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Implementing time-driven activity-based costing at a medium-sized electronics company.

A recent Management Accounting Quarterly article told the story of a domestic consumer-electronics manufacturer, referred to as XYZ Company, that redesigned its internal accounting system. (1) At the time, XYZ was experiencing increased foreign competition, escalating manufacturing support costs (associated with an expanded product line), increased inventory holdings (and associated holding costs), and diminishing cash flow. The company's existing cost accounting system was considered rudimentary at best.

XYZ took action. It implemented a simple activity-based costing (ABC) system, which provided the company's management with valuable insights and real, but modest, financial benefits. For example, the new cost system allowed XYZ to estimate return on sales (RoS) and return on investment (ROI) results for its major product lines and its individual customers, neither of which was possible under the former cost system. Because of this, the company was able to control inventory more effectively, improve budgeting, and increase the bottom line through increased sales volume, better product-mix decisions, and greater cost control.

Although the company realized some success with its ABC system, we wondered how much better it could do if it were not bound by the limitations of traditional ABC systems. Thus, we decided to revisit XYZ with the idea of applying time-driven activity-based costing (TDABC) principles to the company's existing ABC cost structure. The goal was not to fully implement a TDABC system but to focus on applying TDABC to a subset of business processes at XYZ. In short, we performed a pilot implementation.

In this article, we examine the results of this pilot implementation, including the effect that TDABC had on cost allocations from two cost centers. For comparative purposes, we present cost-allocation results for these two cost centers using the approach described in the 2007 article. Our pilot implementation demonstrates both the potential power of TDABC and the important role of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in implementing modern cost accounting systems.


ABC systems have been around since the mid-1980s. When implemented properly, they can provide managers with more accurate product-cost data that can be used to make more informed decisions about process improvements, pricing, and managing customer relationships. The overall goal of an ABC system is to allocate indirect (support) costs in such a way that the resulting cost information reflects more accurately the resource demands/resource consumption of an organization's cost objects (products, services, and customers). A schematic representation of a traditional ABC system is shown in Figure 1. (2)

Although traditional ABC systems provide management with valuable information, many have been abandoned or never were implemented fully. one problem with traditional ABC systems is that they rely on employee surveys of time spent on specified activities; typically, these surveys must be submitted each month prior to processing and calculating product costs. A large financial services firm utilizing a traditional ABC system collected monthly surveys from 700 employees at more than 100 facilities; the firm employed 14 full-time employees just to process the data! Justifiably, this process was viewed as burdensome: Employees were falling further and further behind in updating the system. (3) Such complexity probably would inhibit a full-scale ABC implementation at most small to medium-sized organizations and at many large ones as well.

Another challenge for companies that want to implement an ABC system is the need to accurately handle the granularity of activities for certain operations, such as "ship an order to a customer." Traditional ABC uses a single cost-driver rate for this activity, regardless of type of shipment. What if the order in question, however, required, say, special handling, less-than-truckload (LTL) processing, or overnight delivery? Should not the variations of this transaction be costed differently? Unfortunately, most traditional ABC implementations cannot easily track these differences in resource demands. The only way to model these differences in a traditional ABC system is to include separate activities, each of which would require a separate cost pool and associated activity cost driver (and separate estimate of practical capacity of resources supplied).

In short, it can be argued that a traditional ABC system is expensive to build, time-consuming to process, difficult to maintain, and inflexible when needing modification. These problems are particularly acute for small to medium-sized companies (such as XYZ) that are not likely to have a sophisticated information-processing system.

New Kid on the Block: TDABC Systems

Advocates of time-driven activity-based costing maintain that this system is an improvement on traditional ABC systems in the following respects:

* TDABC eliminates the need for the time-consuming, subjective, interview-and-survey process to define resource pools. It relies only on simple time estimates that, for example, can be established based on direct observation of processes.

* TDABC accurately accounts for the complexities of business transactions (such as variations of operational transactions) by using time equations, which more accurately reflect the time involved in a particular process, thereby removing the need to track multiple activities to account for the different costs associated with a single activity.


* TDABC dramatically reduces the processing time required to "churn" through the data by using data feeds from ERP systems.

* TDABC systems are easier to maintain and update. Through the use of time equations, assisted by today's ERP systems, managers can easily update capacity cost rates and/or unit-time estimates as operating conditions change.

* TDABC enables more accurate representation of over/under capacity by expressing capacity in units of time. Because of the traditional ABC survey approach, the costs of performing activities tend to be overesti mated, thus resulting in less accurate representation of capacity usage. (4)

TDABC simplifies many steps compared to a traditional ABC system, yet an effective ERP system is needed to implement TDABC successfully. (5) The ERP system is used in TDABC to eliminate monthly personnel surveys, develop time equations, and process a multitude of transactions (activities and costs) on a recurring basis. (6) The importance of ERP in relation to TDABC implementation will be reinforced in our review of the two cost-center examples at XYZ.

TDABC at XYZ Company: Comparing Two Cost Centers

XYZ's recently implemented ABC system partitioned manufacturing overhead costs into multiple cost pools, assigning an appropriate cost driver to each cost pool. Via the activity cost drivers, costs from these pools were then used to allocate manufacturing support costs to cost objects--product lines in this case.


We approached XYZ Company with the idea of analyzing a couple of cost centers using the TDABC concept. Our goal was to estimate the effect TDABC would have on the allocation of manufacturing support costs vis--vis the existing ABC system. We settled on a review of the following two cost centers: Domestic Order-Processing and Engineering?

Domestic Order-Processing consists of support costs (salaries, office space, and the like) from two departments at XYZ: Accounting and Customer Service. While XYZ identified three activities (entering and monitoring an order, creating a priority list, and managing invoices and payment) associated with the cost center, its rudimentary ABC system used a single activity cost driver, number of sales orders (see Figure 2). Thus, costs from this cost center were assigned to cost objects--domestic customers and products--using a single transaction cost driver.

Applying a single cost driver to ordering-related support costs illustrates the primary weakness of a traditional ABC system. Using a single driver assumes an average cost for each activity driver. In the context of this cost center, the activity cost driver "number of orders processed" assumes that every order is the same and does not allow for capturing potential cost differences that can occur from order to order (orders requiring special handling, domestic orders, international orders, UPS shipment, customer pickup, etc.).

To apply TDABC to this cost center, we followed a two-step process.

Step One: Calculate the Capacity Cost Rate for the Cost Center. The capacity cost rate for this cost center is defined as the cost of capacity supplied ($) divided by the practical capacity of resources supplied (expressed in units of time: minutes). The numerator in this calculation consists of employee costs, utilities, machines, occupancy costs, and the like. Management estimated the cost of capacity supplied for the cost center as $6,624 per quarter. The denominator in the calculation represents the time available for the employees performing work in the cost center. The total available capacity (in minutes) per employee per quarter at XYZ (assuming a 37.5-hour workweek) is 29,250 minutes. (8) As indicated in Table 1, the practical capacity of resources supplied (per quarter, in minutes) was 11,745. (9) Thus, the capacity cost rate for the domestic order-processing cost center under the TDABC system was $0.56 per minute ($6,624/11,745 minutes).

Step Two: Estimate Demand for Resource Capacity (Develop Time Equations). The next step was to estimate the unit time required to perform each of the three activities in the cost center: enter and monitor orders, create priority lists, and manage invoices/payment processing. (10) We worked with XYZ management to identify and understand buyer behaviors that cause time for each of these three activities to vary.

Then we derived a time equation for each of the three activities in the cost center and used time estimates (in minutes) to represent the resource demand for each transaction variation. The time equation for each of the three activities is as follows:

Enter and Monitor Orders, per order (minutes) = [2.00 (if Web order), 3.50 (if phone order), 4.00 (if visit order)] + [1.00 (if advice)] + [0.50 (if address change)] + [0.50 (if warranty] Create Priority Lists, per list (minutes) = 2.00 (if domestic), 1.50 (if installer

Manage Invoices and Payment Processing, per invoice (minutes) = 1.50 + [0.75 (if credit card + 3.00 (if check) + 0.75 (if PayPal)]

As indicated in Table 2, we find that resource (time) consumption in the cost center ranges from 5.75 to 12.50 minutes per transaction, depending on the characteristics of the transaction. Multiplying the capacity cost rate for the cost center ($0.56/minute) by these time estimates, we see that the cost assigned to a single transaction ranges from $3.22 to $7, which, when compared to the "cost per order" of $7 under XYZ's traditional ABC system, quickly demonstrates the additional granularity produced by the TDABC system. (11)

More important, XYZ management can use the customer-ordering cost data to conduct a more detailed customer- and product-profitability analysis. For example, when determining customer profitability, management can clearly see that it costs much less for a customer to order a product online and pay via PayPal than for someone to order over the phone and pay with a check.


At this stage, we were able to point out to XYZ management one of the benefits of TDABC: monitoring and managing resource capacity. Based on the estimates we received from XYZ management, TDABC indicated that total support costs used for the most recent quarter amounted to $3,872, while the cost of resources supplied was $6,624. The fact that not all capacity cost for this department was assigned provides management with valuable information: The cost center is most likely working under capacity.

Of course, a properly implemented traditional ABC system (such as one that uses practical capacity for determining activity cost rates) would have caught this discrepancy, too. Because of the interview-and-survey process that is used, however, traditional ABC systems tend to overestimate the cost of resource consumption. In such systems, employees provide, via survey responses, percentage estimates of their time dedicated to the various tasks they perform; in many instances, these percentages total 100%. Therefore, in traditional ABC systems, employees account for both used and unused capacity in relation to each activity, which inhibits our ability to isolate the existence of excess capacity. Estimating the unit time related to each activity, which is what we do under TDABC, eliminates the subjective process of having employees account for their time. Thus, proponents of TDABC systems maintain that these systems provide more accurate estimates of resource-capacity usage.


The second cost center in which we applied TDABC was the Engineering activity center. Within this center, XYZ identified several activities, such as implement design changes, develop new products, and miscellaneous engineering activities. For simplicity, in our pilot study we chose to focus on one activity cost pool: implement design changes. For purposes of discussion, assume that each product design change is associated with an engineering change notice (ECN).

Figure 3 depicts the traditional ABC model that XYZ used to allocate costs associated with engineering design changes. These support costs are allocated only to products, not to customers. Note, too, that XYZ's original ABC system used a single cost driver to assign these costs to products. (12)

To apply the TDABC approach to the cost of engineering design changes, we used the same two-step approach described above. The cost of capacity supplied was estimated at $33,217, the practical capacity of resources supplied (in minutes) was estimated at 17,550, and the capacity cost rate was derived as $1.89 per minute (see Table 3). (13)

The next step was to estimate the unit time associated with each engineering design change. We worked with XYZ management to break down this activity into three more granular activities--engineering changes, manage materials, and driver-team tasks--so as to capture potential variations related to completing the design-change process. XYZ then provided time estimates to complete the following:

* Engineering Change: 300 minutes

* Manage Materials: 120 minutes

* Driver-Team Tasks: 30 minutes (14)

With the time estimates, we were then able to derive the cost-driver rate for each of these activities. We multiplied each of the three time estimates by the capacity cost rate of $1.89 (Table 3) to produce the following cost-allocation rates: $567.81 per engineering change, $227.12 per managed material, and $56.78 per driverteam task. Multiplying these rates by their associated transactions for the quarter, we get a total cost of $42,585.90 assigned to the activity "implement design changes" (see the top portion of Table 4). (15)


Next we compared allocation of costs to products using both costing systems. Figure 3 contains the baseline for the comparison that follows, and Figure 4 illustrates the allocation of costs to products under the TDABC approach.

TDABC indicates that the cost center is operating over capacity. In addition, the TDABC model demonstrates the benefits of using the unit time required to complete each of the three ECN-related activities. Product family "S" requires no ECN-related activity and therefore is assigned no cost; the life-cycle approach (Figure 3) assigned $5,110 to this product family (details omitted). Product family "W" requires the highest amount of ECN activity and therefore is assigned the most cost ($17,034, Figure 4); the lifecycle approach assigned only $7,666 to this product family. These variations tell the managers at XYZ that there is a large deviation in the representation of cost consumption between their current ABC model and the TDABC approach. Of equal importance, the TDABC model illustrated in Figure 4 provides the framework for XYZ to apply to the entire Engineering activity cost center. (16)




In summary, our pilot implementation of a TDABC system at XYZ Company enabled us to draw the following conclusions:

1. A TDABC model can provide more accurate costing information than a traditional ABC model. TDABC does not promise accuracy, but, as demonstrated in the exercises in the present case study, it does allow organizations to more closely align product and customer costs with resource consumption. Ultimately, the estimates used in a TDABC system are the responsibility of management; the model allows organizations to be as accurate with estimates as they want to be.

2. A TDABC model is easier to maintain than a traditional ABC model: This was demonstrated through the use of TDABC time equations. While the example company (XYZ) has a rather simple business model, allowing its TDABC system to be "virtually maintenance free," larger corporations with thousands of transactions daily can establish a TDABC model that is easy to maintain. The key, as we have discussed, is reliance on ERP system capabilities.

3. With the support of an effective ERP system, a medium-sized company can successfully implement and use a TDABC system for allocating support costs to products and customers.

Although the potential value of a TDABC system in a large, multinational company goes without saying, even a small company can benefit; it is simply a matter of how far you--and upper management, of course--are willing to reach. If your organization has not looked into adopting a TDABC model yet, perhaps now is the time.


(1) David E. Stout and Gregory P. Bedenis, "Cost-System Redesign at a Medium-Sized Company: Getting the Right Numbers to Drive Improvements in Business Performance," Management Accounting Quarterly, Summer 2007, pp. 9-19.

(2) Peter B. B. Turney, Common Cents: How to Succeed with Activity-Based Costing and Activity-Based Management, 2nd ed., McGraw-Hill, New York, N.Y., 2005, p. 95.

(3) Robert S. Kaplan and Steven R. Anderson, Time-Driven Activity-Based Costing: A Simpler and More Powerful Path to Higher Profits, Harvard Business Publishing, Boston, Mass., 2007, p. 3.

(4) Ibid., pp. 3, 7, 8.

(5) Incorporating an "effective" ERP system does not require an organization to implement an expensive, off-the-shelf ERP package such as PeopleSoft or SAP; many medium-sized companies cannot afford such systems. Rather, these systems can be custom built and/or include several integrated software applications to achieve transaction capture and data processing. The second author's career background includes nine years of ERP experience; within this time frame, he played the role of systems/business analyst on two successful, full life-cycle, PeopleSoft (ERP) implementations.

(6) Time equations in TDABC enable differentiation in a common activity such as "Enter Customer Orders." The following is an example of a time equation that can be used to account for the difference between entering a domestic order versus an international order: Customer Service time: (10 minutes X # of orders entered) + (3 minutes X # of orders entered (if international}) + (25 minutes X # of customer calls) + (5 minutes X # of customer calls (if international}).

(7) Any financial figures used in this article in relation to the Domestic-Order Processing and Engineering cost centers at XYZ Company do not represent actual financial records of the company.

(8) The total of 29,250 minutes is derived by first determining the number of weeks per quarter (52/4 = 13 weeks) and then multiplying the 13 weeks by 37.5 (the number of hours worked per employee per week assuming two 15-minute paid breaks per day). This provided the total number of hours an employee can work per quarter, 487.5. The next step multiplied the 487.5 hours by 60 (minutes) to convert hours to minutes (29,250 minutes per quarter per full-time-equivalent employee).

(9) The Domestic Order-Processing center employs two full-time employees and one part-time contractor. The two full-time employees dedicate 31% and 3% of their total available time, while the part-time contractor dedicates 100% (accounting for 1,800 minutes a month). Therefore, the 11,745 minutes of practical capacity is derived by multiplying the full-time employee percentages by the 29,250 minutes of available capacity and then adding in the 1,800 minutes for the part-time contractor.

(10) XYZ management provided an overall estimate of nine minutes to perform all three activities in relation to a single order/transaction; the estimate did not account for any variations in order processing. In addition, the number of orders processed for the quarter was 946.

(11) The $7 cost per order is derived by dividing the number of orders per quarter (946) by the cost of capacity ($6,624) (see the bottom portion of Table 2). In reference to Table 2, we made the following assumptions concerning cost drivers for the two additional activities not previously tracked: The number of invoices and payments processed were kept consistent with the actual number of orders processed for the quarter, 946 (supplied by XYZ management); priority lists were estimated at 600 for the quarter.

(12) The cost driver was based on a subjective assessment (by management) regarding the relative position of each product in the product life cycle. XYZ Company identified the life cycle of a product to consist of four stages. A product in stage one of the life cycle would be assigned a different portion of cost from the activity cost pool than that assigned to a product in stage two of the life cycle, and so on.

(13) This cost center employs three full-time employees who dedicate 35%, 20%, and 5% of their total available capacity. Therefore, the 17,550 minutes of practical capacity is derived by multiplying the full-time employee percentages by the 29,250 minutes of available capacity.

(14) A simple TDABC time equation can be applied for the "implement design changes" activities: Implement Design Changes time (minutes) = [300 X number of engineering changes] + [120 X number of managed materials] + [30 X number of driver-team tasks].

(15) Each product design change is authorized by an engineering change notice. For purposes of completing Table 4, assume that there were 50 ECNs during the quarter. Also assume that for each ECN there was one engineering activity performed, one materials-management activity performed, and one driver-team activity performed.

(16) The TDABC "framework" mentioned here is the same TDABC model demonstrated in detail in the "Domestic Order-Processing" section of this article. For instance, XYZ Company can now begin defining transaction variations within each of the three identified activities (engineering changes, for instance) and incorporating the variations into TDABC time equations.

David E. Strout, Ph.D., is the Andress Chair in Accounting in the Williamson College of Business Administration at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. He is a member of IMA's Akron Chapter. You can reach David at (330) 941-3509 or

Joseph M. Propri is assistant vice president of program management, Medicare Part D, for CVS/Caremark in Solon, Ohio. He works in IT leading a team of business analysts and program managers. You can reach Joe at (330) 240-4536 or

Capacity Cost Rate:   Cost of Capacity Supplied/
                      Practical Capacity of Resources Supplied

Number of Employees: 3

                                         % of Time   Capacity

Customer Service Employee (Full-Time):      31%       9,068
Accounting Director (Full-Time):             3%         878
Accounting Contractor (Part-Time):         100%       1,800
Practical Capacity of Resources                      11,745
Cost of Capacity Supplied:                           $6,624
Capacity Cost Rate (per minute):                      $0.56


Domestic Order-Processing
Activities (TDABC):

Activity (1)                    Quantity (2)   Unit Time   Total Time

Enter and Monitor Orders:
  Online (web) Orders           600              2.00      1,200
  Phone Orders                  300              3.50      1,050
  Customer Visit Orders          46              4.00        184
   Warranty (+ .50 min)         500              0.50        250
   Address Change (+ .50 min)   200              0.50        100
   Customer Advice (+ 1 min)    700              1.00        700

Create Priority List:
   Domestic--Noninstaller       500              2.00      1,000
   Domestic--Installer          100              1.50        150
Manage Invoices & Payment
Create Invoices                 946              1.50      1,419
  Credit Card (+ .75 min)       700              0.75        525
  Check (+ 3 min)                46              3.00        138
  PayPal (+ .75 min)            200              0.75        150
Totals *                                                   6,866

Domestic Order-Processing
Activities (Traditional ABC):

Activity                        Time Spent     Cost of     Cost
                                               Capacity    Driver(3)
Enter and Monitor Orders:       100%           6,624       946
Create Priority List:           --             --          --
Create Invoices:                --             --          --
Process Credit Cards:           --             --          --

Domestic Order-Processing
Activities (TDABC):

Operating Capacity Analysis:
(Over)/Under Capacity--        $2,752
  dollars (5)
(Over)/Under Capacity--         4,879
  minutes (6)

                                Cost Drive   Total
Activity (1)                    Rate         Assigned Cost
Enter and Monitor Orders:
  Online (web) Orders           $1.13          $676.78
  Phone Orders                  $1.97          $592.18
  Customer Visit Orders         $2.26          $103.77
   Warranty (+ .50 min)         $0.28          $141.00
   Address Change (+ .50 min)   $0.28           $56.40
   Customer Advice (+ 1 min)    $0.56          $394.79
Create Priority List:
   Domestic--Noninstaller       $1.13          $563.98
   Domestic--Installer          $0.85           $84.60
Manage Invoices & Payment
Create Invoices                 $0.85          $800.29
  Credit Card (+ .75 min)       $0.42          $296.09
  Check (+ 3 min)               $1.69           $77.83
  PayPal (+ .75 min)            $0.42           $84.60
Totals *                                     $3,872.32

Domestic Order-Processing
Activities (Traditional ABC):

Activity                        Cost Drive   Total Assigned Cost
                                Rate (4)
Enter and Monitor Orders:       $7.00        $6,624.00
Create Priority List:           $-           $-
Create Invoices:                $-           $-
Process Credit Cards:           $-           $-
Total                                        $6,624.00

Operating Capacity Analysis:
(Over)/Under Capacity--
  dollars (5)
(Over)/Under Capacity--
  minutes (6)

(1) It is important to note that all activities presented are not
executed during each Domestic Order-Processing transaction. Example:
under Enter and Monitor Orders, an order can be entered using only
one method at a time: Web, phone, or visit. Therefore, depending on
the characteristics of the transaction, the range of time to
complete a transaction is 5.75 to 12.50 minutes (referencing Est.
Unit Time).

5.75 min = [2.00 (Web Order) + 1.50 (Installer) + 1.50 (Create
Invoice) + .75 (Credit Card)]

12.50 min = [6.00 (Customer Visit + Warranty + Addr Change +
Advice) + 2.00 (Noninstaller) + 1.50 (Create Invoice) + 3.00 (Check)]

(2) Number of transactions processed in the time period

(3) Number of sales orders in the quarter

(4) Cost Driver Rate under Traditional ABC is calculated by dividing
Cost of Capacity ($6,624) by the Cost Driver # of orders (946)

(5) Traditional ABC Total Assigned Cost--TDABC Total Assigned Cost

(6) Total Capacity of Resources (11,745)--TDABC Total Time

* Total for Est. Unit Time is not calculated here. As noted in (2)
above, the total of all minutes presented is not an accurate
representation of the time it takes to complete a transaction.


Capacity Cost Rate: Cost of Capacity Supplied/
                    Practical Capacity of Resources
Number of Employees: 3

                                       % of Time   Capacity
Engineering (Full-Time):               35%          10,238
Materials Manager (Full-Time):         20%           5,850
Driver Team (Full-Time):               5%            1,462
Practical Capacity of Resources                     17,550
Cost of Capacity Supplied:                         $33,217
Capacity Cost Rate (per minute):                     $1.89


                               Engineering Activities (TDABC):

Activity                       Quantity (1)   Unit Time    Total Time

Implement Design Changes:
  Engineering Changes          50                 300.00      15,000
  Manage Materials             50                 120.00      6,000
Driver-Team Tasks              50                  30.00       1,500
Totals *                                          450.00      22,500

                               Engineering Activities (Traditional ABC):

                                              Cost of      Cost
Activity                       Time Spent     Capacity     Driver (2)

Implement Design Changes       100%           $33,217.00   Product
                                                           Position in
                                                           Life Cycle

Total                                         $33,217.00

Operating Capacity Analysis:
(Over)/Under Capacity--        ($9,368.97)
  dollars (3)
(Over)/Under Capacity--            (4,950)
  minutes (4)

                               Engineering Activities (TDABC):

                               Cost-Drive   Total
Activity                       Rate         Assigned Cost

Implement Design Changes:
  Engineering Changes          $567.81      $28,390.65
  Manage Materials             $227.13      $11,356.26
Driver-Team Tasks               $56.78       $2,839.06
Totals *                                    $42,585.97

                               Life-Cycle   Total
Activity                       Position     Assigned Cost

Implement Design Changes       1            $15,332.00
                               2            $15,330.00
                               3             $2,555
                               4             --
Total                                       $33,217.00

Operating Capacity Analysis:
(Over)/Under Capacity--
  dollars (3)
(Over)/Under Capacity--
  minutes (4)

(1) Number of ECN-related transactions processed in the quarter

(2) Traditional ABC cost driver is the product's relative position in
the product life cycle. Note: In-depth analysis of how these costs
are assigned under XYZ's ABC system was not part of this exercise.
All numbers and figures were provided to us by XYZ management

(3) Traditional ABC Total Assigned Cost--TDABC Total Assigned Cost

(4) Total Capacity of Resources (17,550)--TDABC Total Time
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Author:Stout, David E.; Propri, Joseph M.
Publication:Management Accounting Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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