A new year, a new year-end: Improving finance operations one process at a time

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Julie Holmes
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Business strategist Julie Holmes takes a look at some of the key issues faced by finance leaders in 2016 and how to tackle them head-on in the New Year.

For many of us in the finance operations space, year-end is a term that brings only dread with images of late nights, frustrating reconciliations and more corrections and adjustments that we can count. It is so easy to just focus on “getting it done” that we miss the opportunities to improve our processes and to be more strategic along the way.

At a recent event, I surveyed 130+ attendees about their year-end frustrations. This was a finance-centric group made up largely of CFOs, directors of finance, and controllers. Not surprisingly their top three thorns were reconciliations, audit challenges and reporting. However, it wasn’t just their tasks that were giving them the year-end blues, but also that they lacked the New Year’s resolutions to make future year-ends a celebration.

That’s where I came in with this three-part approach to go from misery to magnificent. Having a performance plan and a year-end checklist often helps even the best finance professionals get their heads out of spreadsheets so they can look around for better ideas.

Part 1: Get it right

Confidence is key for finance. Business leaders must be comfortable and assured that they are making data-driven decisions with accurate financial data. Therefore, the first part of a solid year-end is ensuring that “what you see” is “what you got.”

The best way to get that confidence is to start with a single source of the truth that operates in real time. As a financial systems director many years ago, it was my job to make sure that our finance systems were technically accurate. No missing transactions. No outdated information. But as soon as someone started dumping data into spreadsheets or business intelligence tools it all fell apart. This problem is compounded with finance systems in the cloud and ERP, as extracting data is often limited to just a few export options.

Certainly, there was the technical challenge of making sure that everything got from our system of record to its destination. It was so easy for an ETL (extract, transform and load) process to miss records or to realize that it was only a partial copy/paste. The other half of the problem was around options for tracking and confirming these errors. We found ourselves limited to manual reviews and frankly, too many situations where a problem was found by the CEO when things just didn’t look right.  And just like that, confidence in the numbers, and the finance department, was painfully damaged.

Fortunately, there is a viable solution for getting year-end right: use real-time data from your system of record, which is usually your ERP. If you must use third-party tools for better access or presentation, make sure they plug into the source rather than creating a whole new set of problems in another location. It’s even better if you provide drill down to the lowest levels of detail because there is no better way to rebuild that confidence than for the business to be able to research something themselves. In the past, I’ve used tools like Hubble and others to make this a reality. As a bonus, it frees up finance from answering questions so they can move on to part two.

Part 2: Do it fast

Assuming you’ve got clean, reliable data, part two is about expediting those year-end processes that seem to keep a lot of finance at the office late into the evening and drag out year-end.

The first step in streamlining business operations, particularly finance operations, is to get a clear view of the processes you employ today. By documenting the year-end tasks, including the resources and effort needed for each task, you can begin to identify the best opportunities for improvement.

According to those same event attendees over two-thirds (64%) are using Excel for reconciliations. A process that requires dumping data, manual sorting and manipulation and time consuming repetition for each and every account. This problem is exponentially increased as organizations start to deal with big data.

To improve a process like this, start by asking yourself (and your team) a few key questions.

 For reconciliations, it might look like this:

1) What are the easy reconciliations? Can logic be applied in the system to deal with all the easy scenarios so that you only need to deal with exceptions. Automating year-end processes is clearly the goal for many financial professionals as our survey indicated that this is the number one goal for a whopping 36% of them.

2) Can the outstanding items be categorized somehow so that you can deal with them in groups? It is easier to work through a process if tasks are grouped so you can get into a problem-solving groove.

3) Could these issues have been spotted earlier? Rather than waiting until year to deal with a backlog of problems, would it be possible to address problems weekly, monthly, or perhaps even daily?

4) Are these problems recurring? If so, come up with a plan to get to the root of the problem and prevent future issues.

In short, avoid the temptation to just “get it done” even though it is painful. Make a plan to make it better which is also a great segue to Part 3.

Part 3: Be strategic

When we dread an activity, many of us tend to avoid it until the last minute and then stop thinking about it as soon as we finish. For year-end, try seeing it as your clean slate; a chance to add value to your business.

Rather than focusing just on the financial activities and tasks, look for opportunities. For example, rather than running reports (24% of event attendees said they struggled to even get the right reports), consider moving to a modern, alert based system that monitors for exceptions and only notifies you when something needs attention. 

Another approach is to do some analysis by key process. Budgeting & planning, audit preparation, management reporting, reconciliations and more: each of these can be assessed for strategic improvement. Don’t just take a process at face value, rather ask yourself how it could be rethought to add value to your organization.

Try This

As you go through your year-end “festivities,” categorise each thing you do into one of the three areas. Does that activity help you get it right; do it fast or be strategic. If it doesn’t do any of those things, put it on a list for some serious review.

Summary

Don’t let your year-end ruin your holidays no matter what time of year you experience it. Take time to be methodical, critical and strategic so that 2017’s year-ends can be a peaceful time with your colleagues that is full of opportunity and hope.

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By tom123
20th Jan 2017 10:28

Good article Julie - mind you I am feeling a bit smug as my audit fieldwork for Dec 2016 has just been finished with no adjustments needed :)

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