Ten steps to improve the productivity of your Accounting Department

I have never come across the head of a finance/accounting function (let’s use the generic term Controller, as the title does not matter) who could not use a few more hours in every day.  I am sure that you, or your Controller, could make very good use and create real additional value, if you have just one more hour a day.  And what if that applied to every member of your staff with managerial or administrative responsibilities?  I often find that Controllers and their staff are missing some key tools that would easily enable them to increase their workload by 10, 20 or even up to 30%!  Here are ten ideas that are easy to implement.

Some of these ideas can be implemented without cost. Most are inexpensive.  All of them require a lot less work than you are currently devoting.  In order to evaluate the amount that you are prepared to spend, consider the savings if you don’t hire the extra person that appears to be so desperately needed. What if the Controller had the time to prepare much-needed reports on a more timely basis. A 10% improvement in productivity provides 45 minutes in a standard 7 ½ hour day, to be used to create value.

1.    By far the best value, is installing a second monitor on each desk. Research has shown that output will increase 20 to 30%, according to a New York Times article. I have been using a second monitor for about two years now and am convinced that my productivity improvement exceeds 20%.  As I write this article, I am reviewing articles on the web, without having to minimize this screen, split the screen or switch back and forward; I am also switching from the web on my second screen to keep up to date with timely communication.  A whole new world opens up for Controllers who are able to have their accounting/ERP system on one screen and an Excel sheet on another, or an email in progress while viewing the source data , etc.  There are many assignments that benefit from dual screen usage and at a cost of about $140 (depending on your system), a step that is simple to implement.

2.    Turn off automatic email notification so that you are not disturbed every time you receive a communication. Each time that you are distracted by an incoming email your productivity drops as you lose your train of thought. Unless you are expecting vital information for a task at hand, almost all emails can wait until  you get the opportunity to correspond. To make this change in Microsoft Outlook, select Tools/Options; on the Preferences tab, in the E-mail area, select E-mail Options and in the Message Handling area click on Advanced Email Options. In the message handling area de-select the appropriate boxes (I know this seems complicated but Microsoft buried this, not me!) I am sure you will find it worth the patience to deal with this.

3.    Ensure that your Controller and all accounting staff are well trained on the accounting/ERP system, as required for each position.  I have observed employees processing tasks in ineffective ways, often again and again, being unaware of features that would significantly enhance their productivity.  A good training program goes a long way and people who can figure it out themselves, very often do not figure out the best way to do things.  Even simple systems are complex and often have features that are not easy to find, or obvious.

4.    Provide a manual specific to the task which enables staff to better communicate and achieve their responsibilities.  Also this is your insurance policy for dealing with a crisis when a key employee cannot be at work.  Provide a hard copy of the manual to each employee so that they can make their own notes in a personalized copy, but also have it available on your server for easy updates and accessibility. Another good use of dual screens.

5.    Encourage staff to share and document time saving tips with associates in similar roles or on common programs.

6.    Ensure that you and your staff are properly trained in how to use other office software tools e.g., MS Office programs such as Excel and Outlook.  Just like industry or function specific software mentioned above, many people use these programs, while just scratching the surface of the features available. They often spend far too much time searching for features, or not using features, that would significantly enhance their productivity. In particular, I have been impressed by a course that I and a few of my clients attended, “Working Smart with Outlook”.  The approach covered in this course has become a natural part of my daily work practice to manage the many tasks, appointments and projects that I am required to stay on top of for multiple clients.  This course enables professionals and busy managers to simply “keep track of your life” in a very efficient way.  Any way you do it, make sure that you integrate all the modules of your Personal Information Management software.

7.    Time management is often an issue and much has been written about it.  For those with challenges in this area, it is well worth spending some time reading about it (there are many helpful articles easily accessible by an internet search). Set a goal of implementing one new tactic consistently every week for a month, and then look back and assess what has changed.  If it’s not working, take an honest look at how disciplined you’ve been in your attempt to implement the new behaviour.

8.    There are four keys to making meetings productive:
a.    Set agendas, distribute them in advance and expect everyone to arrive prepared.  The agenda should make the purpose of the meeting clear (convey information, make decisions, etc.) so that each person invited can understand their role at the meeting. Enable people invited to decline to attend if they cannot see how the meeting will meet their needs or how they will contribute. Ensure that wherever possible the agenda is accompanied by relevant information so that attendees can arrive prepared;
b.    Set out rules of engagement, which can vary for different groups. This enables the group to function more effectively and significantly reduces the risk of conflict. In my opinion, the most important rule is to set the expectation that any action that is agreed upon will be carried out within the timeline set and progress reviewed at  the next meeting;
c.    Ensure that the meeting has a time limit and adhere to it (with occasional, not regular, exceptions, where it is really necessary).  The leader, or chair person has a responsibility to keep the meeting on track which in turn facilitates productivity. ;
d.    Ensure that minutes are distributed on a timely basis and that they clearly identify decisions made and actions required with timelines and responsibilities.

9.    Review the procedures in place in your function for efficiency.  When was the last time that you reviewed the methodology for each task for each member of your staff?  There are certain to be ways to streamline processes and often to eliminate those that are redundant. Make continuous improvement your mantra. Improvements in productivity, processes and outputs are often found in the most unusual places, if you are alert to the opportunities and proactive about making the change. It does not have to be done immediately. Merely get into the habit of noting these ideas as a task in your Personal Information Management software for future consideration.

10.    Close your office door when you need time to concentrate or need to finish a project. In many organizations working behind a closed door is frowned upon. However, sometimes it is necessary to work on something for an hour or two without interruption. You should feel comfortable closing your door, ignoring your phone and all electronic devices, while you work on a specific task.  While a closed door can be seen as an affront to some, being open about the need will provide understanding and respect. If you do this two or three times a week, you will find your ability to complete assignments increases significantly.
You probably feel that you already have some of these ten steps under control.  Then take another one and start working on making improvements in that area, today.  If you find yourself saying that you do not have the time to work on any of these ideas, then you almost certainly need to focus on how you set priorities.

Use the time gained to focus on an area where you can create value for the business.

James Phillipson is a Chartered Accountant and a Principal of Mastermind Solutions Inc. with over twenty years experience in large and small businesses.  He has provided financial counselling to his clients since 1996, often in the role of or as a coach to a Controller or Chief Financial Officer.  James has experience in financial roles in a wide variety of businesses and industries.