Eight Ways to Increase Your Efficiency and Productivity as a CPA

Responses to my poll shows that CPAs are more interested in efficiency than making more money

How can you increase your efficiency as a CPA?

Suppose you have a magic wand that allows you to change one thing in your CPA firm. What will it be? The poll response is “Get work done more efficiently.” This response is almost twice as high as “Make more money.”

So how can you be more efficient?

 

Ways to Increase Your Efficiency as a CPA

Here are eight ways to be more efficient:

  1. Hire great employees
  2. Stay on one job and finish it
  3. Work on one project at a time
  4. Take breaks
  5. Close your door
  6. Take CPE before you need it
  7. Maintain a robust research library
  8. Buy top-quality computers, monitors, and scanners

1. Hire Great Employees

Have you noticed that great employees overcome problems, even the thorniest ones? They don’t make excuses. They simply get work done. And these gems get work done in less time. Hiring the right people is your most significant action.

2. Stay on One Job

Starting and stopping. Starting and Stopping. Starting and Stopping. A sure recipe for inefficiency. Plan your employees’ work so that they can stay on one job until complete. Momentum is everything. Reward employees when they meet deadlines (and tell them ahead of time that the “thank you” is coming).

3. Work on One Project at a Time

Too often we try to multitask, but the research shows that we can only perform one action at a time. Clear everything from your desk but the immediate task. Then focus on that one thing. Turn off social media and the phone. Answer emails in batches at predetermined times during the day, but no more than four times a day.

4. Take Breaks

Taking breaks increases your efficiency. This is counterintuitive but true.

Picture from AdobeStock.com

Picture from AdobeStock.com

The human brain is not designed to work endlessly without diversion. Use the Pomodoro technique or some other method, but take periodic short breaks–at least one an hour. If you are a partner, tell your team members that you desire for them to take breaks. Your employees will follow your example.

5. Close Your Door

What does an open door communicate? “Come on in.” What does a cracked door communicate? “You may come in but knock.” What does a closed door communicate? “Please do not come in.” An open door is an invitation to interruptions. 

If you are someone that employees need to visit often, then establish an open door policy for specific times of the day.

6. Take CPE Before You Need It

When you know you will need certain knowledge in the future, take a CPE class so you have the answers before they are needed. You’ve got to take CPE anyway, so why not take classes that provide timely information.

7. Maintain a Robust Research Library

Finding answers quickly is a key to efficiency–and we all have questions. Spend the money to have online access to research material in the areas that you practice. I know this is more difficult for small firms, but without sound answers, we are walking in the dark.

Also, archive your research in the cloud. Doing so will, over time, enable you to build a powerful library of questions and answers. For four years, I have stored my research in Evernote. So when I encounter issues, I often remember that I previously researched the issue. And I know the answer is in my Evernote library.

Joining the Center for Plain English Accounting (CPEA) has been helpful to my firm. The CPEA provides timely summaries of new standards, enabling me to digest the constant flood of new standards.

8. Buy Top-Quality Computers, Monitors, and Scanners

How much time do you spend waiting on your computer to respond to your most recent request? Those seconds–and sometimes minutes–are wasted time. Buy computers with as much speed as you can afford. This is not a place to be penny foolish.

Multiple monitors will make you more efficient. (I use four.) Larger monitors will make you even more efficient.

Keep a scanner next to your desk. I use my Scansnap scanner several times a day. Scanning enables me to keep my desk and office more orderly. Also, scanning into a PDF can make the documents searchable if you use optical character recognition (OCR). Once searchable, then just type control f for find and then type in the words you are looking for.

Other Ideas

What about you? What do you do to increase efficiency?

Check out my previous efficiency post.

Zen and the Art of Audit-Cycle Maintenance

Keys to efficient audits

As a teenager, I played golf, lots of golf. Some summer days, I walked unhindered with no one in front of me. Just me and the clubs. I would hit the ball and walk. Hit and walk. Hit and walk. It was a thing of beauty. On those magic days, golf was effortless. Pure joy. I had a goal. I had my clubs. No one was in the way.

Do auditors ever feel this way?

Yes, when audits process smoothly.

Some refer to this elusive state as flow. While I’m not sure what you call it, I know it when I see it — and when I feel it. And it does happen — even in accounting firms.

In some jobs, things move along at a steady pace. The constituent parts come together at the right time. There is cooperation between the audit team and the client. We understand each other. We hit our shots. We finish the round.

What is Flow?

It is the accomplishment of a goal without friction. It is the coming together all necessary ingredients. It is simple. If flow made sounds, it would be music.

Picture is courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

Picture is courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

As accountants, we all want this. So why is it so hard to come by?

The main impediments include:

  • A lack of planning
  • A lack of proper resources
  • A lack of cooperation
  • A lack of timely information from the client
  • A lack of uninterrupted time
  • A lack of skill

The following will allow us to overcome these obstacles:

  • Goal: To finish the job within budget
  • Tools: The people and resources are in place
  • Cooperation: Everyone is pulling together
  • Information: The client provides needed information
  • Uninterrupted time: You have dedicated time periods
  • Skilled team members: Your team is adequately staffed

Goal

We start with the “end in mind,” as Steven Covey used to say. If we’re planning an audit, then our goal is an opinion.

With the goal in mind, we work backward. What are the necessary actions to get there?

Then we list those tasks and place them on a timeline.

How?

Tools

For three years, I have used the cloud-based project management software Basecamp. It has a friendly, intuitive feel that allows me to create tasks within categories. For example, I create a Planning category and—then within this category—I create a task such as Perform pre-audit planning analytics.

After creating tasks, I assign them, along with deadlines, to team members. The fluidity of a project depends on the timely completion of each element. That’s why cooperation is important.

Cooperation

How many times have you been pulled from an audit when you’re not done? You know that the more you “pick it up and put it down,” the longer it takes, but a partner is demanding that you work on another audit, so off you go. Meanwhile, the first engagement grows cold in your mind, so when you return, you have to gear back up. It’s the equivalent of building a fire and letting it die. It takes lots of energy to get a project up and going, and when you leave, it grows cold. Then more time and energy is required to return to where you were. So what does cooperation have to do with this?

Well, let me ask why you left the audit? Most of the time, it’s one of two things:

  • Either your client was not ready (client assistance list is not complete), or
  • The engagement was not appropriately scheduled

Like any project, an audit is a process. For example, the CPA performs the following:

  • Acceptance and continuance
  • Risk assessment
  • Create a plan
  • Execute the plan
  • Audit file is reviewed
  • Financial statements and related opinion are created
  • Financial statements are examined by the client (who assumes responsibility for the statements)
  • Audit report is issued

While these steps don’t necessarily occur in sequential order, structure creates rhythm. There are dependencies. That’s why it’s so important that all the disparate parts come together at the right time. So how do we do this? Usually by sending a client assistance list. Sounds like a good idea? Well, maybe.

One mistake that I see auditors make is we send this list to the client and then we don’t track the status of the requested information. We don’t know what they’ve done, and the client doesn’t know what we need at a given time. The pump and dump client assistance list is not the most useful communication. We—the audit team and the client—need to be on the same page.

That brings me back to Basecamp (or any cloud-based project management system). With Basecamp, I create a client assistance list that we (the audit team and the client) see. The cloud-based project management system shows the information requested (tasks) along with assignments and completion dates. Obviously, the auditor needs to make sure the client agrees with this level of transparency. Also, the auditor must see that in using such a system, we are implying a promise: if you (the client) do your part, I (the auditor) will do my mine. You provide timely information, and I will produce a timely audit report. It’s a team effort.

Note – I use Basecamp to track my audit procedures and client assistance requests; however, I can specify what the client sees (and what they can’t). Obviously, the client should not see the audit procedures. So they only see the audit information requests. The client’s personnel can see each other’s data requests, so the client’s supervisor sees the status of their tasks.

Information

In 1984, I obtained my masters degree in accounting and thought the world was my oyster. I quickly learned I didn’t know much. While training helps, nothing replaces experience.

Warm bodies are no guarantee of productivity.

Audit team schedules should be posted months ahead of time so the engagement partner can assess her team members’ knowledge, and, if necessary, send them to appropriate continuing education. If a team member spends half of the job reading the industry audit guide, you won’t finish on time.

One requisite of flow is we see things short-term and long-term (at the same time). The short-term allows us to execute; the long-term enables us to plan (for things such as inexperienced staff). Both are critical. Another element of flow is a lack of distractions and a lack of interruptions.

Uninterrupted Time

Above, we spoke briefly about the causes of interruptions and the harm that they bring. Staying on the audit until completion is critical to efficiency. Some audit trainers refer to this as a lights-out approach. This term is used in reference to auditors staying in the field until the job is complete. As you already know, there is a direct correlation between productivity and being in the field. We all want to get home, so we work extra hard and with increased focus while we are away from the office. So naturally, efficiency goes up.

Returning to the office kills flow every time. You know what happens. We go to the laundry. We get our hair cut. We talk in the hallway.

Am I saying we should stay in the field until our clothes are sullied, our hair is unkempt, and we become hermits? No, frankly I like clean clothes, a nice haircut, and some chatter with my mates — and I hope my team members do as well.

Nevertheless, uninterrupted time is critical to efficiency. There’s no getting around it.

So plan to be in the field until the engagement is complete. Then allow your team members adequate time to recover. Reward them accordingly. If they’ve been away for some time, give them a day (or two) off. For extended stays, provide a bonus as soon as the job is complete.

We want those skilled team members to know they are appreciated. Speaking of skilled team members…

Skilled Team Members

A good audit starts with the hiring of your team members. I often say, “You get what you hired the day they walk into the office.” In other words, the abilities and character traits of your team members have been formed over a lifetime. You won’t change them in one or two years.

Hire for attitude, knowledge, and experience.

Of the three, attitude is key. Do your team members like auditing? The audit life is not an easy life. Rewarding, yes. Easy, no. Show me a team member that doesn’t like what they do, and I’ll show you why you can’t finish.

Hire firm members with appropriate education and experience. If they don’t possess the necessary knowledge, spend the money and train them. Develop tailored three-year continuing education plans for each staff person. In other words, don’t allow them to take random classes just to “get their CPE.”

Experience teaches your people things CPE classes never can. It is through past failures that we gain our greatest insights. So again, if you can hire personnel with experience, do so—even if you have to pay a premium.

The number one determinant of project success is your team members. A good team will pull a project out of the ditch every time.

Your Thoughts

How do you keep your audit-cycle in tune?

My Ten Most Popular 2015 Posts

Here are my most shared posts

Well, 2015 is in the books. Here are the top ten 2015 posts (from number 10 to number 1) — based upon your social shares.

Picture courtesy of DollarPhoto.com

Picture courtesy of DollarPhoto.com

10. A CPA’s Office Setup

9. How to Prevent Payroll Fraud

8. Which Standards Should I Follow When I Prepare Financial Statements and Perform a Compilation, Review or an Audit?

7. SSARS 21 – Which is the Best Option for Issuing Financial Statements?

6. How to Perform Fraud Risk Assessments

5. 10 Super Easy Ways to Increase Your Productivity

4. The Most Efficient Way to Issue Financial Statements

3. How to Lessen Segregation of Duties Problems in Two Easy Steps

2. What I Wish I Had Known About Public Accounting

and drum roll…..

1.  How to Perform Audit Risk Assessments

Your Ideas for 2016

If you have an accounting or auditing idea that you’d like for me to address in 2016, please let me know — post a comment. Thanks.

 

A CPA’s Office Setup: Ways to Enhance Productivity

A peak into my office

Is a CPA’s office setup important? You bet.

Like you, I am constantly looking for ways to be more productive. I buy books, watch videos, and take note of how others work.

I like to see the offices of other CPAs. Here’s mine.

Multiple Monitors

Docking Station – I use a docking station that allows me to push one button to disconnect and place my laptop into a bag for travel. The docking station provides connectivity inputs behind my computer. Rather than disconnecting several wires to “set my computer free,” I push one button.

50″ Monitor (on a swivel hinge) – This monitor is about two feet behind my desk. I dock Outlook on the screen; this allows me to see incoming email at any moment. I also use this screen as a fourth working monitor. For example, when I am reviewing financial statements, I sometimes place the balance sheet on the 50″ screen and a second copy of the financial statements on my lower center monitor. Then as I review the remainder of the statements (e.g., notes), I can glance at the balance sheet.

The 50″ monitor hangs from a swivel hinge. The swivel hinge allows me to tilt the screen in other directions when I am sharing information from my laptop with others in my office. I am using this far more than I thought I would.

Todoist Checklist – I place all my outstanding to-do items in Todoist. Since Todoist integrates with Outlook, I usually have Outlook docked on the 50″ monitor. With just a glance, I can quickly see what I need to complete. With one click, I can add a new to-do item. And the to-do items I add on my laptop show up on my iPad and iPhone Todoist apps (and vice versa)–this integration is why I started using Todoist.

Logitech Camera – I often have online meetings and share information from my computer screen with those I am speaking with (I use Zoom). This Logitech camera creates an excellent picture and sound so those I’m sharing with can see and hear meLogitech C930e 960-000971 USB 2.0 1920 x 1080 Video Webcam

Bose Bluetooth Speaker – Music can make us more productive. And why not have quality sound? You spend such much of your waking day in your office. Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker II (Carbon)

iPhone on a Stand – Do you ever lay your phone down and later you can’t find it? (We used just to lose our keys, now it’s the phone and the keys.) This stand provides me with a consistent place for my phone. elago M2 Stand for all iphones, Galaxy and Smartphones (Angled Support for FaceTime), Black

printer shot

Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 Scanner – When I receive physical paper documents, my usual first step is to scan the paper and place it (the paper) in my shred box. I use this scanner several times a day. I like the scanner (but I have had problems with paper jams). Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 Scanner for PC and Mac (PA03656-B005)

Deluxe Shred Box – My deluxe shred box is a box top. I know, sophisticated, huh?

Landline Phone – I keep my phone over on my side table to keep it off my main desktop.

HP Printer – Many CPAs use a central printer for several people but think about the cumulative time you waste walking to the printer. HP LaserJet P2035 Monochrome Printer (CE461A#ABA)

CPA's Office Setup

iPad – This is my favorite device. I use it mainly outside the office, but I place it on the corner of my desk so I can quickly pick it up as I go out.

The Physical Library – I order most publications electronically, but for my physical books, I keep them handy here.

Adjustable Standup Desk – In my attempt to be a (little) more healthy, I bought this standup desk about three years ago. About once a day, I will print and stand while I review a set of financial statements–mainly to get my rear out of the chair. There has been a great deal of press lately about professionals (slowly) killing themselves by sitting too much. This desk does adjust down to the level of my main desktop, and it is mobile, so I use it–when I’m tired of standing–as an extension of my main desktop.

Paper-in Tray – I use a three-level tray for my incoming paper. The top shelf is for newly arrived paper information.

conference space

Corner Meeting Spot –  I use this corner area as a place to meet with partners and staff, especially if they bring paper copies in to discuss.

Coffee Maker – This is probably the most important appliance in my office. No coffee, no Charles.

whiteboard

Whiteboard – If someone needs to draw an idea out, here’s the place. I sometimes take iPhone pictures of the information drawn on the board and then store it in Evernote.

Watercooler – Drinking plenty of water each day will enhance your stamina. As you can tell, I like convenience.

Your Ideas

How would you change my office? What additional ideas would you add to these?

New SSARS 21 Book

My new SSARS 21 book titled Preparation of Financial Statements and Compilation Engagements is now available on Amazon.com. The book provides information about the new preparation of financial statements standard and compilation engagements. The book includes sample engagement letters and financial statements using the preparation and compilation guidance.

My Most-Used iPad Apps

Here are the apps from my main iPad screen

My iPad allows me to add plenty of apps, but only a few are on my main screen. Here is my present screen.

My main iPad screen

My main iPad screen

 

Skitch – A screen capture app. It allows me to capture whatever is on my screen and edit what I capture. I can add annotations such as arrows, boxes, and text.

Digits – A calculator with big numbers. The app allows me to maintain a running tape of the numbers I have keyed in; this tape can be emailed to others. I can also type text next to a particular number.

Checkpoint – A library of accounting and auditing publications. You must pay for the publications, but Checkpoint provides powerful search capabilities.

Keynote – A slide presentation app. I use Keynote more than Powerpoint. The Keynote background slides are the best. Presentations can be saved to iCloud.

Twitter – A social communication tool. I use it to make short (less than 140 character) posts about my day, usually related to accounting and auditing. My handle: @ChasBHall.

Pandora – Music app. I can pick a channel and listen to whatever type of music I desire. There is a free version, but I pay around $5 per month for the add-free version.

Weather – Weather app. I start my day by checking the weather, and, when I’m going out of town, I check my destination’s weather before I leave.

Gmail – Email app. I use this app for most of my email.

Slack – Group email app. I use this app to communicate with my teams. I mainly use this app to chat with my Quality Control team member. The communications are stored by category (and I can set up whatever categories I like — e.g., XYZ Audit). The basic package that I use is free.

Kindle – Amazon’s book reading app. I buy most of my books from Amazon and read them here. I can highlight phrases in my books that are accessible in my Amazon account–and the highlighted information–for all my books–is searchable and can be copied and pasted.

Holy Bible – You Version Bible app. I start each day with this app. You Version is free and provides several different translations.

Evernote – Storage app. I create “notes” inside Evernote and store whatever I desire. This is my electronic library. I have saved thousands of articles and research. Several different tags can be applied to each note, so you can quickly find the information you need.

1Password – Password storage app. I store almost all of my passwords here (presently over 150). Security experts tell us to use strong, unique passwords. This app allows me to do so.

Reminders – Reminder app. I may need this app the most (especially as I get older). I place to-do items here with time and date–a notification pops up when it’s time to act.

Basecamp – Project management app. I can see all of my current projects with all the steps necessary to complete each one. I can see what my project management teams (e.g., audit teams) have completed.

Stitcher – Podcast app. I listen to podcasts as I walk each morning, gaining valuable insights. My favorite podcast: Michael Hyatt’s This is Your Life.

Audible – Audible book app. I listen to books while I’m on the road (or when I am exercising). I have a monthly plan (about $15 per month) that allows me to get one book per month.

GetResponse – Social media contact app. GetResponse is a paid app that allows me to see who has subscribed to my blog. It also provides statistical information about responses to my weekly RSS emails that I send to my blog subscribers. Subscribe below.

Zoom – Online meeting app. I can host online meetings and share information from my screen. Those in the meeting can see me as I talk with them.

Canva – Social media creation app. I use this app to create pictures and slides for sharing in my blog or presentations. I pay about $1 for each picture download, but this is a powerful app that allows your creative side to shine.

Your Thoughts?

What apps do you find most helpful?

65% Realization–Again?

Leaks that sink audit engagements

You’ve just completed another audit, and you see your realization is 65%. You encourage yourself with the thought that next year things will be different. Next year you won’t have the same unexpected problems. Next year your staff will have more experience. But then you recall thinking the same thing last year, and the year before that. Why does this keep happening?

Low realization (the heavy discounting of standard rates) usually implies our engagement has leaks. So how can we right the ship? Here are a few thoughts.

veliero2

Picture courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

Leaky Hole 1: Too Much Weight

Boats with light loads move quicker.

During your off-season (if you have one), review the file. Work paper files, like our closets, tend to accumulate unneeded clutter. Eliminate unnecessary work papers that add no value. Useless work papers have a strong tendency to reappear in the future. Why? Staff will often mimic the prior year file.

Leaky Hole 2: Not Identifying Risks

A good captain knows where the shoals are.

If we can identify our risks, we can focus on the essential–that which must be addressed. Doing so may require a change of habits, a change from auditing by automatic pilot to one of doing more work in the beginning stage of the engagement. Identifying risks is hard work and requires a greater level of skill than “beating up the balance sheet.” But risk-based auditing is more effective and efficient.

Risk assessment includes the following:

  • Creating effective planning analytics (do variances exist that merit attention?)
  • Walk-throughs (understand–really understand–significant processes)
  • Understanding the entity (What are the numbers that management and the board focus upon? What keeps management awake at night?)
  • Perform your brainstorming session (open discussion will generate better ideas)

Then take these disparate elements and synthesize them into your formal risk assessment.

The result: a plan that identifies and responds to risk.

Leaky Hole 3: No Budget

A good captain has a map (a target).

I’m not concerned with tracking time by audit areas. Doing so may take more time than it’s worth. But I want my audit team to know what the overall target is–the amount of time for the total engagement. And if they meet that goal? Give them a reward. A day off. (Okay, maybe a half day.) Take them out for a nice meal. Provide a small bonus.

Targets create focus.

Rewarding efficiency generates future success (even if we don’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express).

Leaky Hole 4: An Old Boat

Replace old boats.

Is your firm using outdated computers or software?

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Does each staff member have a portable monitor?
  • Does the team have a quality scanner?
  • Is the team working out of the cloud?
  • If your firm is not paperless, why not?
  • Are your work papers linked to the trial balance?
  • Does your firm provide audit templates by industry specialization?
  • Has the audit team received current technology training?

And If You Already Do These Things?

Can the fee be negotiated? If not, it may be time to let go of the engagement. Not all jobs are desirable, and this one may, in fact, inhibit your ability to seek out better opportunities.