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‘Process improvement’ vs ‘Game changer’ – 10 things that will make a huge difference to your finance systems projects

Over the past decade, planning, reporting and regulatory reporting projects have been under-delivering in terms of value – their focus had been “upgrade and automate”.

Increasingly, there had been a change in expectation, as new technologies are better understood, and organisations become increasingly aware of the opportunities available to them.

Greater integration across business processes is now the target operating model – linking strategy, finance and operations. Corporate performance management is not only impacting finance – but business performance.

The points covered below may seem obvious and common place – but their importance is often overlooked. Making sure you are mindful of these areas will help to get the most from any finance project that you take on:

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

Knowing what you should achieve and how you are going to do this is perhaps one of the most blurry aspects to any finance change project. So what can you do to help get clarity on direction?

Benchmark your processes and understand which gaps you want to bridge. It’s not a long process…a few days with the right people will allow you to assess the performance of your planning and reporting processes and work out what high value / low effort areas are best to focus on.

Understand where top performing companies have spent their time and where the biggest impact gains have been realised. This gives you a rounded view of what is happening in the market – and you will get a sense of the global trends that are taking place and where they are being driven from.

2. Consider best practices

‘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.

However, it is a no-brainer that you should make use of the tons of research and analysis to support your thinking and considerations. Perhaps it easier to view best practices as a sounding board or a checklist to make sure you consider the full range of possible improvements. A useful way to consider best practices is…”can I see the benefit of this for our organization?; what is the incremental value that can be achieved by implementing this?; is there a sensible business reason why this wouldn’t apply here?”

3. Be mindful of the customer experience

The customer is always right? Not always…but let’s factor in their point of view. And …who exactly is the customer?

Organisations are full of customer and supplier relationships. For example – the FP&A team are a supplier to the CFO…the commercial teams are both customer and supplier to the FP&A teams; each stakeholder 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 reduces 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…that’s almost impossible!

Customer experiences should be considered, worked into the design process 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 ambiguity here… a project to implement a new planning process, new consolidation process or management reporting process is not just a “techie” systems project.

It’s a change in the way things are done (and hopefully an improvement) that involves processes, people, organizational teams, technology and mindset. Finance are now using tools that will support strategic and operational business performance – not just an inward focus on processing information and running reports. There is a lot of opportunities that can be won – but it needs careful thought and planning from a change perspective. Communication, education, stakeholder buy-in and the “broadening of horizons” are important for the success of the project, but also help to boost the benefits that can be achieved.

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.

This is not about making sure you have a communications plan in place and ticking this off the list – it goes much deeper. Projects fail because people are not on the same page and this spirals into cost, time and functional issues. People have different specialisms, experience and mindsets – what means one thing to one group means something else to another.

If everyone is not on the same page, but we think we are, then wrong decisions can be made, or things can be missed or misunderstood. Communication needs to be planned and managed – but more than that it needs to be applied everywhere – requirements, design, project management, training etc. Make this a systematic process…nut and bolts to the whole delivery and an output from any stakeholder engagement.

Also – train your project team to look out for miscommunications and misunderstandings.

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… it is easy to carry out the normal project activities as per the “manual” and still come unstuck further down the line.

Certain project principles should be instilled into every participant to avoid issues downstream: share knowledge on project management basics – people should understand how they feed into the overall success and what is expected of them; push accountability downwards – team members should be self-accounting for their time and deliverables; foster a spirit of no blame and no surprises; use an online project management tracking tool – this way everyone has real-time visibility and real-time accountability for their actions. This is a wide subject area and these are just a few pointers, but the overall message is “its easier if everyone is pulling in the same direction and understands how good projects should run”.

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, reporting 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 and sensitivity that comes with this.

Reviewing risks is good – its forward looking and helps foster the principle of “no surprises”. Different groups see different risks so it’s important to communicate the right information so that people can evaluate if things looks concerning.

As with project management activities – it’s useful to do some knowledge share on risk management so people know what is expected of them and what sort of things we should be focusing on – time, cost, scope and value. Ensure a robust risk management process is in place and forms part of your weekly review processes.

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. On the other hand, supporters of phased delivery argue that Big Bang is too risky – dropping deliverables in several phases brings benefits of easier adoption and lower risk. The point of balance is somewhere in between and is specific to your organisational culture and the level of complexity – but the general principle should be: better to get it right, than to fall at the first hurdle.

Its definitely lower risk is to adopt some form of phasing – high level phasing scenarios should be played out to get the right mix of delivering value / impact and balancing cost /timeframes.

9. There’s no “I” in TEAM!

The team delivers the project – so it’s “make-up” is a critical factor.

Often teams are under-staffed (in terms of quality and knowledge) when the scope of the project and the effort is not clearly understood. It’s important for the PM to make sure that the mix of technical skills, subject matter expertise and organizational knowledge is right to satisfy key objectives. Equally important, there should be a mix of thinking in the team – forward thinking trail blazers who want to make a mark – and more conservative participants who just want to make sure we get it right. Off course technical and project management skills are needed – preferably with experience of similar projects and the same technologies.

Also – where external parties or consultants are involved it’s important to make sure everyone still has an accountability for the delivery of the project – many times consultants are expected to drive and deliver and customer representatives are more bystanders than team members – this is suboptimal and quickly divides the team. Conversely, consultants can be under pressure to meet client expectations and deliver – so they can be reluctant to raise issues with client teams – they push on and persevere. This again can lead to big issues and divisions in the delivery team as a whole.

Clear roles, responsibilities and expectations can help avoid these issues – they should be written down and agreed at the outset.

10. Don’t stop – 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.

Often when new technology is implemented there is a “bedding in” period – during this time, people get used to the new processes and technologies and develop understanding and skills. With most planning, reporting and consolidation systems available these days there is a wealth of opportunity – and yet the initial implementations tend to deliver only the basic functionality. Companies can continue to gain value from completed projects – but they need to keep improving.

This need not be onerous or costly. Have a continuous improvement team with representatives from the main competence areas; task them with “sweating the assets” and getting the most from the tools purchased. Make use of the vendor relationship, your consultants, user groups and case studies to see what else people are doing and what benefits they are gaining.

Anyway – that’s all for now on this post. I hope the above was interesting – as always…all comments welcome.

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regards

Azim

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