Now, ROI (or RONA, or ROCE, and so forth) has two components: a numerator-net income-and a denominator-investment, net assets, or capital employed. (In a service industry, a more appropriate denominator may be headcount.) Managers throughout our not-so-hypothetical firm also know that raising net income is likely to be a harder slog than cutting assets and headcount. To grow the numerator, top management must have a point of view about where the new opportunities lie, must be able to anticipate changing customer needs, must have invested preemptively in building new competencies, and so on. So under intense pressure for a quick ROI improvement, executives reach for the lever that will bring the quickest, surest improvement in ROI-the denominator. To cut the denominator, top management doesn't need much more than a red pencil. Thus the obsession with denominators.
In fact, the United States and Britain have produced an entire generation of denominator managers. They can downsize, declutter, delayer, and divest better than any managers in the world. Even before the current wave of downsizing, U.S. and British companies had, on average, the highest asset productivity ratios of any companies in the world. Denominator management is an accountant's shortcut to asset productivity.
Don't misunderstand. We have nothing against efficiency and productivity. We believe, and will argue strongly, that a company must not only get to the future first, it must get there for less. Yet there is more than one route to productivity improvement. Just as any firm that cuts the denominator and holds up revenue will reap productivity gains, so too will any company that succeeds in growing its revenue stream atop a slower growing or constant capital and employment base. Although the first approach may sometimes be necessary, we believe that the second approach is usually more desirable."