Coordinate your scheduling and client responsibility early. This tip goes back to communicating expectations and creating a plan of accountability. Utilize software tools like workflow and scheduling to enforce your plan. Mail your completed organizers in early January, and utilize available technology resources for your client data (i.e., Goldman Sachs provides online access to clients’ 1099s, etc.).
3. Prepare for Problems
Let’s face it – there will be glitches, so it’s best to expect them and prepare for how you will handle them when they arise. Create a schedule that carves out time to plan for and address potential workload and bottleneck issues. Use real-time scheduling and workload management tools to get an up-to-the-minute view of all work in progress by person and status to see who’s buried in preparation or review, who’s overbooked and who’s under-booked so you can make those on-the-fly capacity planning decisions.
For example, one firm has a weekly meeting between the scheduler, the audit team leader and the tax team leader during which they review issues, identify chunks of time and conflicts, discuss new unexpected business, and locate additional resources. This allows them to gain a seven-week outlook and move work dynamically within the workflow system. Part of the purpose of this meeting is pre-emptive problem solving. It’s possible that you can schedule tax season well in advance, but there will always be issues that come up.
Another firm relies on its workflow software to see clients with 3/15 and 4/15 filing deadlines to quickly view and proactively address any missing information or other issues holding up the client return. Armed with that view, this firm can proactively work with clients and staff to address the bottlenecks.
Of course, having a real-time view of the work also empowers accounts receivable to stay on top of billing for all the returns that went out that week.
4. Digital Work Environment
The specific software applications your firm employs varies according to the size of your firm, the services you offer and perhaps even your culture. I think we can all agree that, in addition to some software basics (MS Office, Adobe), the following tools enable you to work digitally: dual monitors, scanners, workflow system, electronic file storage (DMS or shared network filing tree) and a portal.
Some of these you can still put in place before the upcoming busy season. You don’t have to make a career out of picking a scanner; just get started. Use the resources available to help you make a good selection quickly: consultants, technology-focused publications, networks and associations, peers, AICPA and state society resources, and websites like TotallyPaperless.com.
Now is the time to make sure that your staff knows how to properly use the tools at their disposal. An Adobe refresher and a plug-in toolbar can empower partners and managers to review online.
5. Process Improvement
Adopting paperless technologies and understanding workflow is at the heart of process improvement to attain greater efficiency throughout your practice. In an ideal scenario, you would have time to create a committee, document current processes, identify best practices, optimize for technologies used, map your new workflow, standardize and train across the firm, and automate workflow for a digital environment.
This late in the game, you may have to settle for focusing on your 1040 process or whatever your firm does most and, if time allows, move onto smaller processes. The key here is to question every step so you’re not just doing what you did last year. Your processes should evolve over time. I know one firm that created teams of employees tasked with flow-charting existing processes and recommending improvements. Involving staff members gives you greater insight and gives them ownership of new processes.
Now is not the time for fundamental changes (you’ll have to make that a priority after busy season), but you can address simple modifications that allow you to eliminate redundant loops, valueless steps, and the ever-wasteful search for information. Tightening your process so that you save even 10 to 20 minutes per return (a very conservative goal) can have a real impact on your season if you’re preparing hundreds or even thousands of 1040s.