Managing a company’s working capital isn’t the sexiest task. It’s often painstakingly technical. It’s hard to know how well a company is doing, even relative to peers; published financial data are too high level for precise benchmarking. And because working capital doesn’t appear on the income statement, it doesn’t directly affect earnings or operating profit—the measures that most commonly influence compensation. Although working capital management has long been a business-school staple, our research shows that performance is surprisingly variable, even among companies in the same industry.

That’s quite a missed opportunity—and it has implications beyond the finance department. Working capital can amount to as much as several months’ worth of revenues, which isn’t trivial. Improving its management can be a quick way to free up cash. We routinely see companies generate tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars of cash impact within 60 to 90 days, without increasing sales or cutting costs. And the rewards for persistence and dedication to continuous improvement can be lucrative. The global aluminum company Alcoa made working capital a priority in 2009 in response to the financial crisis and global economic downturn, and it recently celebrated its 17th straight quarter of year-on-year reduction in net working capital. Over that time, the company has reduced its net working capital cycle—the amount of time it takes to turn assets and liabilities into cash—by 23 days and unlocked $1.4 billion in cash. For distressed companies, that kind of improvement can be a lifeline. For healthy companies, the windfall can often be reinvested in ways that more directly affect value creation, such as growth initiatives or increased balance-sheet flexibility. Moreover, the process of improving working capital can also highlight opportunities in other areas, such as operations, supply-chain management, procurement, sales, and finance.