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Sept 1991

Creative problem solving. (Management of an Accounting Practice)

by Osborne, Jayne E.

    Abstract- Accounting firms are turning to proactive and participatory techniques in problem-solving to convert obstacles into opportunities for staff and management. At the same time, these participatory management techniques allow the staff to form problem-solving skills of their own. Key to the problem-solving technique is the anticipation of these problems. Staffers should be enjoined in pinpointing potential sources of inefficiency and ineffectiveness so as to formulate contingency plans to tackle different situations. Performance appraisals of existing staff, review of office supplies, external services to develop alternative sources for such, and documentation of office procedures can be done prior to the onset of trouble. Sharing problems by delegation of responsibilities across the whole office structure allows for execution of the participatory process.

Solve the Problem Before it


The best time to deal with difficulties is before they turn into dilemmas. Anticipate problems in your firm by asking key staffers to point out potential obstacles to efficiency and effectiveness, then develop contingency plans to handle each potential crisis. You can do this performing an objective review of office operations. Here are three critical areas of practice administration with advice about what you can do before disaster strikes:

1. Personnel. Performance appraisals help pinpoint problems with existing staff. But what happens when sickness sidelines your superstar? Examine each position for cross training opportunities that will help you develop back-up support. As a result, other staff members will be able to fill in to cover absences due to illness or during vacation or peak periods, giving you time to interview and train a replacement while still getting the work out. Cross training reduces your problem potential when a key staffer leaves unexpectedly and also encourages staffers to acquire new skills and abilities that enhance personal and professional growth.

2. Property. Would everyone on your staff know what to do if your computer went down, the photocopy machine went on the fritz, or your phone system wasn't working right? Will your staff know who to call if an emergency occurs when you are out of the office? Review your office resources, supplies and outside services. Develop alternatives for your suppliers, service sources, and in-house equipment.

Create a current directory of all your equipment, and service sources including provider name, address, and telephone number for supplies and service. State the warranty period, if any, on a tag attached to each piece of equipment with the authorized dealer with whom you can obtain service. Your directory, when combined with the tagging process, will minimize the mystery when trying to locate the right service source or an alternative in a crisis. Hint: Log repairs as they happen. When service renewals roll around you will have the facts at your fingertips to negotiate better service.

3. Procedures. Ask staff to document how things get done in your office, include step-by-step written instructions to follow when the person in charge is not available and to reduce training time for new hires. Include sample forms. Give copies to those in charge as well as to people designated to back-up each function. Review documentation annually to keep instructions current. Decide ahead of time what you and your staff will do in an emergency and write it down. Examples: if you plan to turn to an outside service, which one? If you must rely on a neighbor's equipment, who should be contacted? This proactive approach puts problems into proper perspective and pares down panic when problems emerge.

Use the Talent Already There

Most problems have more than one solution. Sometimes, what once worked so well no longer provides the right answers, and you must start over again to search for solutions. Set aside time for your staff to periodically brainstorm potential problems and generate as many alternative solutions as possible.

Don't discount any suggestions--you are looking for quantity, not quality at this point. Include a mix of employees, supervisors and managers in your discussions. Even those outside the immediate group often provide objective insights to the issue. One benefit of brainstorming is that ideas build on each other. What may not solve the whole problem often generates possiblities when combined with someone else's suggestion.

When you have at least three alternatives, test out validity based on which works best, most quickly, at the least cost and has long-term benefits. Weigh the risks and benefits of each suggestion against alternatives. Analyze what could go wrong. Regardless of which strategy you select, try a dry run with your selection. Play the "what if' game to explore what could go wrong and to make sure you have a solution that will work.

Monitor the results of your solution. If problems persist, start the cycle over again to explore other alternatives. After you work out all the bugs it's time to fine-tune and adjust. You'll also want to check occasionally to be sure the plan is accomplishing the results you intended and not creating other problems as a side effect.

Delegate, Develop, and Share

In an emergency, your first instinct is to handle everything yourself. But that could be a big mistake. A good manager knows how, when and what to delegate. Spread out administrative responsibility and authority whenever possible. After the dust settles, ask yourself why the problem occurred. Together with your staff, determine the causes and develop a plan of action to prevent the same problem from cropping up again. It's a great way to encourage self-reliance and create team spirit.

Sharing problems not only reduces your own burden but also allows others to participate in problem solving. This makes it much easier for the employee to "buy in" to the new ideas and solutions and fosters personal growth. As a side benefit, these proactive and highly participatory supervisory strategies help your staff develop individual problem-solving skills. You, as supervisor, minimize routine interruptions and free up time to concentrate on other, more important supervisory issues.

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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