By Jennifer Barnes, CEO of Optima Office, a firm that provides Fractional CFOs, COOs, Controllers and HR professionals for businesses.
In order to have a solid base, first, go through the conceptual framework of optimizing business process. The first step is to understand what process is designed to deliver to the organization. Then we can look at the people and technology.
Often, I will hear people say that they want me to come in and “automate” a process or group of processes. In reality, automation is one of the last steps. The priority I follow in process development is this: communication, accuracy, consistency, efficiency.
Communication is sometimes a surprise to people. This is what the accounting role does all day long. However, accountants are not necessarily trained to communicate. We tend to get our data, process away, generate reports, review and distribute. It is a form of communication, but sometimes we need more nuance than we can get from our data and GAAP rules. If we do not understand what the business is trying to do and how the business needs to communicate about those activities, we are not likely to be able to produce the accuracy that is needed.
Once we know what we need to communicate to the business, then we need to make sure that we are accurate. Accountants are generally successful at being accurate. However, getting too wrapped up in accuracy is a form of analysis paralysis and should be avoided. When I find myself or a colleague obsessing about accuracy, I will generally ask the question, “How did we know we were right last time?” Which leads us directly to consistency.
Consistency is accuracy at speed. We need to ensure that the process is generating accurate data and reporting on a regular basis. As we find new issues, we build new rules to solve for them. The problem is that “rule stacking” leads to a mire of process and review steps that may not be an efficient way to work. So, as we solve for consistency issues we need to balance the efficiency ones.
When assessing resources as we look toward optimization of our operations, the key is identifying interest. Granted, it might be difficult to notice if the team is overburdened. If everyone is interested and wants to participate, then it might make sense for everyone to work a bit outside of normal “work” to get the vision designed and built. It is rare to see this diffused type of optimization ownership. Generally, there are a couple of individuals who are passionate about making things better.
In either approach, more work is being handed to the same group. Not fun. We know the goal is to make life better, but making sure everyone survives the transition is also important. Figuring out who is going to get more work and for how long is the first thing we need to look at. Whether or not a release valve will be needed and, if so, what type will also need to be addressed.
First, you need the optimizers: the folks who investigate different processes, workbooks and apps to see how they are being used and if they can be used better. I think of them as the paper eliminators. The second group is well suited to implementation and integration projects; these are the list makers. Generally easy to find in a group of accountants, these folks will be able to support their projects by documenting all the different items in each disparate system and how they need to map to one another and will hold the business accountable to the change management process.
I find that if there is interest, there is always a way we can leverage that to help the team.
This is a tough one, mainly because there are so many options out there, all promising the moon and the stars. As I touched on earlier, this one is generally best left until you understand your process better.
When determining what software you want to go with, talk to your friends and see what names come up frequently. Even if I have a favorite, I always demo at least two. I want them to prove the tool can do what we need. I do not want to see the dashboard, yet. In fact, I have opted to work with software providers that had terrible reporting. The reason is that I generally want to report on multiple systems at a time, so I need to aggregate the data at a report server. Hence, I bypass the system reporting completely. I am more interested in the software’s ability to be an “engine” to accomplish a series of related tasks than I am in the dashboard.
If the vendor can get past the request for information (RFI), then we can schedule the marathon two-hour call. We must balance implementing our process and leaning into the software’s process. We are doing some things better, but the system may have something to teach us.
Having at least two vendors means that you can keep the second one around as leverage if you want when negotiating price. I saw one vendor drop 50% once when trying to win against a competitor. Additionally, the initial front-runner may not make it to the end of the vetting process.
Even if negotiations are not complete, if you have identified the right solution for you, then I suggest also finding an implementation partner. The software company’s implementation team will likely try to fast-track things and not take sufficient time to learn your process. This vendor will help navigate the aforementioned balance between demanding to do it your way and allowing the software to dictate process.
This role can be filled by a member of the team, but it will require a lot of time, so they will need to have adequate support. Additionally, this team member will need to spend time learning the ins and outs of the software. Obtaining certification(s) in the software may be needed.