Autopsies without blame

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You have two choices when things go wrong at your firm: Spend time defending yourself or spend time solving the problem. Attacking a colleague for making a mistake discourages learning, poisons your culture and ultimately hurts your clients. Make your organization a learning organization based on trust and transparency.

I was flipping through the AICPA’s CPA Horizons 2025 Report the other day and a few things jumped out at me. First, CPAs must never stop learning. As the Report explained, “Real-time learning in the workplace will change the way CPAs learn and will help them adopt and adapt quickly and knowledgeably to ever-changing circumstances.”

Second, when you think of lifelong learning, there’s a tendency to imagine years of time spent hunched over a computer grinding out CPE credits. But CPAs must have a broad knowledge of “business and soft skills and not simply focus on technical accounting,” according to the report.

Most CPA firms aspire to be great. Why is it so hard to keep partners, staff and clients happy?

I’ve come to realize that it’s not all about keeping everybody happy; it’s about creating a cultural mindset around continuous learning and growth. I’ve found that firms with learning as part of their culture are also progressive in another important way: When something goes wrong—and invariably it will—they focus on the root cause of the mistake. They don’t focus on who made it. They focus on their internal systems and processes to make sure the same mistake doesn’t keep happening. As the old saying goes: “Focus on the dead body, not on the murder.”

Jim Collins, best-selling author of Good to Great, calls that mindset “autopsies without blame.”

After spending time inside hundreds of U.S. companies for his research, Collins found a common thread that separated great organizations from mediocre ones. Great organizations address mistakes head-on; they don’t spend time pointing fingers.

We’ve all spent time in “pass the buck” organizations with lots of back-office politics. Can you really do your best work when you’re always on the defensive and when your coworkers are paranoid and constantly in CYA mode?

Our firm devotes 15 minutes of every weekly meeting to mistakes. Every team member is expected to bring one big problem or mistake to light from the past week. We attack the breakdown together and honestly discuss how that problem or mistake can be prevented or at least ameliorated going forward. We look at how our systems and processes can be tweaked so the snafu (the dead body) doesn’t keep landing on the autopsy table. That’s how we get better as a firm.

The other day a client told me he was annoyed because we hadn’t gotten back to him about an important email he had sent us a few days earlier. Now that’s a problem, because we have a very strict, two-hour client-response policy. It doesn’t mean we can solve a client issue within two hours. It simply means we’re letting the client know ASAP that we got their message and that we’re working on a solution.

Again, this communication breakdown wasn’t necessarily the fault of the client service person assigned to that client’s account. It was a firm-wide breakdown and a violation of our two-hour response policy. I asked the staffer politely why she hadn’t responded to our client ASAP. She told me it was because she didn’t have an answer for the client. I politely reminded her to review our system: “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answer to a client’s question right away. You’re going to get back to the client within two hours of receiving their message. No exceptions.” It means you’re going to assure the client that their message was received and that you’re working on a solution. I wasn’t mad at my staff person. I was disappointed by the breakdown in our system.

When things go wrong at your firm, there are two things you can do: You can waste time defending yourself or you can spend time attacking the problem. At a high-performing learning organization, it’s the latter. Which one’s going to put your client in a better position?

How quickly does your firm respond to clients? I can’t tell you how often people tell me that their CPA sometimes takes days, even weeks, to get back to them on an issue. That’s just unacceptable. If that was my CPA firm, I’d have fired them immediately. Some CPAs admit to me: “If it’s really urgent, my clients will email me again.” That’s unacceptable, too. Too many CPAs forget they’re in a service industry. It doesn’t matter how busy you are during crunch time; if you’re not being proactive and creating a great client experience, it’s pretty easy for clients to go elsewhere for basic tax, accounting and attestation services.

Client service is your key differentiator, not how well you do tax returns. If you’re not providing it, that’s a dead body on the table that needs to be identified.

Mistakes are happening all the time at professional service firms. CPAs are not exempt. If you don’t have a culture that brings these issues to light and fixes them without blame, then you’re going to have a plague on your hands. As the CPA Horizons 2025 Report warned: “For CPAs to remain competitive in a rapidly changing environment, the profession must evolve training, combining real-time, technology-based education with traditional in-person and on-the-job training to maximize learning experiences.” I couldn’t agree more. How about you?

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