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Mini Case Study: Accounting Process Improvement

Over the last several months I’ve been spending time working with a client’s finance department on process improvement.  While their headcount is quite small, their finance and accounting there is complex – they’re a multi-national public (SOX applies) company managing several very major projects (think $10-100 million each).

Our focus was to reduce the monkey-work and improve audit-ability and reporting in the accounting department so they can be focused on high-value work.  Would you believe Excel is one of the best tools for doing this? 

We started by looking at some of the end-to-end processes and decided to implement two major systems:

  • web-based time sheets
  • Web-based purchase orders

Both of these systems replaced Excel-based forms which the finance team had to manually manage, compile and report on.

The new time sheet system is incredibly simple – exactly enough for the company’s requirements.  We now have complete visibility into every project, automated approvals, vacation/sick time accrual, and reporting (ad-hoc and automatic).  With the work flow in place and automatic reporting, the auditors are very happy and their accounting team has almost no administrative overhead.

The new purchase order system is fully integrated with the company’s accounting system.  This system includes all the work flow for approval of purchase orders, including multiple levels of approval (and special role approvals).

The company has actually started using it for some contracts even – a PO that covers the cost of the contract, with line items (and dates) associated to milestones and payment schedules.

Again, the accounting team has almost nothing to do now for managing POs – approvals are always complete and they’re automatically put into the accounting system (with a quick check, of course).

The company’s accounting system has a module that allows “tagging” to transactions.  They’ve been using this to tag products and projects to each accounting entry.  This isn’t quite the same as using project accounting and has some issues – so we spent time investigating moving to the project accounting module.

Transitioning to project accounting was estimated at about $25,000 and 2-3 months of work.  Ouch. Instead we investigated another option.

Using the accounting system’s export function and some fancy footwork in Excel, we were able to build an extremely powerful, project-style reporting model.  Quickly we discovered that with some refinements we were able to do all of the project-based reporting we’d need using this base.  Net savings:  $25,000 and 2-3 months work.

Using the project model, we then built other reports.  Each of these integrate data from other sources (like the time sheets and PO system), build on layers of business logic, then displays through pivot tables and charts.  Each of these reports replaced manually-intensive tasks.  Net savings:

  • Monthly tasks: 16+ hours of controller time
  • Quarterly tasks: 20+ hours of controller time

That’s over 270 hours per year saved, with the automation of 4 spreadsheets. Add the harder to quantify metrics, such as the time savings for the new PO and time tracking system, the automated workflow, the significant reduction in errors and the work the controller can now do, and the number multiplies.

Most companies have already have some of the key the tools in place to perform great improvements in efficiency through simple business process improvement.  It just takes time to get out of the box and look at how you do things!

For IT departments, this is one of the best ways to provide real value throughout the company.

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