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A New Age of Zero Based Budgeting (ZBB)

The concept of Zero Based Budgeting (ZBB) is by no means new. It has been around for almost 50 years and has been used by many commercial and non-commercial organisations whose overriding objectives are to shed the unnecessary expenses.

Over the last ten years, as organisations were swept into a more dynamic world of black swans and perfect storms, the traditional budgeting process has become increasingly more obsolete and widely criticised.   Nevertheless, as many businesses are still not ready to completely abandon traditional budgeting, ZBB has become a great intermediary that helps not only to “justify the expenses” but also to understand the business’ key drivers and develop an analytical and participative planning process. This is a great enabler for a driver-based modelling and planning process, which underpins modern and agile FP&A today. 

What is Zero Based Budgeting? 

This is the method of developing a plan from scratch or "zero base" by examining every cost or P&L/BS. Previous years’ budgets are not taken into consideration as every item of the plan needs to be justified in relation to the current year.

Pros and Cons

The International FP&A Board has debated on this subject in many different places around the globe.

Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages that have been identified by senior Finance Leaders:


  • Facilitates outside-the-box thinking

  • Great for transparency and rationalization

  • Helps with granularity

  • Better visibility on cost and business drivers Not stuck to legacy, forward-looking view

  • A proven method for cost ownership and cost control


  • It is a very time-consuming process

  • Accountability could be a problem 

  • Could be perceived as de-motivational and intimidating

  • The benchmark could be an issue 

  • Needs huge support from the top 

  • The bottom-up process could be overridden by the top- down one

21st century ZBB: What is new?

In recent years, ZBB has expanded its horizons beyond simple cost base analysis. Its focus now is on helping to identify overall business drivers. This is a great method to use when developing a driver-based Planning model. It encourages collaborative business planning and business partnering.

It could be a great start to organisational analytical transformation and the first step on the journey to the value adding Rolling Forecast and to the going “Beyond Budgeting”.

What is needed for the successful implementation of a ZBB process?

According to McKinsey research, of the 238 companies that announced cost-reduction programs between 2003 and 2014, only 26 percent were able to sustain the reductions for four years. And only 17 percent of the 238 were able to grow at the same time. 

 Finance leaders from the International FP&A Board identified the following key steps needed for successful implementation of a ZBB process:

  • Sponsorship from the top

  • Business Buy-In. The ZBB process an overall business process. It could be led by FP&A, but will involve the whole organisation

  • Data availability and standardization are important.

  • Excel is not the system to use for ZBB. Overall visibility and participation are essential throughout the process, and a more flexible system can help to make it happen.

  • The process can be very time-consuming. Therefore, a “hybrid” approach will help to add most value: starting from the biggest cost and revenue lines and systematically 

ZBB and Other FP&A Methods and Techniques

For the best results, ZBB could be used in combination and as an enabler for different modern FP&A processes, as demonstrated on the below figure. Namely, this is a good starting for understanding the key business drivers and harmonising planning processes across an organisation. This is a great enabler for value adding scenario planning process and analytical Rolling Forecast.

ZBB Mini Case Study from a Fortune 100 company

At one of the London FP&A Board meetings, a case study from a Fortune 100 company’s implementation of a ZBB process was shared. 

From the words of the ZBB Director, “Starting with ZBB in such an environment is unlikely to be effective in the long run. ZBB needs visibility and standardization. “

In other words, there are two critical success factors for a value-adding ZBB process (see figure below):

1. Visibility, namely

  • Live reporting

  • Regular Reviews

  • Actions

2. Standardisation, namely

  • Consistent Cost Classification

  • Clear Definitions

  • Standard Reporting

The company that implemented the process, achieved a cost-saving at around 25%.

ZBB has been considered to be part of the organisational DNA and has been used regularly at different critical parts of the business.

Implementing ZBB is tough, but sustaining it is much harder Without senior management supporting it and setting a good example it will not yield full results It’s a great method to create a lean organization, but it is not easy to find the right balance between cuts and investment Most staff do not like ZBB, and it may lead to increased attrition .

Some closing thoughts Other areas can still run on traditional process, but at some point, will need to be reassessed through ZBB as well. In current times, where markets and business environment are extremely volatile and fragile, this should be done within a 3 to 5-year cycle. Smaller businesses, especially those digitally inclined, should do ZBB much more frequently. Now doing ZBB cannot just be an academic exercise. That’s the easy part. The most difficult part is the commitment from the Board, and the process to make tough decisions and executing them. This should be institutionalized so that the entire process delivers the right outcome.

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