FP&A From the Frontlines: How human effort and hard work aren’t substitutes for sound processes & technological leverage

FP&A From the Frontlines: How human effort and hard work aren’t substitutes for sound processes & technological leverage
FP&A digital transformation

I can still remember walking a 3.5 inch floppy disk down the hallway of a billion dollar company. On it: our balance sheet for the controller to review.

I’m dating myself, for sure. I’ve been in finance and accounting for a while, and have witnessed the move from mainframe to client server and now the cloud. I don’t miss having to attach the ten-key tape to my manual journal entry to prove it foots.

Back then, we thought we were two steps ahead of the game. Until we weren’t.

That’s the way it goes; keeping up can be a challenge. Yet, in the face of change, some things remain constant: A sound, logical, repeatable process always works better than the “just work harder” approach. Leverage technology wherever possible to make the process “smarter,” and try to automate activities that lead to human error, as well as your reporting — so you can focus on what’s most important: adding insight to the numbers and highlighting trends for leadership.

A Transformational Tale

The consulting company that I referenced above had outgrown its systems and it was showing. The forecast process still revolved around the concept of “leveraging” a central team to roll up results and provide reporting packages to corresponding field teams. Problem was, these forecast packages had grown in complexity and size while most of the information was being put together manually.

This was extremely time consuming and led to errors. Field finance teams had to submit forecast inputs by 3:30 p.m. and the central team was supposed to get packages back out by 5:00 p.m. — a deadline that was often missed.

But being late was only the beginning of the issue.

There were no checks built into the reporting by the central team so field teams had to scrub the forecast package for errors — and we found them. Often. I’d spend 2-3 days a month working on forecast checking until late at night to ensure accurate reporting. We didn’t add commentary, didn’t provide insights, and didn’t highlight variances from guidelines.

All this work was done just to make sure the reporting tied out to known inputs and that subschedules tied back to summaries. This just was not a good use of time and effort.

In this instance, the central team was following the directives of senior leadership. Yes, they should have built a more automated process with checkpoints built-in but the real issue was that operations had simply outgrown the centralized process approach to consolidating forecast information and creating reports.

Sound familiar? Scenarios like this are commonplace, even today.

The Fix

Improvement finally came when field leadership requested a meeting with the CFO and central team. After several revisions, we collectively designed a standard forecast package that met everyone’s approval. We agreed on how data was to be pulled from our recently upgraded ERP. The central team would no longer produce forecast packages and the process would be decentralized.

After some work with my own team we built a package that included P&Ls for 22 client teams with summaries by geography and that could be updated with new downloads from our ERP in thirty minutes. Given the accuracy issues with the previous reporting package, it goes without saying that we included a robust check process into the forecast deck.

As with any new process, adoption and trust in the new approach took some time. But after a couple of successful updates our client and geography teams began to trust and rely on the new forecast deck. They even quit running their own shadow process to double check our results! 

That was then. Today, the process we set up to solve a nagging problem would itself be antiquated and a candidate for digital transformation.

Forward-Looking: FP&A Digital Transformation

Growth can be difficult. Simply “working harder” on a suboptimal process doesn’t work. And even after you think you have a great “fix,” there can still be room for improvement.

Don’t be afraid to question if there is a better way to do something. Don’t be hesitant to ask for help from others; no one person is likely to have all the answers. Finance is a team sport, play it that way.  Succeed by fostering a shared goal and involving stakeholders at every level.

So, if you haven’t started the digital transformation process at your organization, it’s a good time to start asking, “Why not?”

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