Today I faced a choice. Should I go out and enjoy the beautiful weather and waves and go for a surf or should I blog about my favorite financial reporting tool? Seems like a pathetic question for a surfer to ask, or maybe this financial reporting tool is really that great. I’ll settle for an answer of “both”.
The tool in question is the Waterfall Chart. It’s a way to compare actual results across time periods (months or quarters usually) against your original Plan of Record, as well as forecasts you made along the way as more information became available. It packs a ton of information into a concise format, and provides management and Board members quick answers to the following important questions:
1. How are we doing against plan? Against what we thought last time we reforecast?
2. Where are we most likely to end up at the end of the fiscal year?
3. Are we getting better at predicting our business?
The tool works like this:
Across the top row is your original Plan of Record. This could be for a financial goal like Revenue or Cash, or an operating goal like headcount or units sold. Each column is representative of a time period. I like monthly for most metrics, with sub-totals for quarters and the full fiscal year. Each row below the plan of record is a reforecast to provide a current working view of where management thinks they will wind up based on all the information available at that time period. Click the example below which was as of August 15, 2010 to see a sample, or click the link below to download the Excel spreadsheet.
Periodic reforecasting does not mean changes to the official Plan of Record against which management measures itself. Reforecasts should not require days of offsite meetings to reach agreement. It should be something the CEO, CFO, and functional leaders like the VP Sales or Head of Operations can hammer out in a few hours. Usually these reforecasts are made monthly, about the time the actual results for the prior month are finalized. When you have an actual result, say for the month of August, $2,111 in the example above, this goes where the August column and August row intersect. On that same row to the right of the August actual you will put the new forecasts you are making for the rest of the year (September through December.) In this fashion, the bottom cells form a downward stair step shape (a shallow waterfall perhaps?) with the actual results cascading from upper left to lower right. You can get fancy and put the actuals that beat plan in green, and those that missed in red. You can also add some columns to the right of your last time period to show cumulative totals and year to dates (YTD). With or without these embellishments you’ve got some really powerful information in an easy to visualize chart.
Two questions an entrepreneur might ask about this tool:
By repeatedly comparing actual to plans and reforecasts, won’t my Board beat me up each month if I miss plan or even worse, miss forecasts I just made? If you are a relatively young company, most Board’s (I hope) understand that planning is a best-efforts exercise not an exact science. Most Boards will react rationally and cooperatively if you miss your plan, as long as you avoid big surprises. By giving the Board updated forecasts you decrease the odds of big surprises because the latest and best information is re-factored in to the equation as the year progresses. They probably won’t let you stop measuring yourself against the Plan of Record, but at least you’ve warned them as to how results are trending month to month and course corrections can be made throughout the year.
Won’t this take a lot of time? Hopefully not a ton, but it does take effort. However, it should be effort well worth it beyond just making the Board happy, because as a management team you obviously care about metrics like cash on hand, and this should be something you are constantly recalibrating anyway. The waterfall is the perfect tool to organize and share this information.
Most of my companies using this tool track five to ten key metrics this way. Typical metrics include:
- New bookings
- Cash on hand
- Operating expenses
- Net income
- Units sold or new customers acquired
- Some measure of deployed/live customers (if there is a lag between a sale and a live customer)
- For internet companies, some measure of the “top of the funnel” such as Unique Visitors or Page Views
Whether or not you agree this is the single greatest financial reporting tool ever, I hope you give it a try and find it useful. Now I’m going surfing….