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10 Top Tips for finance improvement projects

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1. Start with the end in mind…but where is the end?

Benchmark your processes. It’s not a long process…a half day with the right people will allow you to assess the performance of your planning and reporting processes. Become aware of the KPIs of top performing companies and look at case studies of how companies achieve those levels of performance. This gives you a measured justification of areas to focus on.

2. Consider best practice

‘Best practices’… ‘leading practice’… phrases that are commonly used but what do they mean? Best practice is a general term to cover processes that are adopted by quartile one performing companies. This doesn’t mean that they can automatically be applied to your business, every organisation is different and what works for one may not work for another. But ensure you fully understand best practices and use them as a sounding board against which you benchmark your future state. Assess each in turn with the following mindset…”I should be adopting best practice, why wouldn’t I use this, is there a sensible business reason why this wouldn’t apply here?”

3. Consider the customer experience

The customer is always right? Not always…but let’s factor in their point of view. Organisations are full of customer and supplier relationships. The FP&A team are a supplier to the CFO. The commercial teams are both customer and supplier to the FP&A teams, each stakeholding group has their own perception of how well the process works. Carrying out customer experience workshops at the early stages of your projects allows you to consider the important things from different people’s point of view – this counteracts the risk of designing a process that meets one person’s needs at the expense of another. This doesn’t mean that you try to keep everyone happy… this is nearly impossible. Customer experiences should be considered and then an informed judgement can be taken about which needs should be addressed as a priority.

4. It’s not a system implementation…it’s a change project.

There’s no uncertainty here… a project to implement a new planning process, new consolidation process or management reporting process is in no way a techie systems project. It’s a change project and should be treated as such.  Communication, education and stakeholder ‘buy in’ are as important as making sure that the technical solution is fit for purpose. Make a plan for the people elements and follow through on this plan as if it were as key an ingredient as the physical solution that eventually will be deployed.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

If the title wasn’t clear enough, communication is perhaps the most critical element of all projects. This is not a Eureka insight, everybody knows this. However, not all projects practice it. It’s not sufficient to have a ‘communications plan’ that aligns stakeholders from a project management perspective. Communication goes wider than that. Build awareness and gain buy in using practical and innovative involvement from key stakeholders. Use design-thinking workshops to get everyone pulling in the same direction and having a common understanding of the key issues. Make the Comms plan a value adding process that encourages people to get involved rather than be informed. Above all, make this a systematic process…nut and bolts to the whole delivery.

6. Project management – on time, on budget, on value

Once you know where you are going, you need to have a robust plan to get there and then an organised process of tracking performance along the way. Project management and strong project governance has been the difference between many a failed and successful project. Planning, tracking and the management of risks and issues is the basic stuff… the key in this area is to focus on stakeholder engagement and following rigorous project governance. Choose the PM carefully, the more similar and the greater their experience the better… they will be able to second guess pitfalls and ask the right questions to investigate issues further.

7. Risky business these finance change projects

Inevitably projects around finance planning and consolidation are high profile by their very nature. If projects are on the CFO agenda they are visible and there is a higher risk sensitivity attached. Manage out risk as much as possible. Ensure a robust risk management process is in place and focus on the right areas: time, budget and value. Don’t just consider technical aspects in the risk management scope… people, organisational and dependant projects are key. Look for advisors who have been there and successfully done it…. they probably have encountered issues in the past and know how to mitigate.

8. Don’t try to boil the ocean in one go!

There is a balance between delivering a Big Bang in one go and phasing delivery of change. Supporters of the Big Bang argue that it is much more cost effective and gets value from the project faster. The corollary: supporters of phased delivery argue that Big Bang is too risky and dropping deliverables in many phases brings benefits of easier adoption of the new processes. The point of balance is somewhere in between and is specific to your organisational culture. It is prudent to adopt some form of phasing – high level scenarios should be played out to get the right mix of deliverables and ensure that the project process is impactful and still efficient.

9. Team design

At the end of the day, you rely on a team of people to deliver. Often you don’t know the individuals but the important thing is that the team operate well together. Designing a team is not an exact science, you want to have confidence that the team is capable, objectives are clearly understood and above all you need a sense that the team will drive this project through. Early stage team building is key, start-up events, socials, and other binding activities are essential. Senior stakeholders should take part in this process as it tells the team that the project is important and allows senior members to participate and assess. The mix of skills is important, don’t go too heavy on the technical skillset at the expense of the finance process skillset. Measure the team against key activities, keep resource options available while fleshing out the plan to make sure that the best people can be called upon.

10. Keep improving

Once the project or programme has been implemented there is a tendency to close the chapter, pat each other on the back and turn our attention to the next thing. Many companies miss a trick… wind back to the start of the project… first benchmark your process KPIs prior to the change… for example ‘plan accuracy is x, plan cycle duration is y days, plan cost is z% of revenue etc’. Then establish a process to keep recording and reporting the process performance, leading companies establish a ‘value management office’ (VMO) to head up this activity and focus on continuously improving. This sounds like a big investment but can simply be half a day a quarter to meet and review, the important thing is to create the placeholder and assign responsibilities. Companies make huge advancements as a result of change programmes, people understand things better and new insights become clearer. The key is to feedback this knowledge into the organisation.


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