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Home > Cash Flow Management Best Practice > Best-Practice Working Capital Management: Techniques for Optimizing Inventories, Receivables, and Payables

Cash Flow Management Best Practice

Best-Practice Working Capital Management: Techniques for Optimizing Inventories, Receivables, and Payables

by Patrick Buchmann and Udo Jung

Executive Summary

  • Working capital (also known as net working capital) is a financial metric that measures a company’s operating liquidity.

  • Working capital is defined as current assets minus current liabilities. A positive position means that a company is able to support its day-to-day operations—i.e., to serve both maturing short-term debt and upcoming operational expenses.

  • One of the metric’s shortcomings, however, is that current assets often cannot be liquidated in the short term. High working capital positions often indicate that there is too much money tied up in accounts receivable and inventory, rather than short-term liquidity.

  • All companies should therefore focus on the tight management of working capital. Inventory, accounts receivable, and accounts payable are of specific importance since they can be influenced most directly by operational management.

  • Companies that improve their working capital management are able to free up cash and thus can, for example, reduce their dependence on outside funding, or finance additional growth projects.

  • If done right, working capital management generates cash for growth together with streamlined processes along the value chain and lower costs.


Many companies still underestimate the importance of working capital management as a lever for freeing up cash from inventory, accounts receivable, and accounts payable. By effectively managing these components, companies can sharply reduce their dependence on outside funding and can use the released cash for further investments or acquisitions. This will not only lead to more financial flexibility, but also create value and have a strong impact on a company’s enterprise value by reducing capital employed and thus increasing asset productivity.

High working capital ratios often mean that too much money is tied up in receivables and inventories. Typically, the knee-jerk reaction to this problem is to apply the “big squeeze” by aggressively collecting receivables, ruthlessly delaying payments to suppliers and cutting inventories across the board. But that only attacks the symptoms of working capital issues, not the root causes. A more effective approach is to fundamentally rethink and streamline key processes across the value chain. This will not only free up cash but lead to significant cost reductions at the same time.

NWC: Definition and Measurement

Working capital, also referred to as net working capital (NWC), is an absolute measure of a company’s current operative capital employed and is defined as:

(Net) working capital = Current assets − Current liabilities

Current assets are assets which are expected to be sold or otherwise used within one fiscal year. Typically, current assets include cash, cash equivalents, accounts receivable, inventory, prepaid accounts which will be used within a year, and short-term investments.

Current liabilities are considered as liabilities of the business that are to be settled in cash within the fiscal year. Current liabilities include accounts payable for goods, services or supplies, short-term loans, long-term loans with maturity within one year, dividends and interest payable, or accrued liabilities such as accrued taxes.

Working capital, on the one hand, can be seen as a metric for evaluating a company’s operating liquidity. A positive working capital position indicates that a company can meet its short-term obligations. On the other hand, a company’s working capital position signals its operating efficiency. Comparably high working capital levels may indicate that too much money is tied up in the business.

The most important positions for effective working capital management are inventory, accounts receivable, and accounts payable. Depending on the industry and business, prepayments received from customers and prepayments paid to suppliers may also play an important role in the company’s cash flow. Excess cash and nonoperational items may be excluded from the calculation for better comparison.

As a measure for effective working capital management, therefore, another more operational metric definition applies:

(Operative) net working capital = Inventories + Receivables − Payables − Advances received + Advances made


  • inventory is raw materials plus work in progress (WIP) plus finished goods;

  • receivables are trade receivables;

  • payables are non-interest-bearing trade payables;

  • advances received are prepayments received from customers;

  • advances made are prepayments paid to suppliers.

When measuring the effectiveness of working capital management, relative metrics (for example, coverage) are generally applied. They have the advantage of higher resistance to growth, seasonality, and deviations in (cost of) sales. In addition to better comparison over time, they also allow better benchmarking of operating efficiency with internal or external peers.

A frequently used measure for the effectiveness of working capital management is the so-called cash conversion cycle, or cash-to-cash cycle (CCC). It reflects the time (in days) it takes a company to get back one monetary unit spent in operations. The operative NWC positions are translated into “days outstanding”—the number of days during which cash is bound in inventory and receivables or financed by the suppliers in accounts payable. It is defined as follows:



  • days inventories outstanding (DIO) = (average inventories ÷ cumulative cost of sales) × 365 = average number of days that inventory is held;

  • days sales outstanding (DSO) = (average receivables ÷ cumulative sales) × 365 = average number of days until a company is paid by its customers;

  • days payables outstanding (DPO) = (average payables ÷ cumulative purchasing volume) × 365 = average number of days until a company pays its suppliers.

Optimizing the three components of operative NWC simultaneously not only accelerates the CCC, but also goes hand in hand with further improvements. Figure 1 illustrates how an NWC optimization impacts the value added and free cash flow of a company. However, applying the right measures will not only increase value added by lowering capital employed. Improved processes will also lead to reduced costs and higher earnings before income and taxes (EBIT).

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Further reading



  • Atradius has further survey data on agreed payment terms and delays:
  • CFO and CFO Europe magazines have articles on working capital management:
  • Dun and Bradstreet has information on payment terms and late payment:
  • Intrum Justitia compiles in its European Payment Index Report data on average agreed payment terms and delays in a European country comparison:

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