. Start the cycle too soon and you might not have enough year-to-date data for accurate projections. Draw the process out too long and you risk interfering with the following year's achievements.

2. Align your logistics budget planning process to the overall business, and establish clear expectations.Every budget-setting period should start with a detailed assessment of how logistics fits into your organization. Is logistics a core competency? Where does it fit into your company's competitive strategy? Are you dealing with new and different pressures on your supply chain, such as sourcing overseas? Most importantly: How do these factors mesh with current levels of logistics funding, and do you have to make any changes to restore the balance?

3. Use the power of the pen. It takes more than just numbers to create a quality budget. Before planning begins, clearly communicate your parameters in writing to everyone involved. Include information about key dates, the tools that are in place to help, and the type of data you're looking for. Be direct about the areas where you will require additional information, such as narratives. The result will be less miscommunication and better data integrity.

4. Be up to date on your rates. Logistics budgets are often off the mark. One common reason is a fundamental failure to anticipate correct rate structures. Everything from worker's compensation to temporary labor has a price, and it's your job to know those prices for the year to come. Question everything—from the going rate for your distribution center's common area maintenance to current lease agreements that allow landlords to pass along price increases. Don't hesitate to use customs house brokers, freight forwarders, 3PLs, and carriers that can educate you on industry pricing.

5. Don't overlook one-time exposures. Inventory theft, occasional bad client debt, and worker's compensation claims are part of the cost of doing business. You can't predict when such events will hit, but you can evaluate your insurance coverage at budget time to make sure these contingencies don't turn into financial catastrophes. Set aside adequate funds for any deductibles you'll have to pay out before the insurance kicks in, as well as reserves for bad debt that you cannot collect.

6. When in doubt, optimize or benchmark. Heuristics—experience-based rules of how events are likely to occur—usually plays a significant role in supply chain budgeting. What if you don't have enough history upon which to base your decision-making? Try using systems-based optimization to identify and cost out the most workable solution. These systems are costly and you need experts to run them, but the insight and accuracy they provide are incomparable. You can also benchmark against companies within your industry or companies that have a supply chain process similar to yours. Then you can determine whether your planned logistics expenditures are above, below, or in-line with the industry norm.

7. Don't be timid about requesting IT funds. Don't let high logistics costs deter you from requesting funds for big-ticket improvements such as state-of-the-art logistics IT systems. Trying to make do with systems that are behind the times may look fiscally responsible, but is actually counterproductive. You will spend more money manually working around the systems than you will on funding improvements.

8. Differentiate between budgeting and goal-setting. Striving to improve efficiency and performance year-over-year can be good for your bottom line. But don't confuse ambitious productivity goals with bankable budget figures. No matter how much you hope to improve operations in the year ahead, you risk having serious overruns if you base too many budget calculations on the performance you're hoping to see rather than the performance you're likely to get. Optimism fuels improvement, but realism pays the bills.

9. Document your budget assumptions. A budget is a financial plan, not a crystal ball. Be clear about the assumptions you're using and candid about the variables that could alter its relevance. Specify everything from anticipated freight volumes to the service quality you're striving for. Carefully identify geographic regions where new work will be done. Spell out whether your workforce will be full-time, "temp," or a combination. The documentation will stand you in good stead if you're asked to explain why things didn't happen as planned. Just as important, it will provide a litmus test for revisiting or revising your budget.

10. Manage expectations. After years of seeing logistics budgets fall within the same range, your executives may experience sticker shock when you present budget requests based on today's longer supply chains, higher fuel prices, driver shortages, and congestion-related challenges. Be sure to keep company leadership fully apprised of trends impacting supply chain costs long before you present budget requests for the upcoming year.

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