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A continuous improvement program for the busy season

Busy Season--Are You Ready?

By Jayne E. Osborne

Preparing for the next busy season at the close of the current busy season has its advantages. Based on establishing a continuous improvement program, the author discusses some of the why, when, and how of getting ready.

If not already done, planning for the next busy season is long overdue. Many firms begin preparation during the month of May. Surveying the firm's partners and employees immediately after the close of the tax season, while problems and triumphs remain fresh in everyone's mind, works best. That way, everyone has adequate time to review results, develop action plans, and implement change.

However, it's not too late to make necessary adjustments to improve morale and boost profits for the 1997 season.

Obtain Input

Partners and administrators often assume total responsibility for firm management. They do not, however, nor should they be expected to, have all the answers. Those closest to the day-to-day operation of the firm are often best suited to develop alternatives. Including younger staff members--who may otherwise resent total exclusion from the decision-making that results in policy or procedure changes impacting the way they work--in pre-busy season planning increases their commitment to changes necessary for improving client service. Representatives from each staff level in the firm should be asked to participate in a meeting to identify what policies and procedures worked during the last busy season and which ones need to be eliminated, updated, or replaced to reduce frustration levels and enhance productivity and morale.

Sometimes, what is important to one person in the firm is not a priority for someone else. A way to help establish priorities is to conduct a written or verbal survey to elicit comments from partners and staff to identify strengths and opportunities for meaningful improvement. The responses should be combined with those of clients and referral sources to identify strengths and opportunities for improvement within the firm's existing structure. For example an action plan such as the following can be very helpful:

* Solicit employees' opinions to identify the three most satisfying and most frustrating things about their jobs. Use this to focus improvement efforts on those issues of critical importance to the largest number of people.

* Ask clients to list the top three reasons they selected your firm for tax or accounting services. Emphasize these key elements when orientating new hires and during pre-busy season planning sessions, to improve client retention.

* Question referral sources about the reasons they would or would not refer colleagues to your firm. Use this information to plan busy season staffing and to pinpoint development of expertise necessary to meet the needs of your target market.

* Ask staff members to suggest topics for in-house CPE sessions and to indicate program format preferences to improve satisfaction levels.

The answers should be used to determine priorities for the coming busy season and to focus improvement efforts during the coming months.

Analyze Data

Statistics developed as a result of activities during prior busy seasons are the starting point to come up with a realistic action plan for the coming months, for example, the total number of work hours and percent of chargeable hours for each employee, and the numbers of tax returns and financial statements processed during each month of the tax season.

This information should be organized chronologically by week and month during the next busy season to develop a game plan for staffing and support services. The data can be used to pinpoint which weeks warrant the use of temporary tax preparers, the need to establish an evening shift for word processing or billing to reduce overtime expense during critical periods, and when to rent additional printers or photocopy equipment to meet the increased demand for resources. By analyzing this data, management can also identify firm members who require closer supervision to improve utilization rates, additional training prior to the coming season, and additional coaching to achieve maximum results.

Get Everyone Involved

The information gathered should be shared with everyone in the firm and the results of internal and external surveys, and data relating to the volume and type of work performed by person, should be published. Viewing a comparative analysis of performance results will often create a healthy competition between professionals and let everyone know the basis for bonus distributions, if and when they take place.

Staff members should be given adequate time to digest the information and then asked for suggestions to address issues that warrant change. Suggestions can be anonymously accepted if participants prefer. It's less important to determine the source of a comment than it is to receive constructive suggestions necessary to pinpoint the need for change. This approach encourages participation from a wider range of potential respondents who otherwise may resist participation for fear of failure or retaliation.


The representatives from each sector of the practice should discuss the statistical data and survey results prior to the coming season. The discussion should attempt to balance the views of partners, managers, seniors, semi-seniors, juniors, paraprofessionals, and support staff. Each member of the firm has a vested interest in its success. Therefore, it makes sense to encourage everyone to participate in the process. Often, participants with differing priorities combine to develop a plan of action most likely to meet the needs of a wide range of firm personnel.

All participants should be encouraged to voice their opinions and make suggestions for change. Three meetings, scheduled one week apart, can be effective in getting everyone's ideas on the table and challenging existing policies or procedures that fail to meet the needs of firm personnel or clients. If the meeting turns into a "gripe session," the facilitators should encourage participant suggestions to address the issues. Members of the managerial team should not be afraid to admit that they do not have all the answers and that they depend on everyone for input in order to come up with the right solutions.

Remain Open-Minded

Dismissing a suggestion or failing to acknowledge someone's idea can spell disaster for morale and commitment levels within the firm. One negative remark or nonverbal gesture when someone suggests something unusual or nontraditional can cut off communication and access to a wealth of ideas which may prove helpful to the firm.

An idea that sounds like it would never work or a request for change that appears unreasonable should not be squelched. These comments often spark further discussions which result in a feasible solution. To ensure the best possible result, someone in the group should be assigned to record ideas as individuals introduce them. All participants should be instructed to withhold judgment until everyone has an opportunity to voice an opinion.

The facilitator is an important ingredient to a successful program. The facilitator should--

* develop the agenda,

* encourage all group members to voice their opinion,

* control members who dominate discussions,

* keep discussions focused on targeted topics,

* summarize agreements, and

* assign follow-up responsibilities.

The role of facilitator should be rotated during each session to give several participants an opportunity to assume a leadership role and contribute to the process.

Consider Nothing Sacred

Because the firm has functioned in a certain way, or has continued to enforce a particular policy or procedure for many years is not enough reason to justify continuing the policy or procedure if results fail to meet expectations. Management may have a legitimate reason to function in a particular fashion. To progress, however, the firm needs to challenge traditional assumptions on an annual basis to determine if they can still be justified. The pre-busy season review process is a useful way to question all policies and procedures and eliminate, replace, or revise those which no longer apply.

In a partnership, where members of the management team typically stake out rights to separate territories within the practice, challenging firm policies and procedures may prove difficult. Typically, individual partners come together with their own way of doing things and insist on maintaining the status quo. However, if everyone remains willing to challenge the merits of his or her own policies and procedures and remains open to alternatives designed to improve results, everyone in the firm benefits. To ensure this type of support in the firm, partners and managers of each sector of the practice will want to meet before beginning to discuss problems and exploring alternatives. This preliminary meeting will elicit their support and confirm their willingness to entertain suggestions. If someone resists, he or she should be asked to present facts which support continuation of existing management methods.

Select the Best Option

Each idea or suggestion for change should be individually evaluated. The collective experience and skill of all group members should be used to challenge the suggestion and determine why it would or would not work in your firm. The group's goal is to rank alternatives in priority order. This enables the firm to simultaneously develop a first choice as well as a fall-back position.

If firm members remain uncertain about the impact of the change or individuals resist new or innovative suggestions, a signal is being sent to move more slowly. Two approaches may lessen the impact of radical change:

* Implement alternatives on a probationary basis. For example, if the group suggests the firm adopt a casual dress code during busy season, agree to try it for thirty days. If no one abuses the policy and exercises good judgment, consider extending the policy throughout the rest of the season.

* Limit the initial scope of the plan. For example, if staff members request individual printers or their own telephone and management disagrees, agree to install an additional piece of equipment for one department or one of the firm's work groups to see if it improves efficiency.

Both of these alternatives approaches give everyone an opportunity to get comfortable with change--to discover if new ideas will work before adopting them over an extended period of time or if suggestions make sense for everyone in the firm.

Document Decisions

Conclusions the group reaches about the need for change should be recorded based upon survey feedback and observations, as should the steps group members suggest are necessary for improvement. For example, if group members determine that the firm needs to select new due-date monitoring software, the steps may include--

* developing a wish list of software capabilities the firm requires;

* identifying software providers who meet the firm's criteria;

* collecting data regarding the scope and limits of software capabilities and costs;

* testing software through the use of demo disks;

* summarizing results; and

* making recommendations to management.

Indicating the interim steps necessary to accomplish the change serves to lessen the impact of overwhelming projects such as selecting new time and billing software. It also allows more firm members to participate in the process. For example, one person may be asked to collect data, while someone else may be assigned to test software capabilities, and yet another may be asked to present findings to management.

While documenting decisions relating to what the firm needs to do to improve and how the group plans to implement such changes, the anticipated impact that such plans may have on other members of the firm should be explored. Part of the process is to identify those individuals who must modify their habits, take on new roles or abandon traditional behaviors which may already been well established. For example, if group members decide to implement paperless, daily time reporting to improve billing efficiency, it will be important that all firm members get computer access and know how to use the software.

Resistant individuals should be met with privately to uncover concerns and anticipate objections before introducing a change. Without full support of everyone involved, implementation of change will prove difficult, if not impossible. However, remember that full agreement on the need for change nor on the method of implementation is not needed. You do, however, need full support of the decision to change. This means that everyone in the firm, even if they do not agree, must support the change effort. This will mean laying the groundwork for cultivating everyone's commitment before introducing any change.

Inform Others

Since most changes will have an effect on other firm members it will be necessary to get them to "buy-into" the group's plans. It is advisable to share the results of the group's decision-making process and ask people to voice concerns and to identify potential problems before taking action. For example, the group's suggestion to change the firm's word processing software may make it easier for accountants now required to process correspondence using laptop computers while in the field. However, such a change may have a significant impact on the way word processors create, revise, or print financial statements.

Resistance to change often occurs when management delivers requests for cooperation in the form of a demand, rather than presented as a way of improving an individual's personal efficiency and effectiveness. Before meeting with those firm members impacted by the group's plans for change, the group should know the answer to the question: What's in it for those affected?

In order to cooperate, most people will need to know what benefit they can expect to derive from complying with a request to change their behavior. For example, asking a manager to take on coaching responsibilities for a new hire may make him or her uncomfortable. The person may even avoid scheduling meetings or fail to complete the necessary documentation the firm has agreed to prepare to track goals and problems. In this case, management must find a way to make this change meaningful to the manager, or the cycle of avoidance will continue. Suggestions include--

* Offering to exchange nonchargeable hours devoted to coaching of new hires for additional CPE programs of their individual choice.

* Making the identification and achievement of new hires goals a determining
factor in manager/supervisor bonus

It is important to build incentives into the process that individuals will find meaningful. Failure to discuss plans with those most likely to be impacted by a change may create unnecessary resistance and slow down implementation of changes.

Assign Responsibility

The person responsible for success of the program must now bring the program to fruition by asking group members to examine the action plan and volunteer for follow-through and requiring individuals or teams to spell-out interim steps they plan to take in order to accomplish assigned goals. For example, if someone elects to take responsibility for re-designing the firm's tax return processing sheet, plans for completion of this assignment should include discussions with word processors who are responsible for designing the firm's internal forms.

The group should jointly develop reasonable due dates for each step of the process. This helps keep plans on track toward completion. The commitments each participant makes regarding his or her role in the process should be documented and distributed.

Share Accountability

When firms choose to thrive instead of merely attempting to survive in today's competitive marketplace, everyone shares ownership of both responsibilities and results. This means that each firm member is willing to accept responsibility for a portion of the pre-busy season analysis.

Everyone also is willing to be held accountable for this process designed to review, challenge, and revise policies and procedures. Therefore, partners and managers should not be expected to do it all. In fact, it is preferable to assign parts of the preseason plan to each member of the firm. This approach helps to enhance teamwork and improve commitment levels in each sector of the practice. Those responsible for each step in the process should be asked to report the status of assigned projects at regularly scheduled follow-up sessions.

Reference to documents generated during prior group discussions will demonstrate that everyone accepts full responsibility for implementing their part of the group's plan. If someone fails to fulfill their responsibility, he or she should be asked to provide justification to the group, and present alternative plans and new due dates for compliance. Once again, agreements should be
documented so that everyone understands his or her role in the firm's plan for change.

Recognize and Reward Effort

One Midwestern CPA firm offers all firm members the opportunity to earn "shares" in a monthly lottery drawing. Each time someone makes a suggestion to improve the practice, the managing partner rewards that person with one-half of an internal lottery ticket. All tickets are entered into a drawing the firm holds once a month for a $100 cash bonus. This kind of program helps to recognize and reward contributions to the improvement process.

When a suggestion succeeds or new equipment/procedures work, the news is shared with everyone in the firm. Monthly updates regarding the progress of the firm's plans for change via e-mail or the firm's internal newsletter are useful. Credit should be given for accomplishments to all individuals responsible for achieving original objectives. The accomplishments of one individual will spur healthy competition and encourage others to get involved in the process.

If an idea flounders or fails, those involved should be met with privately to discuss obstacles to success and focus efforts on generating alternatives, not on placing blame. The group's original list of alternatives should be consulted and another option selected--which the group previously suggested. If discussions fail to generate reasonable alternatives, the original group may have to reconvene to generate additional suggestions based their new knowledge acquired during the first attempt at solving the problem.


In reality, planning for the next tax season never ends. Management should encourage planning as part of the firm's ongoing quality improvement program, even during peak production months. Making changes between March 15 and April 15 is difficult, however, this is the critical period in the year when problems normally surface. If there is not adequate time to initiate changes during these hectic weeks, at least the problems should be documented as staff encounters them. After busy season, this documentation can be used to stimulate discussion about what needs to change prior to next year in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

When firms adopt a continuous improvement policy, they tap into the talent of all firm members, connect with the real needs of clients they serve, and enlist referral sources to champion the firm's cause. Creating a steady stream of creative ideas from everyone in the firm helps to ensure that no one in the firm falls victim to complacency--the attitude that makes the difference between
firms that succeed and ones which
merely survive in this highly competitive field. *

Jayne E. Osborne, M.A., is a Nutley, NJ-based certified administrative manager and management advisory service provider for the profession and private industry. She has over 20 years of hands-on administrative and management experience with CPA firms and consults with firms in the United States and Canada. She is a nationally known speaker and management trainer on topics addressing human resource and business management and is the author of the American Management Association text entitled Shared Leadership: Strategy for Success.

The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.

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