You finally have the 2015 year closed, and your CPA firm has completed its annual audit and tax work. Now, how can you make 2016 a much more stress-free year?
Our professionals have created a “Top 10” list just for you. Even if all 10 of these suggestions don’t work for you, we hope you can take away at least a few tips to make your 2016 run as effectively as a well-oiled machine.
#1: Get organized
Easier said than done, right? But seriously, this could be the one thing you might have been putting off for months that could lead to the highest reduction in your department’s waste (and, in turn, generate increased productivity). Think of organization in two different ways: paper organization and digital organization.
As we continue to evolve into the digital world, there is still a need for some paper trails. Hopefully, however, your department has reduced the use of paper and thus the need for bulky storage cabinets and large piles all over the office. Take a look at what you really need to retain on paper and how you can more effectively store that information for quick retrieval.
The same goes for digital files. We continue to add folders and subfolders to our computers to store our files. How often do we go through that storage system and “clean up” files we no longer need? Also, take a look at how you are storing files. Does it make sense? Do you need to keep a separate file for each month, or can you move old files to a different location after a set amount of time? Should some files be stored on the network for everyone to access? These questions and others should be answered periodically so you can assess the best use of space on your computer.
#2: Let your accounting software work for you
Perhaps you think of your accounting software the same way you do that old Tupperware container in your refrigerator that hasn’t moved for three weeks—you work around it and try to avoid opening it at all costs! Remember, while your accounting software might not be perfect, it likely has several features you can utilize to become more efficient and effective in your role.
First, utilize those automatic monthly entries. You probably use them for things like prepaids and accruals, but think outside the box. Are there other areas that you could use the feature for? How about your monthly debt payment? Of course principal and interest are different each month, but if you know the annual amount for each, you could set up an automatic entry and record the monthly interest on more of a “straight line” basis. You may not match up to the bank each month, but at the end of the year, you should be right on. What other accounts can you set up as automatic?
Hopefully you are also utilizing your accounting system’s ability to manage a budget. Budgets can be a powerful tool, but it can be quite cumbersome if you have to key monthly financial data into an Excel spreadsheet just to compare it to the budget. Most systems allow you to enter and manage a budget internally and produce reports periodically to compare actual results to budgeted numbers.
Budgets aren’t the only tool you should be utilizing your accounting system for. There’s also the bank reconciliation tool your software has embedded in it. Are you using it? By manually keeping an Excel spreadsheet to perform a bank reconciliation, you are creating an additional administrative burden that might be unnecessary.
Excel is a great tool, but there are times when we overuse Excel and create unnecessary schedules and reconciliations that your accounting software is likely equipped to perform for you.
Finally, make sure you take the time to update your accounting system periodically. Some of your frustrations may come from the fact that you are not running the latest and greatest version.
#3: Make a list of month-end close procedures
A large portion of our monthly responsibility relates to that sometimes dreaded month-end close process. We suggest taking some time to analyze this process. Before you start making recommendations to change things, however, the first step is to completely understand the process. This can be done by making a checklist of steps that need to be completed in order to close out the month.
This might be a project that cannot be completed by one person alone. Hopefully you have multiple people who are contributing to the monthly close process. Be sure to include their duties and responsibilities in the checklist so you have a complete list compiled.
#4: Know that timing is everything
Now that you have a list of “duties” that must be performed in order for the year-end close to be finalized, it is time to start analyzing the process. Look at the duties and ask yourself which should be performed first and which items need to wait until later in the process. One factor you might not have thought about is whether a few of the duties can actually be performed before the month is actually complete.
Another thing to consider is materiality in relation to timing. Do you need to analyze all accounts on a monthly basis, or are there some accounts you can review on a quarterly basis? This analysis should be based on the risk of error with that account and the volume and dollar value of the respective transactions in that account. If you have an account, such as prepaid insurance, with very little risk, very few transactions, and not very many dollars, maybe you could consider performing a formal reconciliation of that account on a quarterly or semiannual basis rather than a monthly basis.
Obviously this is not something you would want to implement on a cash account (high risk, large number of transactions, and large dollars going in and out throughout the month). However, if you could eliminate some accounts from your monthly reconciliation list, your process could become a little more manageable.
#5: Realize you don’t have to do everything
Using the aforementioned “list” in #3 above, consider examining whether the right people are performing the risk tasks. Delegation is a powerful thing. Obviously you would want to delegate based on risk. While you might keep the higher-risk accounts, it is probably time to think about utilizing the staff you have to help with the other tasks.
Like many accounting departments in small businesses, you may have a very limited staff to pull from. In fact, you might be the only one in the accounting department. Don’t let that stop you. Think outside the box. I have a few clients who have begun using the receptionist for certain low-risk monthly close tasks. This can be advantageous on multiple levels: while you are delegating these tasks off your (full) plate, you are also engaging the receptionist. You might be surprised how much they actually appreciate being able to make a greater contribution to the company, and in my experience, they have taken their new responsibility very seriously and have produced very accurate results.
Other “outside the box” thinking might be to involve a board member in this process. Again, you will want to match their skill set with the task at hand, but this could be another way to not only ease the administrative burden, but at the same time strengthen your internal control structure by eliminating certain duties that create problems with segregation of duties.
#6: Make it a game
Now that you have this month-end close process working efficiently, you can up the ante a little. I had one client who used a stuffed monkey called the “adjustments monkey.” When the auditors identified an area in which an adjustment was needed, the stuffed monkey was delivered to that department or person’s desk. While it was all in good fun, you would be surprised at how few adjustments they had the next year.
You could use a similar program with the month-end close process. Whoever gets their assigned tasks completed last would get the monkey (or other stuffed animal) for the rest of the month. This could be a lighthearted way to increase the speed of the closing process. You might be surprised at the results you see!
#7: Document policies and procedures
Many companies have very good policies and procedures in place to function on a day-to-day basis and prepare accurate and timely financial data. Preparing accurate and timely data is so important to the management of a company because it allows the opportunity to respond and react to situations as quickly as possible. Time is money, right? Unfortunately, these same companies which have great policies and procedures fail to document these policies and procedures. If one key person were to leave, the entire company would be in flux. This is why it is critical to have policies and procedures written down and saved. If your company has a documented policy and procedures manual, assign someone to analyze and update that manual at least annually. Employee turnover is something we often neglect to think about, but it is inevitable in most organizations and can be planned for.
The other thing to consider in this area is cross-training. The more people you have who are capable of performing the functions of others, the more flexibility your organization has. This will also allow you to transition smoothly through times of employee turnover.
#8: Don’t let little problems become big problems
While you are probably familiar with the song from the Disney movie Frozen, “Let it Go,” you don’t necessarily want to take this approach when you notice small differences and errors in your company’s financial data. If you take that approach, you are creating an unnecessary risk that you will let it grow into a larger problem. This is an area we suggest investing time in upfront rather than trying to look back after the fact and determine when and where the problem started.
Small problems are always easier to diagnose and fix. Also, by digging into these items on the front end, you might identify other problems and risks that you can avoid in the future.
#9: Take a fresh look
A client recently had four different payrolls: one for weekly hourly associates, one for biweekly hourly associates, one for management, and one for biweekly salaried associates. It was like that for years. One day, I asked the million-dollar question, “Why?” Amazingly, they didn’t really have an answer (other than, “That’s the way we have always done it.”). They discussed it internally and eventually made the decision to move everyone to the same biweekly payroll. They have since noted large savings in time and money.
If you are constantly tracking down data for multiple payrolls, maybe it is time to make the switch to simplifying your payroll process. What other procedures do you think your company is doing only because “that’s the way we have always done it”?
#10: Ask your CPA
While you prefer to handle all of your accounting-related issues internally, don’t be afraid to reach out to your CPA if you encounter an unusual situation or if you are planning on making some substantial changes to your policies and procedures. A fresh look from an outsider can sometimes be very beneficial.
Again, not all 10 of these tips may pertain to your company, but surely you were able to take away a few ideas that can directly help you and your company. At the very least, the article has, we hope, heightened your awareness that there might be better ways to do things. By constantly analyzing the process by which you operate, you can identify areas of weakness that can be improved. Each of these process improvements should not only lead directly to saving time and money, but also help you to drastically reduce your stress at work in 2016.