Part 1 of 3: Building a Stronger Financial Management Process
August 04 , 2020
A strong finance team is critical to the success of any company. Sometimes, however, financial results are late, incorrect, or not issued at all due to problems in finance processes. For a smaller business, with just a few accounting and finance resources, staff turnover can instantly highlight any process weakness.
This is the first of a series of three short newsletters on how to stay ahead of finance process issues and prevent these challenges from becoming more significant problems. Each newsletter will address a different aspect of these challenges: Producing Data, Consuming Data, and Preparing for and Managing the Audit.
Challenge — Difficulty Getting the Books Closed
The team can become so shorthanded and/or overtasked that the work becomes overwhelming, resulting in a loss of discipline in the closing process including confusion on roles and responsibilities and inadequate time for a reasonable review of work performed. In these cases financial reports are sometimes prepared using estimates of revenue, accounts which are “booked to budget” or unreconciled, and other data points from outside of the accounting records.
Action Plan — Fill Resource Gaps and Re-introduce Closing Discipline
- Plan for an adequate level of resources as a better alternative to late reporting and reporting errors, by either hiring additional staff or enlisting operations and other resources to contribute as a regular part of the closing process
- If temporary resources are used, integrate those resources into the full-time team and make sure regular communication is taking place among the extended team members
- Make sure roles and responsibilities are well defined, in writing, including review responsibilities
- Develop a closing calendar with input from all affected team members; the focus should be on what is achievable, and expectations on timing of deliverables should be set realistically
- Communicate the timing and nature of deliverables to senior management
Challenge — Integrating Information from Outside the Financial Process
This problem is directly related to the overall difficulty in closing the books. For example, an operations team can be responsible for initiating revenue transactions, revising those transactions, and forwarding the transaction information to Finance (via an automated or manual process). It is easy for this handoff to break down, causing delays and inaccuracies in recording revenue. This can be particularly hard to fix If the finance function is already experiencing some challenges, with finance and operations teams blaming each other for the problems. The good news is the recurring pain of dealing with this challenge should make the case for process improvement.
Action Plan — Regularly Reconcile Estimates with Actuals and Improve Critical Processes
- Reconcile estimates to actuals regularly (at least quarterly), to avoid a year-end crunch that will delay year-end reporting and raise concerns from auditors or investors and directors
- Get representatives of the operations and finance teams together to for a process improvement project. This can be a high-level gap analysis – an honest assessment of the current process vs. desired process and agreement on how to fix the issues. The detailed approaches of the Six Sigma, LEAN, or Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) methodologies are also useful.
Challenge — Little Staff Development, Communication, Documentation, and Training
When a senior member of the finance and accounting staff leaves the company, gaps in process management and training quickly become apparent. The team may not be clear on roles, closing steps, how to prepare board financials and other key analytics, and may have been performing tasks without knowing why.
Action Plan — Formalize Annual Finance Team Development and Back-up Plans
- The Chief Financial Officer (CFO) should create a succinct written plan for the closing process. The document should address role descriptions, critical processes performed, and the back-up person for each critical process.
- Review the plan with the finance team and senior management to ensure that critical processes are not overly concentrated with one person, especially the CFO, revise as needed and ensure that plans are made to close any skills gaps.
This planning process will provide an opportunity for development, preparation for assuming greater responsibility, and perhaps greater job satisfaction as the team understands the purpose and critical importance of the various tasks they perform.