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The Boomer Bulletin - 2015
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The Impact of Efficient and Consistent Processes

Posted By Jim Boomer, Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Originally published in The CPA Practice Advisor, August 2015

Every firm wants to be more efficient and consistent in their processes. However, it’s often difficult to step back and dedicate the time and resources to do a true in-depth process analysis. Instead, technology tools are often thrown at the problem, causing dysfunctions in the process to be even more glaring.

A better practice would be to start with process and then identify technology which will accelerate the progress. The expansion of Lean Six Sigma into professional services firms is providing a proven methodology to do just this.

What is Lean Six Sigma?

So what is Lean Six Sigma? It is the combination of two concepts that have made a major impact in manufacturing.  Lean is all about eliminating wasteful activity and becoming more efficient while Six Sigma is focused on improving quality and eliminating variations of the end product.  As I mentioned previously, they are expanding their reach into public accounting and other professions.

What’s Holding Firms Back?

Lean projects have been a tough pill to swallow for many firms primarily because we’ve come to expect the quick fix – the low hanging fruit if you will. Process improvement is not low hanging fruit; it takes a true commitment from top to bottom of the firm.

We also hear firms say clients don’t care about their processes and honestly, they don’t directly care how you produce the deliverable.  But your processes have a huge impact on the quality and timeliness of the work product you hand over so indirectly, clients do care about your processes.

The Steps

A Lean project involves a few simple steps, but that doesn’t mean they are easy. They are time-consuming and resource intensive. In its simplest form, the steps are as follows:

  • Assemble a balanced team from multiple disciplines and levels 
  • Document your existing process
  • Tear apart that process
  • Go back and document the new and improved process based on the Lean Six Sigma principles
  • Communicate, train and rollout the new process

I have simplified the process significantly but that's essentially what it's all about.

The Benefits

A comprehensive process improvement project will drive out redundancies, personal preferences and overall inefficiencies. It will help us with the tunnel vision that develops over years of doing our jobs.  Roles are often “line of sight” and it’s not until we step back and look at the entire process that we start to see dependencies that we've never seen before.

You can also identify wasted time and money. Hidden dollars start to show themselves. Morale and job satisfaction improve because people are more efficient and aren’t wasting time doing meaningless or redundant tasks.  You’ll have more consistent and effective work and can ramp-up new hires. Current employees can more easily shift between roles within your firm because the amount of time that it takes to get them up to speed is reduced significantly.

Real Results

The results vary from firm to firm and process to process. However, here are just a few of the results that have been recognized by other firms.

  • Increased realization percentage (typical projects have gained from 3 to 12 percent increases in year one)
  • Increased capacity – you can do more with the same or fewer resources
  • Decreased write-offs (upward of 50 percent has been achieved)
  • Decreased number of review comments issued
  • Decreased cycle time (work is turned around and back to clients quicker)

Where to Start?

Another important question we hear often from firms is where do we start if we decide we want to do a Lean project? The firms that have seen success have primarily focused on their tax process, audit and client accounting services. My advice to you is to pick one area, focus on success, build some confidence and then you'll be equipped to move on to the other areas of your firm.

Are you ready to start with process?  Contact us to schedule an Introductory Workshop or sign up for our next certification class so that you can lead internal projects or take it to your clients.

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The Pursuit of Constructive Criticism

Posted By Arianna Campbell, Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Utilizing constructive criticism for professional development is an important skill for leaders at all levels. Feedback from peers can provide high value insight on how to improve and the vulnerability shown by making the request builds trust. When solicited and applied effectively, constructive criticism can elevate the quality of your work, help manage and meet expectations, and make you a better leader. Following the five steps below will help you effectively solicit constructive criticism and use it to your advantage.  

Step 1: Change your thinking

Developing the right mindset is imperative for gathering constructive criticism. For many people, the thought of asking for feedback causes feelings of anxiety and stress. The most common causes of these feelings include a fear of “bad” comments, a negative past experience, professional insecurities or an ego that overshadows the desire for outside opinions. However, in reality, the dangers of NOT soliciting feedback should cause more angst.

Forbes.com highlighted the following findings from leadership development expert Joseph Folkman:

“In a recent study of 51,896 leaders we discovered that those who ranked at the bottom 10% in asking for feedback were rated at the 15th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness.  On the other hand, leaders who ranked at the top 10% in asking for feedback were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile in effectiveness. It appears that being open and willing to receive feedback from others is an essential skill for effective leaders.”

Constructive criticism should be viewed as a prerequisite for your professional growth. This change in your thinking will help motivate you to pursue feedback from your peers.   

Step 2: Make a Plan

Lack of preparation and poor timing can sabotage efforts to gather feedback. Executive Coach, Ed Batista, reminds us that, “We can’t just sit back and wait for feedback to be offered, particularly when we’re in a leadership role. If we want feedback to take root in the culture, we need to explicitly ask for it.”

Set yourself up for success by making a plan to ask the right questions to the right people at the right time. The Five Star Client Service program uses a very simple and effective exercise called Ascertaining Satisfaction, which involves asking a peer two questions: "What do I do well?” and "What could I do better?” Asking several of your peers these simple questions will give you valuable insight on changes you could make to improve. Selecting the right people to answer these questions depends on the scope of the desired feedback, which could be as broad as your overall performance or as specific as your involvement in a project.

Once the scope is defined, identify people who can provide different perspectives. Resist the temptation to only ask people who will likely give all positive responses. Reach out to schedule an appointment and include an explanation of the purpose of the meeting as well as the two questions listed above. This communication will make their feedback better thought out and value added. This meeting should be face to face, but video can work as an alternative. Email and phone are not recommended. Determine a meeting location that is conducive to the conversation and that will make the other person feel comfortable. Consider meeting in a conference room or other common area, or make plans to go offsite for lunch or coffee. Taking the time to plan ahead will create a more positive experience for everyone involved.

Step 3: Gather the feedback

Now that planning ahead has set the stage for a valuable exchange, it is time to gather the feedback. Begin the meeting with a brief review of why you are asking for their insight and what you hope to achieve. Remind them of the two questions and then let them lead conversation. You should spend the majority of the time listening and taking notes to show that you engaged and find value in what they are sharing. Graciously accept compliments with a simple “thank you.” In the event that you disagree with their comments, make every effort not to get defensive or provide explanations. Remain neutral and try to understand the feedback from their perspective.  At the end of the meeting be sure to let the person know that you appreciate their time and willingness to help you improve.  

Step 4: Review and apply the feedback

After you have gathered the feedback, take time for a thoughtful review. Convert the comments into action items that fit into the following three categories: Keep Doing, Start Doing or Stop Doing. This method creates a well-rounded and actionable approach to making improvements. The natural tendency is to evaluate the “negative” comments first. However, starting with what you should keep doing allows you to build upon your strengths instead of making emotionally driven changes based on suggested areas of opportunity. Incorporate your Keep, Start, Stop plans into your professional development plan. Share your conclusions with an accountability partner or supervisor to help ensure your long term success.

Step 5: Continually improve

Give yourself a high-five for taking the initiative to become a better leader. It is not easy to solicit and apply constructive criticism, but the process is rewarding. Former president of Dartmouth College and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said, “No matter how good you think you are as a leader, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better. So for me, the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.” Elevate your level of leadership by making the pursuit of constructive criticism a habit.

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Tips for Conquering Your Annual Goals

Posted By Jacqueline Ratzing, Tuesday, December 8, 2015

As the year comes to a close many of us will pause to reflect about the past year.  For some of us, it may have been an incredible year; for others, it may have been filled with struggles, changes and hardship.  To some it may just be another year ending and another year beginning.  For myself, it has been a year full of changes.  In April I was the newest team member at Boomer Consulting; by November I was transitioning into an entirely different role.

As time moves forward I am continually learning, growing and changing to reach my goals.  As part of looking back, I also see all of the changes and goals that I did not meet.  As I think about why I was unable to meet these specific goals, I begin to notice a common trend.  Like many others, I started off with the best intentions. But as life got busier and time ticked away I pushed goals to the side and didn’t take the proper steps, thereby sabotaging any chance of meeting my goals before the end of the year. As the New Year approaches I’ve identified five tips that should help me, and perhaps you, to conquer our annual goals.

Plan of Action

Develop a plan of action and WRITE IT DOWN!  When thinking of the goals you would like to accomplish, be they personal and/or professional, it is important that you write them down, with a clear starting point and milestones set.  These steps will help you clarify what it is you are actually trying to accomplish and the milestones will help guide you to take action towards reaching your goals.

Check Points

Check points are a great way to pause and reflect on your goals to make sure they are not being pushed to the side. During this time you can reflect back and get reenergized by seeing the milestones you’ve already accomplished.  You can also run a “reality check” to see if your time line is still accurate or if conditions outside of your control justify making updates to your plan. What setbacks and roadblocks have you experienced? How did you handle them? How are your financials? Is this costing more/less than originally anticipated? How can you handle your finances moving forward to reach your goal? Check points are a great way to reflect, refocus and recharge on meeting your goals.

Motivation and Energy

When you are setting your goals and developing your plan of action it is easy to start off being motivated and energized for the New Year. How do you keep that momentum as the year moves forward and the busy session begins?

In order to stay focused and motivated, it is important to find your natural rhythms and to evaluate how you work throughout a given day, week or month. Are you a morning person?  Schedule meetings in the afternoon and try to leave your mornings open for focused periods of work.

It is also important to understand what keeps you going and makes you happy. For instance, for one person it may be that every six weeks they need to schedule a day off to go play golf; for another it may be every five weeks they need to schedule a massage to unwind. Although it will be different for each person, the principle is the same: give yourself little rewards!

Schedule Your Entire Year

A great way to help hold yourself accountable to your plan of action and to keep yourself motivated is to plan out your annual calendar in advance. Schedule designated times for when you want to reach your milestones, check points and actions to keep you in a rhythm and energized. While this may take some time upfront, it will help in the long run to have time set aside and to keep you on track.

Take Time for Review

Lastly, even though you will use check points throughout the year, it is still important to set aside some time at the end of the year to review your goals. It is important to remember that even if you did not reach your goal by your designated time line, it does not necessarily mean that you failed at your goal.

You should also reflect back on what you have learned about yourself and your work. Include the successes and the setbacks and roadblocks. Note how you overcame the obstacles and identify ways to continue to improve your plan of action for reaching your goals in the future.

I’m looking forward to using these five tips to make my next year my best year ever!

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How Millennials are Changing the Workplace (and Why This Affects Your Firm’s Employee Retention)

Posted By Expensify, Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Article provided by Boomer Technology Circle™ and Producer Circle™ sponsoring partner Expensify. This post is part one of Expensify’s “Startup lessons for accountants”, a three-part series on how firms can take a page from the startup battle book and rise in the accounting ranks — no Nerf guns required.

A generation taking over

Employee poaching is nothing new for accounting firms but in recent years, finding and keeping talent has become increasingly difficult. As the workforce changes — with 75% of the workforce being millennials by 2025— accounting firms must adopt new work culture strategies to attract and retain employees.

Unlike previous generations, millennials’ values go beyond money. Instead, company culture is a better indicator of their tenure. Millennials are less willing to make sacrifices in their personal life to meet excessive work demands and startups understand that it’s not a good work-life balance that millennials are looking for — it’s a work-life blend. As a result, startups are still more likely than corporate firms to be associated with a more attractive company culture despite the potential for heavy workloads and stress.

What lessons can startups offer firms for motivating a workforce whose values differ greatly from those of the generation before?

How startups get it right

Startups often have all-around greater flexibility that reinforces the idea that work and personal life take place in tandem. For example, employees with flexible schedules are less likely to feel resentment from prioritizing the company’s needs over their own. Flexible schedules help build trust which in turn, empowers employees to be more productive.

Flexibility is only one aspect of the “modern office” that is extremely valuable to millennials. Startups also make a great effort to encourage work-life blend in other aspects of their employee’s career. For example, startups are more likely to consider suggestions from employees, adopt new technology, support personal career development, and encourage friendships to go beyond the office. An employer that gives millennials the freedom of choice through a good work-life blend is not only building personal and trusting relationships, but also nurturing company loyalty.

What your firm can do

Accounting firms must understand that millennials don’t measure career progress in the same way as prior generations. Instead of money, millennials tend to focus on the sense of achievement and enjoyment that they receive from their job. Here’s how your firm can invest in better company culture and lower employee turnover rate — without even adding a beanbag chair.

  1. Support a work-life blend by:

    • Giving relationships a new priority and promoting a friendlier work environment
    • Supporting “freedom of choice” by being open to flexible work schedules
    • Encouraging team-bonding activities outside of work, such as volunteering

  2. Use sense of achievement as a motivator by:

    • Giving real-time encouragements such as praise for hard work during a project
    • Offering frequent, face-to-face feedback in lieu of quarterly written reviews
    • “Think outside the box” for rewards and perks; for example, look at blueboard or anyperk.

  3. Create a forward-thinking practice by:

    • Being open to creative solutions, even if they differ from traditional practices
    • Empowering employees to find processes that work best for them. For example, do they prefer guidance throughout a new project or just the beginning? Work with new employees to find something that works for both parties involved.
    • Discussing — as a group — alternatives for antiquated systems. Justify challenged processes with rationality rather than “that’s how it’s always been done”

By adopting these small changes, your firm can drastically alter company morale in the long term. PwC predicts that by 2016, almost 80 percent of its workforce will be composed of millennials. When peak seasons approach, you can be relieved that your employees are working together as a team, rather than as individuals with diminishing morale.

About Expensify

Expensify is the industry-leader in cloud-based expense and travel management. Customers like Yahoo!, Uber, and Zendesk leverage Expensify’s user-friendly web and mobile application and time-savings as a perk for employees. Sign up at use.expensify.com and spend less time with expense reports and more time with happy employees.

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Scaling a Growing Practice Efficiently Through Workflow Automation

Posted By Scalus, Monday, December 7, 2015

Article provided by Boomer Technology Circle™ sponsoring partner Scalus.

Deploying a technology solution that automates repetitive tasks, empowers the team, collaborates with clients, improves accuracy, and saves time & money can be beneficial to any growing practice. Workflow Automation helps you track projects, and communicate with staff and clients, eliminating the need for status updates. It also alleviates the all too common problem of living in our email inbox due to the cc’ing cycle that fills it up on projects we may or may not need to be watching. Workflow automation tools enable partners to regain control of the practice.

There is a reason workflow is the #1 tech concern for firms of all sizes, time management and limited resources are the highest expense. No matter what type of firm you have and what services are offered, every practice has a set of routine tasks that must be completed on a regular basis. These repetitive processes, like in the HR department for example, can be completely automated and have an audit trail attached for accountability. Case in point, a new hire onboarding process can be launched through a template, and each step that is set up is not only tracked but the baton is automatically passed from one employee to the next based on the task at hand. Here is an example template that could be setup and deployed for each new hire, and tracked within the system as well as monitored in a dashboard by management:

  • Candidate is interviewed
  • Candidate is approved by department manager
  • HR sends new hire offer letter
  • Candidate accepts job offer
  • HR processes new hire for drug screening and background check
  • Results come back approved
  • Hardware is ordered by IT department
  • HR department sets up new employee file
  • Employee returns new hire packet
  • IT department establishes security passcodes and distributes keys
  • Payroll, Insurance etc. are setup

These templates and projects can be deployed on a singular basis or recurring for things like end of month bank reconciliations, payroll processing and 1099’s. Each step is set up as a task and then each task can be assigned to a person or team. Templates can be setup as recurring on any frequency that the team requires, and can also be changed or customized for a one-off project.

Each team member receives an email notification when it’s their turn to complete their part of any given process.  Each team member will also receive a daily digest of each task that needs to be completed that day and managers can pull from the dashboard a report that shows them priorities of the department.  Reducing errors and preventing tasks from sitting in your team’s inboxes or worse, falling through the cracks and not getting accomplished at all.

Having workflow automation software also empowers your team to successfully manage their own work relieving managers from having to micromanage staff. You can see exactly what everyone is doing and not doing, allowing you to keep work flowing and clearing any bottlenecks the firm may have.

This type of workflow automation creates a team that’s effective and efficient in completing their tasks as well as improving internal communication, which reduces employee turnover. Lack of communication is one of the top five reasons employees leave an organization. Workflow automation automates communication, so no one person is responsible to remember to tell the next team member that it’s their turn next in any successive chain.

Collaboration is vital in any successful practice, not just for the internal team, but client collaboration is also an excellent benefit of efficient workflow automation software. A program that notifies the client on status updates so they don’t have to ask will not only increase client satisfaction but also retention. Clients can email directly into the system to create a task and staff can designate users as external so they don’t see all the notes in a project that may not be necessary for the client to see.

Which brings us to the next benefit of efficient workflow automation software; now that you no longer have to micromanage your team, you can focus on growing your business. Establishing an approval hierarchy ensures that the boss doesn’t have to be involved in every step unless they want to be. Scalus is workflow automation done right. Try risk free!

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Time to Change

Posted By David Bergstein, Wednesday, November 11, 2015
David Bergstein belongs to Intuit's Accountant & Advisory Group and is a thought-leader in Technology Issues in the Accounting Firm, such as Wireless, Paperless Workflow, Apps, Cloud and Mobile.  In 2015, Accounting Today listed him as one of their Top 100 Most Influential People within the accounting profession.

It’s that time of the year; time to meet with clients to do tax projections and year end planning.  It’s also a perfect time to show your clients how valuable you can be to them as an advisor about more than just tax!

Encourage your once-a-year accounting clients into your office now instead of the months of January through March.  Explain how you can help them reduce taxes and become more profitable and efficient by moving to the cloud for their accounting.  Introduce them to the benefits of dashboards, improved cash flow, and easily accessible key performance indicators (KPIs).  Describe how you can put a plan in place to automate processes and procedures so that you don't have to interrupt your client's business each reporting deadline.  Now is the time to resolve to get lean.

Cloud accounting automates what we have done in the name of write-up and Accounting/Finance Professional services.  Smart firms are going cloud with their accounting systems and utilizing ecosystem partners (as we call them at Intuit) to automate many of the tasks associated with routine expertise.  I’ll mention three ecosystem partners to illustrate the wide scale of tools available.

Fathom

Fathom can integrate data from a number of sources and then use a suite of “in-depth visualizations and metrics” to help convert that data to insightful business intelligence.  It has a robust reporting capability and also offers customizable KPIs, benchmarking and alert monitoring.

Hubdoc

Hubdoc reduces the need for data entry by converting scanned information like receipts and emailed invoices and by fetching information from linked online accounts.  It then integrates into accounting software such as QuickBooks Online.

 

Liveplan

I could go on and on with more tools but my last example will be Liveplan which allows you to build a business plan for your clients and then monitor the results on a daily, monthly, quarterly or annual basis via their scoreboard or benchmarking screens. 

Now is the time to change!

My point is that technology is now available to uber-size your accounting firm.  Check out the link to the firm of the future and discover how you can better serve your clients by getting them into the digital world - now.

Tags:  2015  Blog 

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Ten Strategies to Insure Innovation and Growth

Posted By L. Gary Boomer, Tuesday, November 10, 2015

I originally wrote this article for Accounting Today’s use in 2011. I’ve updated some of the numbers and clarified some of my comments but even with as much change as we’ve seen in technology in the past five years, these ten strategies are just as sound today as they were in 2011.

According to our most recent member survey, the average Boomer Technology Circle™ firm is continuing to spend less on technology when measured as a percentage of revenue – mostly because since 2011, growth in revenue has outpaced the increases in technology costs.  Our technology category includes hardware, software, phone and data, scanners and copiers, labor and sourced services.

Does that surprise you?  What is your firm spending?  Are you getting the return on your investment you should be getting?  Is your technology up to date? Are you focused on maintenance or innovation?  The answers to these questions are often subjective in multiple-owner professional service firms.  In other words, different people have different value systems and requirements. 

For over 25 years I have said, “You don’t have to know how to build the watch but you had better be able to tell what time it is when it comes to technology.”  Technology is rapidly changing and companies are looking at alternatives to maximize their return on investment and rapidly deploy innovative technology that improves client services and the related revenue stream.   Consumer technology now drives business IT.  Look at the impact of the Apple iPad and how “apps” have changed how people use technology and how software is developed and distributed. Technology has a huge impact on the value of your firm and your ability to create value for your clients.

Many firms have focused on reduction of expenses over the past few years and are at a critical point facing significant decisions regarding their IT strategy.  Most firms are now operating some “Cloud” systems but there is still uncertainty about, and resistance to, the extent of what can and should be moved.  I encourage you to embrace the following ten strategies to resolve the technical part of the equation through a proven process.

Operate with a plan and three-year budget

While this sounds basic, most firms still do not have IT plans and budgets.  An IT plan does not take a great deal of time to develop if you have the right planning tools and process.  Planning does require input from key people in the firm but primarily it is driven by firm leadership and the ability to identify priorities and focus resources on addressing these priorities.  It is universally recommended to use someone outside the firm to facilitate this process, for several reasons: reduced politics; knowledge of peer firm best practices; reduced time requirements; increased commitment to the process; and improved focus on strategic rather than tactical issues.

Utilize an IT Committee

IT governance is critical and should involve end users.  The mission of this committee should be to insure adequate planning occurs, priorities are established and that every project has a champion.  Firms should focus on firm projects with end user champions.  A mistake many firms make is to look at these projects as IT projects instead of firm projects.

We have found that the most effective IT Committees meet at least quarterly, with an agenda and that they limit discussion to strategic issues and integrating technology with the firm’s strategic plan.  The committee should spend one or two days annually with a planning process that involves the managing partner or CEO.

Communicate

Most IT leaders make the mistake of not communicating often and effectively, especially with regard to accomplishments.  End users should be aware of all projects, expectations for implementation, training requirements and time lines.  Focus on successes and deal with the reality that change is difficult for many people.  Consistent and continual communication is required in a rapidly changing IT world.   Experiences impact beliefs, beliefs drive actions and actions determine results.  Outdated beliefs generally result in resistance, so communication is the only tool that can change bad experience into hope and belief.

Trust determines speed and cost

Firms that have a low level of trust pay a tax when it comes to IT, while firms with a high level of trust are rewarded with a dividend.  In firms with high trust, more time is spend on implementation and training and less on justification and hand-holding.  Many of the strategies listed in this article are designed to increase the trust within your firm.

Utilize business analysts

Business analysts have the unique ability of being able to understand both the technology and the firm’s processes.  In other words, they bridge the gap between those that know what they want to accomplish and those that know how to leverage technology.

It is not unusual for partners and managers to lack knowledge as to what is possible.  Likewise, programmers and engineers often do not understand the business requirements and processes. Business analysts are typically excellent communicators who understand both sides of the business, even if their expertise is not as great.  All major projects should have a business analyst involved in the planning, process improvement, training and implementation phases.

Participate in peer communities

The “not invented here syndrome” does not work when it comes to technology.  No firm owns the market on technology.  The wisdom of crowds and the ability to network with leading peers is very valuable.

We’ve been conducting Boomer Technology Circles™ since the year 2000 with the goal of bringing together a Firm decision maker and IT professional three times a year to share strategies, results and concerns with peer firms.  These meetings provide clarity, confidence and increased capacity.  A core principle for all of our communities is that professionals who share best practices and lessons learned are best-prepared for the future and benefit the most from the rapid changes in business, especially those driven by technology.  Most firms have core knowledge but it is the access to the tacit knowledge from other peers that differentiates the best from the rest.

Treat vendors as business partners

Technology should not be managed as overhead; it should be managed as a strategic asset.

Most firms can relate to multiple databases containing duplicate information that is often difficult to access for reporting purposes.  Business intelligence and real-time data will allow firms to provide increased value to their clients.  The primary vendors in the accounting industry have a wealth of resources they will gladly share with firms – if treated as a partner.  This strategy is more important today than it has ever been due to the transformation to the Cloud and the integration of applications into systems that contain many processes. 

Know your metrics

Key metrics are important in managing technology.  Some of the most important metrics are revenue per full-time-equivalent (2,080 hours), amount spent on IT per FTE, % of revenue spend on IT, average hourly rate collected, and end users per IT support person (internal and external).  Much like your golf score, these metrics should drive improvement.  While peer metrics are, at least value, merely interesting, remember that average is where the best of the worst meet the worst of the best.

Utilize meshing

This may still be a new term to many CPAs but it is based upon the premise that it is often better to lease than to own.  The Internet platform today allows firms to utilize external resources to insure the return on their IT investment and provide the necessary resources when needed.

Much like electricity, technology has evolved to the point it is often cheaper, easier, faster and better to use external resources than it is to control all resources and rely on limited internal expertise.  Firms do not have their own power plants for electricity (other than for disaster recovery in some cases).  Why should they own and maintain an expensive infrastructure when they can lease those resources?  While this sounds fiscally advantageous to most business people, the reality is that the CPA profession is in a period of transition regarding client server based systems and Cloud based systems.  Meshing provides flexibility – which may deliver a great advantage during transition.

Focus on innovation and growth

While the IT investment in most firms will probably remain at the 5-6% of net revenue level over the next few years, how your firm spends its IT budget will be critical to your ability to attract and retain clients.

Many firms today are investing the majority their resources on the maintenance of their existing systems rather than on innovation and the delivery of new services.  Innovative services require a platform that is both scalable and accessible from any place at any time; a primary advantage offered by cloud based systems.  The focus should be on capturing transactions at the source rather than on entering transactions and insuring correctness.  Accountants can move up the value chain.  With less effort spent on the capturing, recording and reporting of the transaction, more effort can be dedicated to higher valued advisory services.

Increased investments in platforms and capabilities that allow clients to have real time information also provides an opportunity for firms to evaluate their pricing and collection policies.  How firms package, name, price and deliver these services will be critical to their success.  The hourly method of billing is based entirely upon the expenditure of effort.  In the majority of cases, your client only cares about your effort when you’re not providing a valuable service.

Think, Plan, Grow!™

While these 10 strategies are not intended to be all-inclusive, they do represent a thought process that will enable your firm to capture a return on investment, meet client requirements and increase the value of your firm.

Tags:  2015  blog 

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Getting the Most Out of Good Ideas

Posted By Eric Benson, Tuesday, November 10, 2015

There is a tendency to try and rationalize all complex decisions made in a business. Businesses are, after all, in the business of making money.  Justifying a large expenditure is often done with lots of time, care and analysis.

The trouble is, many well designed projects run into problems. This is especially true in the technology world.  A recent series of articles in IEEE Spectrum looked at a decade of IT failures and found that most of the projects did start with strong decisions, careful deliberation and long term planning.

When looking at complex projects in particular (much larger than most accounting firms would be involved with), this quote stands out:

“…cost overruns, delays, and reduced functionality are so common that even self-proclaimed success-stories have them.” (http://spectrum.ieee.org/static/overcomplexifying-underdelivering)

Why is it so hard to make complex projects go well?

Here’s a second quote from the same article:

“You first must have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish.”

I would like to posit that many good projects lose their way along the road to completion because they lack proper guidance.  In fact, I think most projects that are started with a technology component gain too many conflicting goals along the way.  In our firm, we jokingly call this “analysis-paralysis.” 

There is a better way to start a project; a way that should alleviate much of the drama that comes from large technology or process related projects.  Simply stated, make the project a good idea from the start.

Starting from the right spot

The IEEE Spectrum article referenced above uses two examples: IT modernization projects (bringing some system into a new technology age); and consolidating many systems into one.

For a relevant example in an accounting firm, let’s look at consolidating a number of disparate systems into one practice management solution.  I won’t be giving too many specifics on the final solution but I can use this example to highlight how to approach this project using a different process.

How would you approach this problem?  One method would favor taking an inventory of all of the systems you want to replace.  Another might be looking at the features you want in your new system.

Before any of this gets going though, you should align everyone on a project with a solid mission or purpose.  This helps the team see if the project is falling outside of scope, losing focus, or most importantly, missing deadlines or going over budget.

There are a number of methods to develop this mission.  I believe that many overlook the value that comes from something simple.  This is very important if the team involved in moving a project forward is multidisciplinary. 

My method?  Finding a statement that everyone can agree is a “good idea.”

What is a good idea?

In this context, a good idea is something you hear, see or remember and say "Wow, that's a good idea!"

Developing something that can be categorized as a good idea is much harder than it looks.  I think this is why the process is often shortchanged.  It takes time to boil down complex information into a simple formula for success.
All good ideas share these characteristics:

  • They are relevant to the group or team (and hopefully, everyone that gets impacted)
  • They are understandable (often at a glance)
  • They are repeatable

I think the concept of a good idea goes a step further than a simple purpose statement.  Let’s look at the three characteristics of a good idea and consider why this concept can help align teams and build consensus on complex projects.

Reverse engineering a good idea

If we use the practice management consolidation example, we can start to look at how the consolidation can become a good idea.  In order to find the right mix of characteristics, we are going to reverse engineer the good idea and present it to our team.

Question 1:  Why is this complex project relevant to our team?

In a large scale infrastructure project, you should be able to answer this question without hesitation.  In addition, there should not be a long answer forthcoming.  Imagine yourself in the midst of this project.  How would you answer the following questions from a coworker who is not directly involved in the project?

  • Why would consolidating 23 systems and spreadsheets into one consolidated system be a good idea for our firm?
  • Why should we spend $1.2 million over the next three years to do this project? 

Here is my suggestion:

We will combine our client information to make more effective decisions.

Why is this a good start?  It is relevant to our clients.  It means we are combining disparate sources.  And, we need to make effective decisions from this information. 

Question 2:  How can I make this complex project understandable at a glance?

Imagine that you are explaining this consolidation project to someone who is not directly involved.  Now, let’s take our first stab and present it to the individual.

We will combine our client information to make more effective decisions.

Is this understandable to someone not on the team?  It will definitely generate more questions.  But what is missing to make it understandable?

For one, how will we combine this information?  What about the information that the listener is responsible for?  Also, what decisions need to be effective? 

Suggestion Two:

We will consolidate valuable client information to make more effective business decisions.

Question 3:  How can I make this complex project simple enough to explain so that anyone could do it?

This question is a tricky one.  The goal is not to make it so someone could run off and complete the project.  The goal is to make it simple enough that your listener could repeat it to someone else and they would both understand what the project was about.

So, in review, let’s say our listener from Question 2 is talking to a coworker.  In response to a “what are they doing?” question, he or she responds:

They will consolidate valuable client information to make more effective business decisions.

This is getting very close.  But at this point, no one with direct project knowledge is in the discussion. How can this be a good idea to someone who is not involved?

Here are some questions that will likely be asked at this point:

  • Where will this information be?
  • How will I be able to use it?
  • Will the business decisions affect me?

In order to make the good idea work in a removed case, you cannot add more words.  In fact, fewer words may make the project easier to understand at a high level.

Here is my final suggestion:

We will remember valuable information so we can make more effective decisions.

There are a number of changes here that are important to distinguish:

  • They becomes we.  The result will not be isolated to the team doing the work.
  • Combine becomes remember.  Combining does not show action.  Remembering means we have the ability to store and retrieve information.
  • Remove client.  The information here may be internal and not client specific.
  • Add so we.  Again, this is a company-wide result.

Aligning the project to the good idea

How does this simple statement help us define, proceed and implement a complex project?  For one, we can use our team’s good idea to ask the question “Is this a good idea?” when looking at a possible solution.  This is code in the project team for “Does it align with our good idea?”

In addition, people outside of the team have something with which they can agree.  It would be a good idea to be able to remember valuable information.  It’s an even better one to use it to make effective decisions.  In a project briefing, the listeners should be able to use this statement to review progress and ask questions. 

In fact, I propose that at high level briefings this statement should be posted somewhere obvious.  At regular intervals the people in the room should be invited to match what they are hearing against the good idea.  If it does not match up, discuss why.

Using good ideas to define your projects and decisions

Simplifying a complex project down to one statement is hard work.  It may even feel like wasted time to people who like to roll up their sleeves and dive in.  However, the effort will pay off down the road as you are able to compare what you are doing against an aligning statement. 

Also, you can refine your goals and milestones as you look at your statement.  If a timeline starts sliding, ask if that is a good idea.  What happened to make the timeline shift?  Is there another option to address the problem?  If a new option is presented, should it be added to this project?  Is that a good idea?

Match each new challenge to your good idea.  Each suggested solution should be able to answer the question “Will this help us remember valuable information so we can make more effective decisions?”  If not, you should adjust until it does.

The projects we take on often proceed past the point of being a good idea.  The amount of time and effort invested is taken into account and with that comes the “cost” of backing out or looking at an alternate.  Hopefully, using an aligning good idea statement will trim this type of logic early on.  Hopefully, it makes the project, when completed, a good idea for the entire firm to use.

Tags:  2015  Blog  Technology 

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Do You Own Your Job?

Posted By Sue Thiemann, Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Do you believe that leadership should only be left to the “higher-ups” in the company? Are you wasting time waiting for the Managing Partner to set up a meeting, lay down a policy, or implement an improvement? Do you ever think, “That’s not my job; it’s up to the management or owners to set that policy and tell us what we can or can’t do”?

Instead of “passing the buck” on responsibility, I want to encourage you to own your job, regardless of your position in the company.

Boomer team members write and talk a great deal about leadership and accountability; leadership not only at the executive level but leadership throughout the company. We foster leadership by allowing each team member to participate in the development of the company’s annual strategic plan and then to construct their own quarterly game plans based upon the company’s objectives.

Each person is then held accountable through quarterly game plan meetings, weekly staff meetings and through involvement in smaller teams. Note that I did not say quarterly game plan evaluations.  That’s because the quarterly meeting is more than an evaluation of one’s performance; it is truly a time to review the past, but more importantly, plan for the next quarter. It is a team effort to create the plan – and honest, open communication is encouraged, expected, and a key principle in the process.

So what would make this relationship a success?  The first element that comes to mind is trust; trust and confidence in your relationship with your supervisor and peers. In a recent article written by our human resource guru Sandra Wiley, she discusses several actions that can build trust.  Among them are:

  • Be transparent
  • Ask – don’t tell
  • Show gratitude
  • Extend trust

I’m sure you could add to this list. An important factor is that these actions must extend up and down the chain of command.

A second element that should be credited for our success is ownership.

In a book I am reading, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, the authors note that extreme ownership is a mind-set; or an attitude:

With a mind-set of Extreme Ownership, any person can develop into a highly effective leader.”

Furthermore, they state that training is necessary to develop the foundations of leadership and build confidence in one’s ability to lead.  By exhibiting extreme ownership, a leader will empower members of their team to achieve success.

Encouraging this culture throughout the team propels the team toward a win-win result. Owning up to mistakes does not decrease respect; instead, it increases respect and confidence (sounds a little like being transparent). They point out the need of leading up and down the chain of command (sounds like a team effort).

How does any of this relate to the accounting profession? I believe taking ownership of one’s position is vital. The level of position makes no difference. In fact, the more one takes extreme ownership of their duties, the more potential for success by the team member and the firm.

I encourage you to take extreme ownership of your position and march on to success in your career.

Tags:  2015  accountability  blog  personal development 

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Moving Beyond the Fear of Change

Posted By Arianna Campbell, Friday, October 16, 2015

Lean Six Sigma is a proven method for systematically eliminating process steps that do not add value. While the methodology originated in manufacturing, the core concepts are successfully applied in accounting firms as well.  Firms that we have worked with to complete Lean Six Sigma process improvement projects have benefited from gains in efficiency, quality, profitability and the capacity to offer higher value services. As I think about what makes these firms successful, I realize that they have one thing in common: they move forward in spite of their fear of change.

While some firms handle it better than others, fear of change is common. Some firms are missing out on the benefits of process improvement because fear causes them to settle for the status quo. In an industry that is being impacted by technology accelerating the speed of change, it is critical to not allow these feelings to prevent forward progress. In his book, Failing Forward, John Maxwell identifies the three main attitudes that become obstacles to progress: feared failure, misunderstood failure and being unprepared for failure. By understanding the causes of these obstacles and how to overcome them, firms can take necessary steps toward continuous improvement.

Obstacle #1: Feared Failure

The fear of failure causes change paralysis. The firm culture is stagnated by SALY (same as last year) thinking, holding on to outdated traditions, and not wanting to disrupt those who may be unwilling to change.  In this situation, the common response to improvement suggestions is: “We’ve always done it this way, why should we change?” These views cause change to be perceived as a large risk when in reality, NOT changing is the more imminent risk.

In order to overcome feared failure, the firm culture must be elevated to embrace change. This starts at the top as leadership sets the example by making a commitment to change and communicating it to the firm along with plan and timeline for improvements. For some firms it is best to start with small changes. We have seen significant success from firms that start with a smaller project like a Lean Assessment to identify a few key changes that will make a big impact. The positive results help overcome the fear of failure and take advantage of the benefits of a full-scale Lean Process Improvement project.

Obstacle # 2: Misunderstood Failure

Not understanding failure is another attitude that prevents firms from moving forward. Firms suffer from the ambiguity created by the absence of a clear definition of success. Unclear or unrealistic expectations create an expansive gray area that can be viewed as failure. Objectives and goals may vary between levels and offices and cause confusion.  Staff development and firm growth is hindered by a lack of alignment and direction.

By establishing clear criteria for success, firms draw boundary lines between success and failure. A process improvement project is a proven way to create a roadmap for reaching a common goal that aligns with the firm vision. Significant opportunities for change are identified and the right people are included in the efforts to improve. This increases trust and morale as expectations are clarified and opportunities for misunderstandings are minimized.

Obstacle #3: Unprepared for failure

The third obstacle is the most perilous.  Being unprepared for failure can result in substantial setbacks as a firm scrambles to recover from unforeseen circumstances.

A lack of preparation can be caused by several different factors: denial of the need to change creates a false sense of security; perfectionism and personal preferences take priority over progress; egos overshadow indications of impending challenges; incorrect information or assumptions shift plans off course. Sometimes failure happens in spite of the best efforts to avoid it but how you prepare for, and recover from, ultimately determines how you move forward.

The best offense for unexpected failure is to stay several steps ahead. This can be done by implementing process improvement initiatives and leveraging technology. High quality, efficient, automated processes free up resources to prepare for the unexpected. In addition, capacity is created to “play above the line” and focus on offering higher value services. A firm-wide culture of continuous improvement is built as the firm grows from applying insights from lessons learned.

Conclusion

In order to be successful and future ready, firms must move past the fear of change and failure. Process improvement projects are a catalyst to making well-planned, high return changes that benefit the entire firm.

Tags:  2015  Arianna Campbell 

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