Refining Your Plan Between Revisions

Now that you have decided on a planning interval and on the timing of the planning process, what do you do in between the scheduled planning windows? Obviously, you can use the plan to track actual performance against projected performance.

A closely related activity is revisiting the data between each revision. This is how you refine the plan over time to make it a better tool for managing your business. When you created your plan, operational results in the near term were spelled out with a great deal of specificity. Weekly targets for sales or income were established. But for the periods that were further out, the projections become less precise, frequently appearing in summary format.

With a little foresight, the longer-term projections can be refined based on actual results so that the plan's precision increases with time. With the results of the first quarter's operations in hand, you can look at the second and third quarters and try to gauge whether your projections were relatively accurate. Moving into the second quarter, you can "unbundle" the data and break it out into the level of specificity previously reserved for the first quarter. Because you can assess the deviation between actual performance and projected performance, the data for the second quarter should be more reliable than the data for the first quarter. Over time, your ability to accurately project future results will continue to increase.

By breaking out the second quarter data, you can continue tracking performance at the same level of detail as you had done in the first quarter. Now the second quarter is the near term and you have data that is as good or better than what you had for the first quarter. Through extrapolation, you refine the plan to provide the level of detail that you need, when you need it.

What does this get you that "mere" performance tracking doesn't? It sets you up to respond to the tracked information by revising the estimates you made when you started out. Tracking your actual performance against the plan alerts you when reality doesn't match your projections. If there are flawed assumptions or projections in the plan, it's better to correct the plan than to adjust operations in an effort to meet targets that were improperly set in the first place. Refining the plan is one way to correct that discrepancy by revising the projections to make them more accurate. As your projections become increasingly accurate over time, your business plan becomes an even more valuable tool for running your business.

Periodic reviews. Many large businesses routinely schedule a mid-year or quarterly review of the plan to ensure that there is an opportunity to make mid-course corrections when things aren't going as planned.

For a small business, such a review is vital. The plan is supposed to reflect your expectations regarding the success of the business. How long can you stay off track and still succeed? When can you be satisfied that you are close enough to the plan to continue on and when should you worry and consider your options? Periodic reviews will help answer those questions and they provide an opportunity to revise and update the plan document itself. Such reviews also permit you to spot trends, irregularities, and other business characteristics that you can exploit. These trends may not have much impact on the plan, but they might point to operational issues that need to be addressed currently.

  • Most businesses are somewhat cyclical in nature. That is, the amount of business is not uniform and constant over time. Frequently, there is some pattern to the peaks and dips that the business experiences. These patterns can be based on a number of factors and periods. For example, some restaurants are closed on Monday. Why? Because relatively fewer people want to go out to dinner on Monday than on other nights. The usual speculation as to the cause of this is that the weekend just ended and people just aren't ready to go out. Other cyclical business rhythms exist, based on cycles of differing length. By looking at your plan and seeing where actual results depart from your projections, you can discover and exploit these cycles.
  • You can spot irregularities that can provide solid evidence for assessing the quality of your operations and, perhaps, the honesty of your employees. For example, consider a fast-food restaurant that has four cash register stations, and one station generates a lot less income than the other three. The owner notices and moves the employees to different stations. Say that the same station generates less income no matter who is working it. In addition to checking out the operation of the register itself, the owner might want to assess whether there is something in the layout of the customer service area that keeps customers away from that register. A far different conclusion might be reached if the low income was tied to a particular employee. Perhaps that employee doesn't do the job well, or is pocketing some of the proceeds.

You don't want to complete a business plan and then file it away for a year. Instead, you want to use it to push the planning horizon further out in time. Are you on track to meet your projections? If not, is corrective action warranted? Keeping your business plan close at hand, and revising it regularly, will turn it into an vitally useful management tool for your business.