Implementing systems in your business is about more than simply having all team members working in the same way. It is about enabling accounting firms to overcome two of their biggest challenges: maximising efficiency and minimising risk.
Whilst efficiency is often the subject of the abundant literature relating to practice improvement, a comparatively small amount of this literature focuses on risk reduction or minimisation. And yet the two are fundamentally linked.
Efficiency should imply strong risk management – what is the point of doing something quickly and profitably if it will only expose you to the risk of non-compliance? You need both. Whilst having standardised business systems in place may appear common-sense, the results of the Good Bad Ugly survey over many years suggests that the overwhelming majority of Australian accounting firms have much room for improvement in this area. Typically, more than 80% of firms are exposed to the risk of non-compliance as a result of a lack of standardised, up-to-date workpapers, procedures and templates.
Two of the most discussed modern concepts when it comes to maximising efficiency and minimising risk are:
- The innovation of integrated workpapers
- The systems required for a modern flexible workforce
With a majority of firms using some form of workpapers, updating these each year internally can be tedious and time-consuming. (One-third of Australian accounting firms are using their own in-house workpapers – Good Bad Ugly Insight Report – Modern Technology)
In addition to this, the efficiency gains of integrated workpapers which automatically draw data from the client ledger are seen as the next logical step in automating this process. With many providers in this space, it is essential to choose a provider who will be able to connect to not one, but all types of client data, to ensure everyone can work in the same way, no matter which client file they are working on.
Working in this way is also the path to unlocking the benefits of a modern flexible workforce. Firms are still identifying outsourcing or moving to a flexible workforce as an area which can produce dividends. The first step to being successful in this area is having documented and specific systems, procedures and workpapers in place before employing a flexible workforce. Having successful systems implemented internally before you start externally with remote workers not only creates efficiencies but minimises risk.
Firms chasing future success will need to innovate – to implement systems which automate compliance work, and enable them to do more with less.
Ten simple steps for implementing effective systems
Step 1: Have someone ‘lead’ the project
The push for change must come from the top to champion the change within the firm. Like with all projects that require a change in behaviour, a strong leader ensures success.
Step 2: Educate and involve all staff
As important as a project champion is, your team members are vital to the overall success of any new system. Team members need to be involved and need to be educated about why the change is being made.
Holding a meeting with your team to identify key processes which are repeated regularly throughout your firm is a good starting point. You can then work together to refine these
- Are they as efficient and automated as they can possibly be?
- Do they involve minimal risk?
The key is documenting the agreed-upon processes – creating your firm’s own documented procedure manual so all are singing from the same hymn sheet. Identify any supporting templates as you go. These will be the tools your team uses in order to complete the procedures from start to finish, including workpapers, checklists, letters, emails, and forms.
Step 3: Assign responsibilities
Assign a team member to handle the development and/or review of each area within the firm. A manager with job review responsibilities may be in charge of evaluating workpapers. A member of your administration team may develop the procedure relating to incoming mail.
Aside from increasing buy-in across the team, this ensures the workload is spread across a number of people, which is a more manageable approach.
Step 4: Centrally store all procedures, workpapers and templates
All of your documented procedures and templates should be in a place where team members can easily access them. Top performing firms rely on an easily searchable intranet or similar knowledge management software for this function.
Step 5: Remove old procedures and templates
After providing a short period of notice, you should remove all procedures and templates on your network that no longer represent your firm’s current and approved processes. Your team then have one place to search when looking for a procedure or template. This also provides for firm level control of which procedures are followed and which templates are used.
Step 6: Ensure master procedures and templates protected
The workpapers and templates stored in your firm’s intranet should be accessible in ‘read-only’ format, so that when team members open them, they create a new document. This will protect your master versions.
Step 7: Encourage and seek feedback
Take the time to regularly reinforce the firm’s standardisation policy as well as the benefits of having all team members working in a consistent manner using approved and up-to-date procedures and templates. Acting on this feedback shows your team that you genuinely want to establish the simplest and fastest way for them to work.
Step 8: Make sure everything can be completed on-screen
The positive effects of the paperless execution of client jobs on efficiency and job turnaround times are significant and they are real. To avoid any frustration when working onscreen, templates need to be cleverly designed using hyperlinks, form fields, check boxes and sign-off areas.
Step 9: Reject work that is not completed using approved processes
Reviewers should make it clear that they are not prepared to review any work which was not prepared using the approved processes.
A substantial reduction in review time (as a result of all work being presented to reviewers in a consistent manner) generally has the largest impact on the reduction in job turnaround times.
The reality of implementing new systems in an accounting firm, no matter how significant the predicted result, is that there will be minimal difference in the first year of rollout.
However, by the second and subsequent years, many firms have found a 30% reduction in accounts preparation time simply by following a systemised approach to compliance work. The benefit of this saving can translate to additional time available to offer and deliver advisory services to clients, a more saleable business with reduction on key person dependence, or can simply just add real dollars to your bottom line.
Whichever way you look at it, implementing effective standardised systems will pay dividends to the modern accounting practice.
Jenelle is the National Client Manager and heads up the Client Care team at Business Fitness. Coming from a small practice herself, Jenelle understands all aspects of firm life, from compliance pressures to staff issues and can help you see how to implement systems and procedures to build a smooth running practice. You will frequently find Jenelle meeting with clients in various cafés around the country.
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