One of the most effective ways to improve your firm’s tax processes and production is with the post-busy season debrief process. Whether done formally with a meeting or informally in combination with a survey, we suggest it be scheduled as close as possible after the tax deadline while the experience is still fresh in your personnel’s minds. This will also allow adequate time to evaluate new processes and applications over the summer before the next busy season swings into gear. Below we suggest a number of considerations to help you get the most out of this year’s tax season debrief:
100% Participation: While small firms can have all members participate in a single debrief meeting, larger firms often have to split out personnel by departments or by locations. For those personnel that cannot physically attend the debrief meeting (i.e. remote/contract staff and those scheduled to be out on assignment), we suggest they be surveyed prior to the meeting so their input can be included in the debrief session.
Survey: Emailing a PDF/Word Survey with open ended questions is traditionally the easiest method but does not allow for anonymity as responses have to be accumulated and staff time will be spent on tracking responses and condensing the information. If the firm wants unbiased anonymous input, utilizing a service such as Survey Monkey will allow participants to respond confidentially and will automatically follow up with those that have not submitted their responses while accumulating responses for the firm and simultaneously reducing the administration of manual surveys.
Review Production Metrics: We’ve all heard that “what gets measured, gets done,” which applies to tax production as well. Tax leadership should review overall production and profitability metrics to compare the current and previous busy seasons and provide a summary during the debrief. If the firm does not currently have adequate benchmarks, the tax team should identify KPIs (key performance indicators) such as weekly return production, days return in firm, volume transitioned from manual to digital delivery, extension comparison, return margin percentage, etc. and discuss them during the debrief meeting, which will help promote future accountability.
Effective Facilitation: Oftentimes, the most obvious production improvements come from the newest people to the process that have not been “clouded by the way the firm has always done things,” but their input can sometimes be overshadowed by senior personnel with dominant demeanors. We have found that requesting individual accumulation (everyone quietly writing down their thoughts and recommendations) and beginning with the least senior people promotes equal participation, before opening up the discussion to all members and integrating survey results to be the most effective way of countering dominant personalities.
Process Flowchart Review: If the firm has tax process flowcharts you might consider projecting them on the screen during the meeting as a visual tool to identify bottlenecks, as many people’s nature is to think “visually.” One of the questions we ask during a Lean Six Sigma consulting engagement is to identify “SIPOC” elements impacting production. SIPOC stands for Suppliers, Inputs, Processes, Outputs and Customer, and asking the questions such as: “did any suppliers cause problems” or “who were our best/worst clients this busy season and why,” helps add depth to the debrief process. Also asking who else touches each step of the process, what they do to transform (or add value) to the step, and confirming how long each step takes can help identify bottlenecks and opportunities to improve that process.
Get Value from Debrief: To make the Debrief more than a complaint session, it is imperative that the firm not only identify opportunities for improvement, but that they act upon them as this will build trust with the staff. This means prioritizing the improvement opportunities and selecting which they are going to address by assigning adequate financial resources and personnel accountability for getting the initiative done. Starting the discussion with what went right and previous successes will help with getting buy-in on any new suggestions and proposed technology changes. Our experience has also shown that it is better to focus on the top few initiatives and ensure they get done as opposed to attempting to complete a long laundry list.
Debrief Questions: For firms that have not done a formal tax debrief before, below we list a variety of possible questions. While some questions can be answered with number ratings (1 to 5 stars) or check boxes (i.e. Was this busy season: □significantly better, □slightly better, □slightly worse, □significantly worse than last year), it is recommended that most questions be open-ended so the recipient has to provide some introspection which may provide a novel path to a solution (i.e. Why was it better/worse than last year?).
Tax Debrief Questions for Consideration:
- What went particularly well this busy season and why?
- What was the best improvement from last year?
- What tax processes did not go well and why?
- What technologies or applications hindered the process and why?
- What should we do better or differently next year?
- What areas did we have staffing shortfalls or need additional training?
- What team member went “above and beyond” or did something special?
- What client returns were awesome this year and why?
- What client engagements were difficult and why?
While every firm will debrief their busy season in a different way, it is important that the firm make them as it is one of the most effective ways to get input from team members and foster improvements within the firm.
Roman H. Kepczyk, CPA.CITP is Director of Firm Technology Strategy for Right Networks and works exclusively with accounting firms to optimize their internal production workflows within their tax, assurance, client services, and administrative areas.
He can be contacted at 678-495-0508 or firstname.lastname@example.org.