Debrief Tax Season with these Five Questions

The Dust has Settled.  April 15th is over a month behind you.  Your people have probably had a chance to take at least a short breather before getting back into the swing of things. While this past busy season is still fresh in everyone’s mind, now is a great time to debrief and figure out how this year has gone so far.

What went well? What didn’t go as well as planned? And what ideas are there for the continuous improvement of your processes?

From a high level perspective, you should at a minimum be collecting feedback on these questions from your teams. This includes Staff through Partner level and including Administrative professionals. If you want to be more thorough, however, and not just go through the motions, we recommend assessing your tax segment around the following five questions (themes):

  • How does your throughput compare to last year?
  • How was your talent leveraged?
  • Did you improve cycle (turnaround) times to get work done?
  • How consistently did people adhere to the process?
  • Did you grow? (Development of your team and growth in clients)

How does your throughput compare to last year? This comparison / analysis should be simple and rather quick. It should’ve been looked at all along to be blunt. If you’re trying to continuously improve, and do things efficiently AND effectively, the natural outcomes should be the ability to get more done in the same amount of time (assuming similar resource levels compared to the prior period). That means each person is being effective in using their time and energy better / more productively. A key metric firms that have gone through Lean use is number of returns completed by the end of each week during busy season (this can also be broken out by return type). This helps you gauge where you are compared to where you’ve been. Ultimately, answering the question: Are we on track, ahead, or behind? Hopefully you answer ahead.

How was your talent leveraged? There’s a difference between “short-term efficiency” and “long-term efficiency”. Too many firms focus on short-term efficiency (or have team members, managers, partners, etc focused too much on short-term efficiency) at the detriment of long-term efficiency. Let me explain. It may seem more “profitable” to have the same person prepare the same return for 5 years. They know the client, there’s not a learning curve, and they can get it done in 6 hours as compared to someone else needing 8-10 hours to prep. This is a very short-term view. Long-term, this mindset if it’s repeated year after year leads to firms with completely out-of-whack leverage models, lack of growth, managers who don’t know how to manage, and younger staff that are deemed “idiots” (mostly because they haven’t been challenged and given enough reps). Instead, firms should set goals for their team members to begin leveraging work. What gets measured and rewarded gets repeated.

Did you improve cycle (turnaround) times? I can tell a lot about the firm by looking at their average days in Preparation, average days in Review, and total cycle time from getting enough client information in to start the return until the return is done. Leading firms are finding ways to continuously reduce their cycle time. They understand the lean concept of level-loading to help balance out the bottlenecks and constraints at least a little. And they know that we need to be good at getting work done that’s in process – not just good at starting something new. Tracking and measuring your average turnaround times at key steps in the process is a great way to put emphasis on timely turnarounds. It also naturally leads to less “deadline week nightmares”.

How consistently did people adhere to the process. I say it all the time. You can have the best technology in the world and the best documented process in the world. However, if people aren’t consistently following the process it’s useless. And the craziness of busy season is exacerbated. Each client is unique and you can’t standardize professional judgment. But you can gain consistency between colleagues which prevents a lot of redundancies and confusion in the process. And this saves a ton of time. Survey your team members to gauge their thoughts on how consistent your firm is with one another. Personal preferences lead to chaos and frustrated team members.

Did you grow? The answer should be a resounding yes. If you are properly leveraging work to talents at the right levels, you are continuously challenging and growing your people. You’re giving your preparers more complex work as they progress. Senior preparers are dipping their toes into the Review pool. Reviewers are getting more and more out of prep and beginning to take on more client management responsibilities. And partners are developing new opportunities with current and potential clients. Your firm should have most if not all team members say yes to the fact that they are working to their “highest and best use”.

So, how does your firm stack up to these five measurements? To get a true sense, you need to ask your team members and get well-rounded feedback. Then, do something about it to improve this summer and fall.

About the author

 Dustin Hostetler, Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt

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