Tune up your tax season debrief post COVID
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Tune up your tax season debrief post COVID

1 year ago · 4 min read

Drop antiquated processes and use opportunities identified during the pandemic to improve your tax season debrief process.

Another tax filing deadline has passed and we can once again say this busy season was different from the last. The COVID pandemic continues to have major and long lasting social and economic impacts on our lives and within our firms, raising significant questions as to what will be the “new normal” when we finally turn the corner on this crisis. With continued levels of uncertainty in the air it would be easy to throw up our hands, delay post busy season strategic planning, and just continue to ride out whatever comes our way. However, that would be a big mistake. Now is the ideal time to discuss how your firm could benefit from new opportunities created during this COVID experience while dropping antiquated processes that may be holding the firm back. Strategic planning to identify these opportunities should begin immediately after the busy season and can be optimized by tuning up your tax season debrief processes.

While many firms conduct some form of busy season post-mortem, we often hear they are somewhat repetitive and often don’t include a broad perspective. Get the most of this year’s tax season debrief meeting with the following proven methods:

Pre-schedule meetings: Ideally, tax debrief meetings should be conducted within two weeks of the tax deadline so information can be collected while the experience of the previous few months is still fresh in everyone’s mind. Send out calendar invites ahead of time with the debrief meeting agenda including specific requests to document observations and opportunities throughout tax season.

100% participation: People experience work differently and have unique perspectives, so it is critical to get everyone’s participation in the debrief process. Newer employees, particularly hires with experience in other firms, often provide the most useful insights into the firm’s existing processes. If your firm is too large to have everyone in one meeting, get participation from non-attendees by having them complete a survey beforehand. Getting participation is the first step to getting buy-in to any proposed changes.

Survey success: Utilize survey tools such as Survey Monkey, Question Pro, or Alchemer to get individual debrief insights, particularly from personnel that may not be able to attend the meeting. These survey tools can anonymously accumulate responses and send reminders to ensure full participation. During live debrief meetings, have individuals first write down their responses privately to any questions before audibly sharing amongst the group. This will promote equal participation and minimize dominant personalities which can sometimes hijack discussions and open conversations.

Ask questions for insight: Get more understanding and thoughtful suggestions with open ended questions. Asking “Why was this busy season better than last year” rather than “Was this busy season better than last year” provides insight and solutions which can be acted upon. Following the traditional “SWOT” (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) line of questioning promotes a positive start and more comprehensive solutions:

  • 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 this extension season?

  • 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?

Data visualization: While many individuals process information by reading or hearing, the majority of people learn visually so it is important to document findings, opportunities and process considerations in a written/whiteboard manner (which can also be broadcast remotely). One of the most effective ways to critique and improve any process is by drawing a flow chart that outlines the process and having members describe what they do during each step. Asking questions as to who else has inputs in each step of the process, how long each step takes, or frustrations around that item will provide depth and potential targets for process improvement.

Identify/prioritize opportunities: Assign the responsibility of documenting recommendations to someone not directly involved in the process so those that are involved can participate unencumbered. While generating a dozen or more process improvement suggestions during the debrief meeting is normal, attempting to implement all of them concurrently is not advised. Prioritizing suggestions with the highest projected impact and lesser required time, resources, and perceived difficulty should be prioritized above others. Focusing on the top two to three items through successful completion will ensure the firm gets value for the time invested.

“SMART” projects: Mandating “SMART” project statements will ensure that everyone understands the complete scope of each prioritized project/process improvement and will increase the odds of that project being successfully completed on time. The SMART acronym stands for “specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time bound.” For instance, “having the tax committee under Joe’s direction research, select, and implement a digital tax workflow solution by August 1, 2020 that would track all due dates and integrate directly with practice management” would be an example of a SMART project statement, whereas “selecting a workflow tool” would not.

Client impact: One of the key tenets of Lean Six Sigma consulting is to always consider the impact of any process change on the recipient of that change. Too often, firms implement solutions that are easier for them without taking into account the difficulties they may be imposing on the client. Whether it is surveying clients on “what went better this busy season” or firm personnel on “what training do you need to make busy season better,” it is important that the end recipients are part of the process and see value in the change.

Improving your firm’s tax processes begins with understanding where you are starting from, where there are opportunities to improve, and implementing solutions that are better for your personnel and your clients. These solutions can be rooted in an improved tax debrief process so consider how you can make yours better today.

Roman H. Kepczyk, CPA.CITP, PAFM

Roman H. Kepczyk, CPA.CITP, CGMA is Director of Firm Technology Strategy for Right Networks and partners exclusively with accounting firms on production automation, application optimization and practice transformation. He has been consistently listed as one of INSIDE Public Accounting’s Most Recommended Consultants, Accounting Today’s Top 100 Most Influential People, and CPA Practice Advisor’s Top Thought Leaders.

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