By Bill Kennedy - Month end again. The normal processes kick into gear as we ensure there is a good sales cut off, the expense reports have been submitted, the banks reconciled and the overseas operations results are ready for consolidation. On the whole, month end is a well oiled machine where everyone knows what is expected of them. That's the mark of a good system, particularly if all of the processes have been documented and people check them off as they are completed.
Most of the work of the accounting department can be systematized, i.e. turned into a pattern of regularly recurring processes, but what about the surprises? You know, the President is looking at purchasing that little plant in Omaha, you need to have a Sarbanes Oxley review, the accounting software needs to be updated, the Chairman wants a five year forecast, etc. When the accounting staff have their hands full with the system, how do you handle these unpredictable requirements?
The answer is to projectize. Let's face it, even though nobody can predict what surprises lay in store for you next month or next year, you know for certain that they will be there. Why not include them in your planning?
You know some of the projects that have to get done. In fact, some of them may have been waiting a long time for someone to have enough time to address them. At a recent client, I commented on how enthusiastically one of the staff had taken to the new reporting software. "That's because the new Controller included it in her personal goals for the year," the Assistant Controller said.
"Great," I replied. "What's your goal?"
"Clean up the GL," she said, with a sad smile. It was a big job.
Delegating projects to people is good, but that's only just the start.
Resources, Tools & Time
Of the three techniques available to a project manager, finding the time can be the hardest. Whatever else you do, the accounting system must be maintained. On the other hand, project work can be fun. It's a break from the routine. People get a chance to learn new skills and work independently. What better way to prepare someone for their next career step than to give them a project to manage?
In my experience, the best way to make room in the schedule for project work is to be open with the team about what you are doing. Then enlist their help in finding faster ways to do the normal work, such as automating or eliminating manual processes, getting transactions booked properly the first time rather than adjusting them at month end and reducing any duplications between separate systems. If the whole team is motivated to save time, the results will be much better than a solo effort by you. You might have to make it clear that your objective is only to save time, not to reduce headcount.
Resources and tools are other issues that you have to address. Your team members may need training to take on the projects, whether a formal course or coaching from someone more senior. An outside consultant may be necessary, but encourage your team to work independently. Have them create a project plan and come back to you with any additional resources they think they need. Finally, insist on regular updates and status reports. After all, as head of the department, you are still responsible for delivering the goods.
So, should you systematize or projectize the accounting department? The answer is: both.