Scheduling during the busy season. (includes related articles) (Panel Discussion)by Feinman, Robert
And so, the challenge for the CPA firm is to get the work done during the busy season without significally increasing the permanent staff, while keeping clients and other users of financial information happy and the quality of work at high levels.
Recognizing that this is no easy task, The CPA Journal assembled a group of partners and administrators of local practice units whose responsibilities include seeing that the work assignments get scheduled in an efficient manner. We asked Edwin N. Walley, CPA, Director of Personnel and Administration at Martin Rosen & Company and known for his creative and innovative approach to dealing with practice problems, to serve as moderator for the panel. The panel consists of Allen R. Dorkin, CPA, Managing Partner of DDK & Company; Ted M. Felix, CPA, Partner of Trien, Rosenberg, Felix, Rosenberg, Barr & Weinberg; Robert Feinman, CPA, Shareholder of Rashba & Pokart, P.C.; Abby Lucrezia, Direct of Human Resources with Lopez, Edwards, Frank & Co.; Deanna Saltzman, Director of Human Resources with Cornick, Garber & Sandler; and Michael D. Tucker, CPA, sole proprietor.
Edwin Walley: We are here to talk about scheduling in the busy season. Represented around this table is a range of firm sizes and types of practices. By each of discussing how we schedule, we hope to give The CPA Journal's readers some tips and insights on doing the job more effectively and efficiently. I would like to begin by having each of you describe the system you use for scheduling.
Allen Dorkin: We schedule about 40 people in accounting, auditing and tax. The system is built around a budget book maintained on a computerized database. Scheduling information for each client, consisting of monthly budgeted hours by staff by task, is entered into the system. The information can be sorted by person to give the full work load and identify over- and under-scheduling in a particular period. We like to budget each person for 1,500 client hours.
The input to the system is a new client data entry sheet which the partner, manager or in-charge completes. Periodically, we compare the actual time to the budget and make the necessary adjustments; so it is a living budget.
When we do a sort by client, we have totals by month which help us to manage our staff utilization. It tells us the level of staff we need in peak periods and directs us in attempting to reschedule work and staff to achieve a better balance between available staff and client needs.
But, to do the actual day-to-day scheduling we enter the information from the database system into an electronic spreadsheet, which we maintain on a rolling three-month basis. The level of detail is each business day during the period and includes how each professional's time will be spent: vacations, holidays, training, jury duty, you name it. For example, we could go to the print-out and see what each person is doing today.
On the 15th of each month, each professional submits a form that shows what they think they will be doing for the next month. This is then compared to what we show in the spreadsheet. This assures us that we know what really is happening and that the work we plan to get done will in fact get done. This is the people part that makes the system work well. If the report shows that a job will not be handled as planned, the partners and managers work out a solution.
Ted Felix: We schedule between 45 to 50 people, all of whom are involved in accounting and auditing tasks. Although we have looked at computerized systems, we feel there is no substitute for a pencil and paper system, which gives you in a snapshot type perspective the scheduled activities of the whole group. I have yet to see any computerized approach that can do that. It's quite simple. We have staff people listed down the left column and two weeks of days on the top across to the right. The partner, manager, or supervisor who is responsible for the job sits with the scheduler, and schedules whomever they would like for the engagement who is not already assigned. If for some reason the person wanted for a particular time is already assigned, the partner, manager, or supervisor must approach the person who has beaten him or her to the punch and bargain for what the staff wanted. Those that plan ahead and meet with the scheduler first have an easier time of it.
At the point that the schedule fills up and there are problems satisfying all the needs, I step in and challenge some of the staffing by comparing time assigned to the budgeted hours. And, of course, I know the people, I know who schedules on the heavy side and who schedules on the light side, and I make adjustments accordingly. I also review the individual schedules of each staff person to be sure each person is getting an appropriate mix of work.
Deanna Saltzman: I schedule about 25 to 30, both audit and tax. The basic key to scheduling, whether formal or informal is communication. With our management services people, we devised a very simple system using an electronic spreadsheet, which provides the means for scheduling by client, level of staff, and time period. The input to the full year's spreadsheet is a budget form, which contains scheduling information by work category and staff level along with the number of days or hours needed. Last year's information is also entered and significant differences between this year's budget and last year's actual are explained. I also produce a weekly spreadsheet for distribution to all partners and managers. It has the number of hours available each day by individual, that can be contrasted to the actual hours of work scheduled. This way we are aware of staff availability. Throughout the week, changes in schedules are made based on current needs and an ever moving target of client demands. I basically work on a rolling three-week time frame, the current week plus the next two.
Robert Feinman: We schedule approximately 25 people, but not the tax department. We do everything by hand. An administrative person maintains a record of the services we provide each client and when the work is done. A month before the date that the services are to be performed, the in-charge submits a staff request form to the partner for approval and submission to the scheduler. The form shows the time needed by staff person or level and the week in which the work is to be done. The scheduler works with a three-month manual spreadsheet using a weekly unit of accountability.
If there are problems, the scheduler speaks to the partners involved to work out solutions.
Abby Lucrezia: I take care of the staffing of about 80 professionals. The bulk of my busy season planning gets done in September. In late August, I request that the staff submit a schedule of year-end and tax season requirements.
We use a computer system developed by an outside consultant. The option on the menu that I use to enter information is "visual scheduling," which displays on the screen individual staffing detail in three-week intervals.
By using this scheduling mode, I can see visually whether there are any conflicts. If there is a conflict, I explore options based on alternative dates and then discuss the proposed solution with the people involved. We always try to reach some sort of compromise.
The forms are entered on an ongoing basis for each staff person for each week with a unique client number. Every Thursday I print out a weekly report which shows the assignments for the following week. The system is on a network, so that if at any time someone wishes to see how they have been scheduled, they can enter the system and take a look without interrupting me. They cannot, however, alter the data.
I keep a print-out of last year's actual time to help me schedule for the upcoming year and keep every one honest and from overbooking.
Michael D. Tucker: My firm consists of myself and 3 other professionals. I am the only CPA. Most of my work is non-recurring because I do a lot of litigation consulting. I've developed an electronic spreadsheet in which I put the staff across the top and the assignments down the left. I put the major obligations in first and then juggle the rest among the staff. I have a spreadsheet for each month and operate about one month ahead.
Edwin: I consider the scheduling of our people as one of the most important areas of my contribution to the firm. This involves the coordination of approximately 60 people. I directly schedule the accounting staff while our tax partner does the same for the tax staff. He and I work closely together.
In regard to the managers, I assign them a client load, and they submit an annual schedule of their own time in days per month. I evaluate it to see that it appears to be reasonable and that the work is spread appropriately among the managers, while at the same time taking into consideration their individual fields of expertise. It's a helpful tool when deciding to whom new work should be assigned when changing manager assignments or handling the promotion of a manager to partner. On a more current basis, each audit manager submits to me a three-week projection (see exhibit 1), setting forth his or her own schedule for the next three weeks: the first week contains detail for each day, the second week by client with the days required, and the third week by client with no particular time allocation. This is helpful in enabling the managers to plan their time and in allowing me to monitor their priorities.
The main tool, however, for all my scheduling is a manually completed form for each quarter. It shows on a week-by-week basis the client assignments for each person. Periodically, I post to the schedule what the person actually did, so it is both a projection and an historical record.
A second level of detail is a weekly schedule which shows for each day in the week what each person will be working on. I use an oak tag folder with the current week on the left and the next week on the right.
The basis for assigning people is a staff request form for each job (see Exhibit 2). It is approved by the partner and lists the staff requested either by name or by level. The unit of measure for the form is number of days. If a specific person is requested for a slot, a "reason box" must be checked off at the bottom of the form. If the job will take more than one week, it is supported by a functional budget.
Michael: I am hearing that many of you do not use budget forms to schedule, whereas some do. In my firm, budgets are not practicable. For those that do, how do you deal with the conflict of budget requests, which may have been influenced by how much time the partner wants to spend on a job, versus the reality of the actual time to do the job?
Deanna: Past experience provides the basis for making adjustments to the schedule to take the biases out. You soon learn who budgets on the high side and who may be overly protecting themselves--by hoarding staff--from the disaster that seldom occurs.
Ted: For those of you that have budget-based systems, don't you have difficulty getting the budgets, especially on the smaller jobs.
Deanna: We require and receive budget forms on engagements. We utilize two types of budget forms. For the smaller engagements, just hours or days is all that is needed. If budgets are to be used as the main scheduling tool, the concept must have the backing of the managing partner. I stand behind the policy that no engagement starts that does not have a budget that is approved and signed by the engagement partner.
Edwin: When scheduling staff in the busy season, there will inevitably be conflicts. Partners and managers want the best people. What about conflicts?
Abby: First, I try to discourage people from requesting the same staff for all their jobs all of the time. Second, I try to follow the advice I heard around a luncheon table, perhaps with you Ed, that when conflicts appear, don't panic and don't try to resolve them immediately. Let time work for you. Many factors will be tugging and pulling at the schedule: staff illness, clients not ready, snow storms, and the like, which will cause changes to the schedule and solve some conflicts and create others. It is best to save the panic until the time for the work to be actually done is closer at hand.
Compromising becomes extremely important. People have to remember what it is like to be in a jam and be willing to work together to do what is best for the firm. For example, we have two big jobs that are geographically close together. At one point this past busy season the two jobs shared one senior.
Robert: Seven of our nine partners handle clients involving audit and accounting services. When the work schedule for February to April is prepared, it looks like a disaster waiting to happen. It appears that it is impossible for us to meet all our deadlines. But, somehow, it all works out. Every Friday morning during the three-month period, the seven partners meet to go over the schedule for the next week or so. We make whatever adjustments--switch a person, share another--to get the work done. The important part is that we are all there. Outside of that three-month period, conflicts are resolved by the two partners getting together to work out a solution.
Deanna: There are always conflicts. They are inevitable. We have to set priorities. Each partner has the responsibility to do what's best for his or her clients, while my goal is to do what is best for the firm. If we can't work out a satisfactory solution, then the managing partner is brought in to resolve the conflict. It is he who can make the decision that is in the best interests of the firm.
Michael: The nature of litigation consulting is such that we are constantly interrupted with immediate needs. For example, we may get an urgent request for information for an attorney because there is a motion before the court. The way I try to resolve conflicts is with the client. I speak to the client, calm him or her down, explain that we may have to make an adjustment, and remind him or her how we responded to an urgent need in the past. I find that being forthright about the situation usually works. And, sometimes, if two matters are equally important, I will ask an associate, not with my firm, to step in and help until I am able to return.
Edwin: Because of what I call my February 1 schedule, I have a level of confidence that all client needs will be met. It lists each person with their classification and salary amount as of last February 1, grouped by level and department. I update the information periodically, always contrasting the present information to the prior February 1 situation. I keep a running tally of clients gained and lost, as well as significant changes in the work expected to be performed for existing clients, and use this to adjust to manpower needs for my next year's targeted February 1 levels.
And, so, with the right staffing complement, I feel that conflicts can be worked out. It takes compromise and competent management.
When I prepare quarterly schedules, I try to work out any conflicts on my own by consulting with the people involved and by using my knowledge gained from having been there before. Around January 15, a week before the busy season begins, I meet with partners as a group and go over the schedule for the full busy season.
During the third week in January, we begin to meet on Thursday evenings. I give out the schedule for the next two weeks and a listing of the conflicts and problems. We sit down and resolve them as best we can among ourselves. We continue these meetings for the remainder of the busy season.
Ted: We take a different approach. Our philosophy is to encourage as much forward planning as possible. We promote that policy by saving if you schedule that person first, you got him. If someone else needs him or her for a given day, you have to work it out with that person. This results in people scheduling early, and it promotes a camaraderie among the managers and supervisors because sooner or later each will be looking for or owe a favor. In these times conflicts will be more common as we all know. We also encourage a shift in the delegation of work. In the past, all the work tended to get pushed down to the lowest level. Being much leaner now, we encourage the senior people to jump in and fill any void. For example, if the senior can't do it, maybe the manager can. And, if the manager can't do it, maybe the partner will have to do it. This way we are pushing the chargeable hours of everyone to higher levels. Everyone becomes more productive, the clients see the higher level people more often, and everyone benefits.
Deanna: Aren't you creating problems by having managers and supervisors work out their own solutions? They may not see the big picture, and the more aggressive manager may be successful with regard to his or her clients but to the overall detriment of the firm? Also, is the person that first gets someone, using that person in the best interests of the firm?
Ted: I provide oversight to the whole process. I look at what has been done and make corrections to obvious misuse of staff. Also, this process is carried out within a set of rules that tends to keep things under control. Because the process encourages early scheduling, I get to know our problems and manpower needs well in advance. Then, I can take the necessary corrective action to resolve problems.
Allen: Under our computerized budget system, every client and every staff person is always scheduled for the year. What's in the system takes precedence. When conflicts arise, I apply all the concepts discussed here: who was here first, the overall picture, hoarding of staff, and that people are being used at their appropriate levels.
Edwin: Now that our staffing is resolved and in place, we have to get the work done during the busy season. I would like to discuss the special work schedules we all use. Exercising the moderator's prerogative I will start off by explaining what we do.
Beginning about the last week in January, we expand to a minimum 50- hour work week for all our professionals. We all work the same two evenings and all day Saturday until 4:30 p.m. On the days we work late, we take no meal break, but have refreshments brought in at about 6 p.m. With the fixed work schedule, there is never any question as to what is expected and there are no surprises when I look at the time reports as to how much time each person has actually worked. Our clients know our schedule and many have adjusted their work schedule to blend with ours.
During the early part of the busy season I call on the tax department to help staff my accounting and auditing engagements. Later on, the situation gets reversed: I use the audit staff to prepare tax returns.
Allen: We also operate on a fixed schedule similar to Ed's firm. All professionals are expected to maintain that schedule, beginning with the third weekend in January.
Abby: Our work week is 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. during tax season and on Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Early in tax season we expand to one or two nights to 7 p.m., based on work load. As we get closer to April 15, we work a maximum of four nights until 7 p.m. and Saturdays. Everyone works the same hours, including partners. Partners never ask our people to do something they won't do themselves.
Michael: We have no fixed overtime schedule during tax season; I do require everyone in on Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. They work overtime during the week, on an as needed basis, to get the work done. I give them a total number of hours to achieve. I am there most of time.
Bob: Two years ago we used to work two nights a week and Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. We still have the same hours for Saturday, but we are more flexible during the week. We look for about five hours overtime during evenings on top of the six on Saturday. But, most importantly, we do a minimal amount of tax returns prior to April 15. We automatically put clients on extension and then prepare returns from May to September. If a client requests, we will do a return sooner. But most are not getting refunds and do not put pressure on us to rush to do their return. We are quite happy with this. It spreads the work all the way to October.
Ted: Before busy season, we determine the average number of hours, our staff must put in to get the work done. For example, this year we determined that on average our professional staff would have to have client billable time of 55 hours per week during the busy season. It is up to each person to put in the hours. Although it is not required, it usually involves at least half a day on Saturday. The office is open every evening and on weekends. Every Friday evening a report is prepared listing each professional and the number of hours they worked during the previous week. In this way we monitor that every one is doing their share.
Edwin: Thank you all for participating in this panel discussion. It is my hope that practitioners will pick and choose from our discussion the kinds of things that can benefit their particular practice. The highly seasonal nature of CPA firms presents unique challenges.
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