Kate Sayer: Getting bogged down? Then tweak the way you work

Do people actually use the reports you write, asks our financial columnist

Many finance professionals tell me they wish they could spend more time thinking about the business and contributing to strategy. Instead, they feel bogged down by basic-level bookkeeping, correcting miscodings, chasing paperwork and producing endless spreadsheets. There is no panacea, but you can start by making some changes.

Free up some time

A good first step is to stop doing something so that you can free up some time. Consider some of the reports you write - do people actually use these? One way to find out is to stop sending them and see if anyone notices. Seriously, it is possible to ask for a moratorium on reporting. Pick the time when you do this - for example, first-quarter management accounts comparing actual to budget do not usually reveal much and might not be missed.

Analyse existing data

Look at the data you already have in the finance department - could you analyse this and present it a different way in order to provide some useful information for managers? This does not have to be complicated - a recent example is the new finance manager who analysed the level of take-up needed for a particular type of project to break even. The managers were astounded - they had been asking for similar information for years and had always been told it was too difficult. Now they could look at their decision-making process afresh and develop clear financial criteria for closing projects and opening new ones. That finance manager now has credibility with the other managers.

Reduce the number of errors

It is frustrating to spend time sorting out mistakes. Even if the error is caused by staff outside the finance department, it reflects on finance and undermines the confidence others have in its work. You need to find the cause of the errors. In one example, it was an out-of-date copy of the chart of accounts, so people were using the wrong codes. For years, the finance staff had simply been correcting these codes. In another example, a simple change was to provide teams outside the finance department with a cut-down version of the codes, showing only the ones they would need. Training and proper induction are also advisable.

Review where you are

Get out of your department and ask other managers and staff what they think. You might get some useful input, but the value of this action is in the message this conveys: you are listening to them - an important step. Follow-up action is needed, but this must be planned carefully to be effective, so do not over-promise at this stage. And a lesson from Martin Edwards, chief executive of Julia's House - bake flapjacks and take them with you. You need to show your caring side and don't just talk numbers.

Kate Sayer is a partner at specialist auditors Sayer Vincent

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