What is Responsibility Accounting?
Summary by James R. Martin
Most of this material is from MAAW's Chapter 9
Responsibility Accounting Main Page | Responsibility Accounting Summary
Responsibility accounting is an underlying concept of accounting performance measurement systems. The basic idea is that large diversified organizations are difficult, if not impossible to manage as a single segment, thus they must be decentralized or separated into manageable parts. These parts, or segments are referred to as responsibility centers that include: 1) revenue centers, 2) cost centers, 3) profit centers and 4) investment centers. This approach allows responsibility to be assigned to the segment managers that have the greatest amount of influence over the key elements to be managed. These elements include revenue for a revenue center (a segment that mainly generates revenue with relatively little costs), costs for a cost center (a segment that generates costs, but no revenue), a measure of profitability for a profit center (a segment that generates both revenue and costs) and return on investment (ROI) for an investment center (a segment such as a division of a company where the manager controls the acquisition and utilization of assets, as well as revenue and costs).
An underlying concept of responsibility accounting is referred to as controllability. Conceptually, a manager should only be held responsible for those aspects of performance that he or she can control. In my view, this concept is rarely, if ever, applied successfully in practice because of the system variation present in all systems. Attempts to apply the controllability concept produce responsibility reports where each layer of management is held responsible for all subordinate management layers as illustrated below.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Responsibility accounting has been an accepted part of traditional accounting control systems for many years because it provides an organization with a number of advantages. Perhaps the most compelling argument for the responsibility accounting approach is that it provides a way to manage an organization that would otherwise be unmanageable. In addition, assigning responsibility to lower level managers allows higher level managers to pursue other activities such as long term planning and policy making. It also provides a way to motivate lower level managers and workers. Managers and workers in an individualistic system tend to be motivated by measurements that emphasize their individual performances. However, this emphasis on the performance of individuals and individual segments creates what some critics refer to as the "stovepipe organization." Others have used the term "functional silos" to describe the same idea. Consider 9-6 Exhibit below1. Information flows vertically, rather than horizontally. Individuals in the various segments and functional areas are separated and tend to ignore the interdependencies within the organization. Segment managers and individual workers within segments tend to compete to optimize their own performance measurements rather than working together to optimize the performance of the system.
Summary and Controversial Question
An implicit assumption of responsibility accounting is that separating a company into responsibility centers that are controlled in a top down manner is the way to optimize the system. However, this separation inevitably fails to consider many of the interdependencies within the organization. Ignoring the interdependencies prevents teamwork and creates the need for buffers such as additional inventory, workers, managers and capacity. Of course, a system that prevents teamwork and creates excess is inconsistent with the lean enterprise concepts of just-in-time and the theory of constraints. For this reason, critics of traditional accounting control systems advocate managing the system as a whole to eliminate the need for buffers and excess. They also argue that companies need to develop process oriented learning support systems, not financial results, fear oriented control systems. The information system needs to reveal the company's problems and constraints in a timely manner and at a disaggregated level so that empowered users can identify how to correct problems, remove constraints and improve the process. According to these critics, accounting control information does not qualify in any of these categories because it is not timely, disaggregated, or user friendly.
This harsh criticism of accounting control information leads us to a very important controversial question. Can a company successfully implement just-in-time and other continuous improvement concepts while retaining a traditional responsibility accounting control system? Although the jury is still out on this question, a number of field research studies indicate that accounting based controls are playing a decreasing role in companies that adopt the lean enterprise concepts. In a recent study involving nine companies, each company answered this controversial question in a different way by using a different mix of process oriented versus results oriented learning and control information.2 Since each company is different, a generalized answer to this question for all firms in all situations cannot be provided.
For an argument against managing the parts of an organization separately, see Russell Ackoff, Systems Based Improvement Video - Part 1 and see the Whole Systems Topic for more on whole systems thinking.
1 From MAAW's Chapter 9
2 See McNair, C. J. and L. P. Carr, 1994. Responsibility redefined: Changing concepts of accounting-based control. Advances in Management Accounting: 85-117. (Summary).