Time For Business Planning!

John Matthews, founder and president of Gray Cat Enterprises Inc.

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . .” 

Ah yes, the annual business planning cycle is upon us.

The time of the year to huddle all of your business colleagues in a room to hash out the key initiatives for the upcoming year.  The time to throw everything up on the wall and try to get everything done in the first quarter.  ”This will be the year that all plans will be met”  is the battle cry!  Every vision, idea and strategy gets bantered about – shouts of  ”there are no bad ideas!”  fill the air.  The room is electric with visionaries exchanging ideas on how their idea solves all issues, yet year after year, it seems that plans never actually come to fruition.

Why is that?  The intent was there; the energy was present; and ideas were flowing.  That’s the easy part – coming up with the ideas. The success of your planning doesn’t rest on the ideas, but rather, implementing those ideas.  It’s true, companies need to foster innovation in their business planning, but more importantly, they need to create a business environment that enables team members to execute these ideas with an “on-time, on-budget” mindset.  That is where the work begins.

I have been putting together business plans for over 25 years and it is clear to me that the strength of its core rests solely on being able to execute the plan. Each year I approach business planning as an opportunity, rather than a burden.  I would rather invest the time up front in mapping out the upcoming year, than leaving it to chance to dictate my strategy.  While this may force me to think strategically as well as tactically, preparing a detailed business plan in advance enables me to identify the challenges in advance of actually facing them.

So, why is business planning so crucial?  In a word, it provides “clarity”.  Investing time to develop a plan provides precise clarification of the company vision to both employees and customers.  In addition, it provides a mechanism to gauge the results of the business and provides the foundation for future growth plans.  In the long haul, it enhances the company valuation through fiscal responsibility, which provides the story of opportunity to any future investor or employee.  In short, the benefits of planning allow the company to articulate a common vision to align resources and make an efficient use of investment dollars.  A company that is perceived to be a “well-oiled machine” is attractive on many fronts – both externally with investors and internally with employees through job satisfaction and increased tenure.

Strategic Planning & Goals:  The first step is to identify the key company goals which will be the over-arching direction of the plan.  These goals should be focused on three areas:  financial, growth initiatives and alignment to the company’s vision/mission.  This provides the overall direction of the company by establishing high-level goals that will be achieved by tactical initiatives.  The overall plan should be 1 to 3 years with measurement mileposts monthly, quarterly and annually. While the plan is put in place at the onset of the year, it should be constantly re-forecast with actual results throughout the year.
Developing Planning Modules:  Compartmentalizing your plan
 by developing planning modules or “chunks”
 allows you to attack the plan in parts, yet still maintain a cohesive plan.  I have found that developing an annual plan made up of quarterly targets – thus becoming a rolling quarterly forecast financial model – allows for a cohesive structure along with the nimbleness to react to market conditions.
  At the end of each quarter, a true-up process to align results to annual targets needs to be 
re-forecast and adjustments made.
Develop Non-Capital Initiatives:  Each project initiative should have a corresponding project plan that monitors whether it will be completed on-time and on-budget.  The importance of the detailed project plan is to accomplish the following:  a) identify all the steps to be completed; b) establish a realistic timeline for each step; c) identify and allocate the necessary resources for accomplishing the initiative; d) ensure that the initiative has been vetted for departmental inter-dependencies and potential conflicts; and e) ensure that the initiative is in alignment with the overall strategic plan.
Create A Capital Plan:  Next, I would develop a capital plan identifying dollars to be spent on the business to increase its overall value.  While all capital dollars may not entirely be discretionary – i.e., investing dollars for anticipated return from growth – it is necessary to determine how capital dollars will be allocated whether for discretionary purposes or general maintenance.  Projects that require capital are critical for the company growth and must be managed to their desired return, avoiding shortfalls in ROI or issues involving “capital creep”.  If you haven’t already, setting up a capital committee to review expenditures in advance of the start of the project provides some assurance that the projects have been vetted against return on investment.  Lastly, developing a post-audit process enables the team to review and monitor the progress of ongoing investments.
Business Plan Analytics Through Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s):  Identifying key performance indicators for your business to use as benchmarks throughout the year is perhaps the most critical step you can make with regard to business analytics.  Not only will KPI’s  help identify key shortfalls in the plan, but will help narrow your focus in addressing the shortfalls.  For instance, recognizing that you have an issue in labor isn’t merely enough when you consider the following possibilities:  a) labor rates may be too high; b) overtime has exceeded its budget; c) the issue is regionally-based, not across the board; d) man hours may have exceeded its allocated budget, etc.  It could be a myriad of triggers that caused labor to exceed its budget and KPI’s enable you to drill down to the cause.  KPI management requires a disciplined review process established monthly that fosters a blended analysis throughout the year that compares actual results against both budgets and forecasts.
Fundamentals, Cycles & Trends (FC & T’s):  Your plan, if done in advance and thoroughly, should provide and excellent foundation from which to work. Even the best plan still has to react to outside forces that will influence your best intentions.  Identifying certain fundamentals, cycles and trends that may impact your company is a prudent way to being able to develop a contingency “plan B” in the event an outside force rears its head.  A series of key FC & T’s should be monitored throughout the year so that if required, your plan can react.  Certain FC & T’s may include wholesale pricing, weather, commodity markets or labor market impacts that are out of your control.  In my opinion, developing contingency plans in advance for these outside forces at least gives you a fighting chance to react favorably.
Strategic Review of Plans/Goals at Year-End:  At the end of the year, a thorough review of the plan and its process should be discussed with the team in order to make the next planning cycle more effective and efficient.  Take a look at all of the successful initiatives and the ones that fell short in order to identify where the “broken pipes” occurred in the process.  Remember not to double-dip on the capital projects EBIDTA contribution for the upcoming year – your budgetary baselines should move in concert with these investments.  All projects that straddle the budgetary year, should be rolled over into the new plan. Business planning is the road map
 that identifies where you are headed
 in advance
.  As importantly, it also identifies road blocks
 – in advance. Your business plan should provide a common vision supported by tactical initiatives that, 
ultimately, creates greater value for your company.  
 It may seem daunting, but by knowing your vision
 and its corresponding financial targets
, you will have a better chance at executing how to get there
 and avoiding traps in advance.

John Matthews is the founder and president of Gray Cat Enterprises Inc., a strategic planning and marketing services firm that specializes in helping businesses grow in the restaurant, convenience and general retail industries.  With more than 20 years of senior-level  experience in retail and a speaker at retail-group events throughout the U.S., Matthews has recently written two step-by-step manuals, Local Store Marketing Manual for Retailers and Grand Opening Manual for Retailers, which are available at www.graycatenterprises.com.

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