• Arianna Campbell, Shareholder

3 Busy Season Pitfalls to Avoid

Firms continue finding success in applying Lean Six Sigma principles to increase their effectiveness, create additional capacity and improve the client experience. During this time of year, we coach firms as they focus on implementing the process improvement initiatives they’ve been working on for the past few months. We help them anticipate and avoid the common pitfalls to improve their chances of success. As your firm heads into busy season, whether you’re implementing new processes or not, keep an eye out for these three busy season pitfalls to avoid.

Missed Learning Opportunities

While training efforts are usually strong at the beginning of the season, they can become less of a focus as the workload increases. It becomes “easier” for the reviewer to just fix the preparers mistake and move the work forward. While this may seem advantageous in the short term, it results in a missed learning opportunity. Without this valuable feedback, the preparer is left to repeat the same mistake multiple times. In another scenario, writing a long review comment may seem more efficient than finding time for a conversation to explain and clarify, but this only results in frustration from both sides as an exchange of comments lengthens the turnaround time.

Professional development accelerates when we address key learning points through real-time feedback and direct communication. We have seen tremendous success with firms that use collaborative review and feedback loops to relay information. Collaborative review is a short meeting to discuss detailed or open-ended review comments with preparers, in person, or over the phone/video if out of the office. This is an opportunity for the reviewer to explain the “why” and transfer knowledge while also allowing the preparer to ask questions as the reviewer assesses the level of understanding. These short meetings require an investment of time, but they pay dividends later in the process. Additionally, in instances where the reviewer makes a small change, providing a feedback loop, through a quick message via email, phone or in person helps to keep the preparer informed. Both collaborative review nad feedback loops help to reduce workflow loops and take advantage of learning opportunities.

Blaming the Client

When discussing opportunities to increase workflow effectiveness, a response we often hear is that the client is the obstacle. Yes, some clients require more engagement management than others. However, we challenge firms to stop blaming the client and instead ask: “What can we do to make it easier for our clients to do business with us?” This question encourages firms to explore new ways to provide a higher level of client service through client communication, education and training.

Questions to consider include:

  • How are we making the requests for information?

  • Was it in a way that was easy for them to understand?

  • Did we include deadlines?

  • Are we proactively following up to answer questions and provide additional direction?

  • For our more challenging clients, are we finding ways to help them get the information in?

  • Are you providing them with technology that allows them to be more responsive as well as training on how to use the technology?

Personal Preferences

Reducing personal preferences is one of the greatest opportunities we see within firm processes. Personal preferences reduce consistency and create frustration and confusion for those who must manage multiple ways of completing the work. Time and effort are spent managing personal preferences that could be used to instead improve technical abilities and complete projects. At a time when talent retention is an issue in the profession, we want to grow our people.

In our experience, personal preferences are common and are not usually malicious in their intent. In most cases, people are not aware of how others do their work and therefore are not aware the variation exists. It may simply be that a firm preference has not been defined.

Lack of a consistent process also increases variation, while increased consistency results in increased quality. This shift requires a commitment from leadership to move from personal preferences to a firm preference. This starts by looking at current processes and identifying areas of variation.

A simple yet effective way to reduce personal preferences is to ask the following three questions before writing a review comment: Will the comment I am about to write:

  1. Add value to the client?

  2. Add value to the firm? Or

  3. Help meet a professional standard?

If you cannot answer yes to at least one of those questions, it is most likely a personal preference and any edits or corrections should be the responsibility of the person with the preference. Some examples might include grammar preferences, reorganizing work papers in a way the reviewer prefers to look at them and more. Making an effort to change this will help free up time to focus on the things that matter.

Missed learning opportunities, blaming the client and personal preferences are all pitfalls that could slow your firm down this busy season, but knowing how to avoid them will help set you up for sustainable success that extends far beyond this year’s deadline.