A cure for the WorkflowMax job list blues

So you’ve got those ol’ WorkflowMax job list blues? It’s time to turn that frown upside-down. Here’s a cure for what ails you.

Too much work

Out of the box, WorkflowMax forces you to create way too many jobs. A job isn’t merely a work code, like a description of the activity you undertook. It’s a project that has a start date and an end date. It has team members allocated to it and can be used to manage the workflow of individuals, teams and the practice as a whole. Turns out, accountants in public practice work on a lot of jobs!

What that translates to is clutter. It makes your job list unmanageable, because everything that you’ve ever worked on becomes a job for you. Most accountants we know want a job list just to manage the major tasks they are currently working on. They don’t want, for example, to start a job simply because they made a phone call that went a little long.


Like most accountants, we enjoy breakdancing and recording all of our time.

For those of us that still kick it old-school, it’s not that you want to bill every unit of time you allocate to a job. But you at least want to record it for job costing purposes, not to mention for identifying capacity, monitoring productivity and so on. Maybe it’s just a case that old habits die hard. Perhaps we will completely revolutionise the way we record time and bill our clients sometime in the future. Even so, let’s do one thing at a time. Let’s get the software bedded down first and replicate what we’re currently doing. Then we’ll talk.

So for us, WorkflowMax was reduced to a time recording tool and nothing more. Jobs lists became too long and unwieldy. Even though it had promised so much, we weren’t using it to manage workflow at all. It was WorkflowMin.

We needed a solution. So the FGS team went into their laboratory to concoct a formula for making our work lists more manageable. This is what they came up with.

It isn’t a perfect solution still because ultimately we’re limited by the functionality of the application. We’re waiting for the day when some of the changes we’ve requested are implemented, so that WFM is a better fit for more traditional practices. We made a shortlist late last year of the major improvements we’d like to see. But for now, this works for us.

We’ve introduced two new jobs states which can be included in any job.

New job statesThe first is Time Accumulation. This job state usually appears near the very beginning, though it may not always be used that way. The point of it is to have a separate phase in the flow of work which is not attributable to a specific task.

The second job state we introduced is For Invoicing. This is usually the last job state before a job is set to completed. It reflects precisely what it says – that often a job may be finished but not invoiced until later in the month or beyond.

On the face of it these jobs states may seem neither here nor there. It’s what comes next that makes the difference. Because of the way WFM can notify staff about changes to a job, we have these two new job states set to notify our accounts manager when a job is changed to one of these states. She then goes into those jobs and makes herself the manager of them while at the same time removing the names of anyone else who might have worked on the job and is associated with it (more relevant for jobs that have been in the system for a while and are ready for invoicing than new jobs that have started with the Time Accumulation state).

Sometimes you have to jury-rig things to get the result you're looking for.

Sometimes you have to jury-rig things to get the result you’re looking for.

This may seem awkward and clunky (and to some extent it is) but it’s a serviceable workaround that achieves what we want. Our accounts manager does very little chargeable work and so doesn’t use her job list. And this is an admin task so it helps to move an administration intensive activity away from our chargeable people. From their perspective, it all happens automatically, making their lives easier. Any job where one of these states is used is removed from our accountants’ job lists, which become far more reflective of the actual state of their current workload, i.e. jobs they are actively working on.

What’s more, the For Invoicing job state, with its accompanying notification, proactively tells our accounts manager that an invoice is ready to be raised, instead of her having to chase it up or wait for someone to let her know. She can log in each day and immediately see a list of bills she can raise.

This is a great example of how (with a little lateral thinking at times) WFM can be made to work for traditional accounting practices like ours, and even help to improve them. The question is, could we have ever worked this out for ourselves? I’m glad we didn’t have to find out.


Workflow (not quite to the) Max

For an accounting practice, wasting time is like stopping the production line. So the last thing you want is inefficient systems, right?

OK look…I’m just going to say it. Our users don’t much like WorkflowMax so far. It might end up giving us great information on how the practice is tracking, but the process of getting the data in there – the day-to-day use of WorkflowMax – is cumbersome.

Call us cave-people, but we still believe that time costing for billing our work has its place. I could go into the reasons why, and perhaps I will in a separate post at another time. But for now, suffice it to say that’s how we roll. We’re happy to quote and work for a fixed fee based on a reasonable estimate when required. And we may not bill everything we record. – we often absorb time as client service or value adds. But we want to record all of our time . And besides, often the decision as to whether to bill or write-off doesn’t reside with the person entering the time, so by default all time needs to go to the job at the time of entry until that decision is later made by management. We know there are many others in the industry who agree with us and in fact many of our clients ask for it.

Primitive accountants lived in the constant shadow of danger. But perhaps the greatest threat of all was a timesheet that wouldn’t reconcile.

From our experience to date, using WorkflowMax in this kind of environment leads to wasted time. And that matters. Xero have said they want to give the accounting industry a shake-up. We welcome the rattling of some cages and we reckon Xero has the products to fundamentally shift the way accountants operate. We’re believers! But to really do it well, they’re going to have to have a time recording solution that is flexible enough to be used in a variety of ways. For those practices that operate in the traditional fashion – recording time using timesheets – WorkflowMax still needs a bit of work to make the experience a pleasant one for the user.

So what don’t our users like?

Let me put it very simply – recording lots of little jobs.

A typical manager’s timesheet may have 50 or more lines on it each day. And for every one of those, WorkflowMax requires that there be a job in the system.

Often then, this leaves you with one of two options:

  1. Record lots of small jobs that will clutter your jobs list or, if they are immediately completed, take almost as long to set up as the job itself took to do; or
  2. Put the time against a more generic job, which has the effect of adding a job to your list that may not actually be started. For example, let’s say you have a chat to your client in July about what they need to do to get ready for their 2012 tax work. The discussion touches on other issues and by the time you’re done it works out at around 20 minutes. In all likelihood we won’t bill this time, but we need to record it. You don’t want to create a tiny job in the system, so instead you put it to the “2012 tax returns and financials” job for the client (whatever that may be called). That job is now active. It appears on your job list as being in progress. But the client may not bring in their work until February next year. You now have a job started in your system, cluttering your work list, which actually isn’t started yet and won’t be for some time.

How could this be fixed? We can think of at least three ways.

  1. Introduce the ability to create jobs from your timesheet – perhaps with a popup or a prompt if a job isn’t in the system already. And prompt for a template too, that way you could use standard templates for those little jobs that actually repeat each year and set them up on the fly.
  2. Allow users to change a job’s state from within a timesheet. This would then allow you to set a job to ‘complete’ immediately. It has other benefits too. You may not use this every time, but where you know that the job state is changing with your entry, why not do it all in one action rather than having to go into a separate area to do it?
  3. Have a job state called ‘not started’ that doesn’t show on your job list but does allow you to record time against it. We’re open to suggestions on the state name, but something like that. This would allow a user to put small amounts of time to larger annual jobs that may not actually be started yet without it then appearing on their job list. If there is a concern about this time going missing, you could have a link on a user’s job list job list called ‘Jobs not started’ or ‘Untracked jobs’ which only expands when clicked.

Finally, just one observation about the overall vibe. The whole process of recording time just feels very ‘webby’ and isn’t geared towards rapid data entry. I’ve discussed already how having a table of some sort that allowed for fast entry and editing would improve that no end. Being able to create jobs on the fly would also help.

But even the programming and layout makes frequent use a time-consuming process. I’m no developer, so forgive me if this is way off, but it seems to me that if it were programmed using different tools (e.g. Ajax), this would allow for rapid data entry and editing without having to click and save each individual entry and then wait for the page to render before you can move on. The ‘slow and steady’ approach is compounded further by the fact that there’s actually a bug where if you are too fast it can record an entry twice, which has also been infuriating our users.

Do we have a mutiny on our hands? Not at all. The reality is of course that we’re used to living with a system that we’re not entirely happy with, so we’re no worse off. And actually, up to this point, we love Xero. So if we’re assessing things on balance – replacing what we had with a combination of Xero and WorkflowMax – we still feel like we’re miles ahead.

Further, if the practice management capabilities live up to the promise, even if there were no hope on the data entry side of things, we’re happy to live with a compromise. We’re really excited about the wider possibilities of WorkflowMax. But we have to call it how we see it too.

Taking it to the street, accountant style! WHAT DO WE WANT?! Minor improvements to data-entry efficiency! WHEN DO WE WANT IT?! Sometime in the future, though generally we’re pretty happy so please don’t interpret this as dissent or a vote of no confidence in your overall product offering!

We know that Xero listen and respond to what their users want. So we’re asking Xero to have a look at this and see if they can find a way to make entering time quicker and more efficient.

But we also want to hear from you. So I’m about to get all ‘chain letter’ on you. Send this out to everyone you know! OK, not quite – but hear me out. I know that not everyone is interested in reading our little travel diary and that’s perfectly fine. In this case though we’d love to hear from as many WorkflowMax users in practice as possible – even those that aren’t following us. So we’re sending a shout out to any accounting practices that use WorkflowMax, and we’d love your help. Let us know in the comments – what do you think? How do you use WorkflowMax? And how do you get around the ‘lots of little jobs’ issue? We’re hoping that together we might be able to collaborate on a workaround.

And by the way – we already know about the ‘abandon the timesheet’ solution. We’re looking for an alternative.

Xero to the rescue

We’ve been using WorkflowMax for a week now and it’s all going pretty well. But last week we had a couple of minor ‘adjustment’ difficulties. The team at Xero came to the rescue that same day.

One of the things we love about our Xero/WorkflowMax experience so far is the enthusiasm of the Xero team to help and collaborate. They really seem to take the user experience seriously.

This is especially so in the way they that have responded to our questions. Maybe these issues are covered in the comprehensive help resources somewhere, or perhaps there’s a forum post about them. But we will also capture them here as we experience them.

So I want to go back to my Xero Hour post last week. It was actually more about our first week with WorkflowMax than Xero, but ‘WorkflowMax Hour’ didn’t have the same ring to it. We’re really excited about WFM and the way it can empower us to manage the practice better. But in the interests of being as transparent as possible, I mentioned a couple of things that we were still having a hard time adjusting to.

In what is now becoming pretty standard practice, the Xero guys responded that day with some tips to help us come to terms with those adjustments.

  1. It’s slow.” Response – use multiple tabs. This ‘problem’ mostly derives from the fact that WFM is web-based and that can make it a little slow to navigate around. The suggested solution is to have multiple tabs open in your browser, showing different tasks, or even multiple browser windows on different screens (we have 2 screens on every desktop). This works well, for example, when you need to set up a new job once you’ve already started entering time. What started out as a problem (being browser-based) actually has some benefits. Provided you keep track of what save state everything is in, being web-based allows you have any number of different components of the same application open at the same time. Note: Another suggestion to speed things up is to use Google Chrome as your browser. So far it seems to make a difference.
  2. Entering time should be tabular.” Response – we’ll look at it.  Maybe it’s just us, but our users have said managing time would be so much easier if you could enter and edit timesheet entries in a table, since having to do them individually and waiting for your browser to process and save each line is time consuming. We can see how the current process might be fine for those who only work on two or three jobs in a day. If your managers are like ours, you can multiply that number by 10 some days! Not quite, but you get what I mean. With lots of interruptions and working through issues with junior staff and having to respond to partner requests, etc. your timesheet soon bloats with lots of little entries, and these become cumbersome to manage. There isn’t a ‘solution’ to this since it’s just about style. But Xero’s first response was that they would talk to a developer about having a tabular option. From the way these products are developed and the speed at which updates are released, we have no doubt that they mean it. Whether it actually changes in the end isn’t as important as knowing that at least they’re listening.
  3. Job focus can make managing a day difficult.” Response – use a clearing job.  Again, an accountant’s day often can’t be divided up easily into ‘jobs’. This makes things difficult to manage, especially when you need to put down a little time for a regular client that isn’t really a job – something that’s more an ‘odd-job’. Xero suggested we should set up a generic ongoing job as a clearing account for all staff to temporarily get that time in and then have an admin person later set up the correct job and reallocate the time. We’ll have to try it to be sure but it seems like a workable solution to reduce the admin burden on accountants and allow them to get their time in faster.

You might also remember the little (read: huge) security issue we covered with the WFM login page. As yet no action on that but we’ve been assured by the Xero guys at least that now that WFM has come under their banner they’ll be making sure it’s addressed and fixed. We live in hope!

And ‘hope’ is a great word to finish on. To be honest, we’ve grown accustomed over the years to coexisting with our software vendor in a kind of symbiotic tolerance. Our enhancement requests would be ignored and in return our maintenance would only go up by twice CPI every year! But we weren’t going anywhere. Changing systems can seem as big as changing banks, and they know it. Even if you’re getting the worst deal possible, the thought of everything that needs to be done to switch to something which is not guaranteed to be better is so overwhelming that you reluctantly submit to any injustice just to get it out of your mind.

Our new software vendor seems dreamy. Do you think they feel the same way about us?

Then one day it just gets to the point where you’ll do anything to get away. It’s nice when that decision is actually rewarded. You find yourself wondering what you were so worried about and why it took you so long. It’s too early to say that Xero is everything we hoped for yet, but at the moment all signs point to yes. You’ll never find the perfect application. There are likely as many conceptions of that as there are businesses. But we can now testify that you can find a developer who will listen and engage and help you to get it as close as possible to what you want it to be. It feels great to be finally having a conversation, and that fills us with excitement at what might be possible.

Next time: subaccounts and the fear of flying.

Xero Hour

The clock struck Xero Hour at Dewings this week.

Since we first started this blog I had this post slotted into the plan as a kind of timetable of events for our first day. ‘Xero Hour’ I would wittily call it (genius), and it would detail the frantic state of day one as we wrestled to adopt this new and kinda weird looking stranger into the Dewings family.

Here’s what ended up being my notes from the day:

8:07am – arrived at work.

8:18am – entered results for footy tips (some matters take priority over all others).

8:47am – set up laptop, projector and video camera in conference room for WorkflowMax training.

…and that’s it.

Tim from FGS stepping into the breach and training the team Monday morning. Video available at all good DVD outlets.

I wanted to document the day a lot more thoroughly than that, but it never happened. You might think that the reason for this is that we were so busy putting out fires that there simply wasn’t the time. And certainly the morning was a busy one. But by the afternoon, there really wasn’t that much to report. If I was to add some post-dated entries now, they’d be:

11:15am (ish) – completed WorkflowMax initial training to enable us to enter time.

11:30am (ish) – located list of jobs in progress and set about getting those into the system so that time could be allocated. This was meant to be done prior to 30th June but we overlooked it and only noticed during training that there were no jobs in there yet.

1:22pm (precisely) – sent email to the team advising that all current jobs were in there and that they could start entering time.

Naturally there were a few questions and issues that needed to be resolved during the afternoon. But overall, the afternoon was characterised largely by its normality. So much for my dramatic ‘live from the warzone’ post!

FGS have been a big part of that. They’ve had all of the answers to our questions, and have been incredibly helpful and patient for the most minute of queries. We can’t emphasise enough the value in having someone like FGS to help make Xero work in an accounting practice. Even with our short timeframe, they have made sure that everything that needed to be done happened on time.

So far, we’re really just using WorkflowMax (WFM) with a little Xero by a select few staff. For WFM, the relative calm has largely been because our team members can see how to correlate what they have been doing with what they now need to do. There is some adjustment, of course, but in the end, they’re just recording time in a timesheet.

Actual photo of team response to new systems

We want to affirm that it’s very much a case of ‘so far so good’ with WFM. But we’ve also pledged to give you the straight dope – a warts and all account of our journey. And we know that you know that no system change is ever a worry-free frolic in the meadows. So it would be disingenuous of us not to mention some of the teething problems and adjustments we’ve had to make so far. Like a bride-to-be preparing for her big day, we’ve been a little gushy before the event, swept off our collective feet by the anticipation of all of the possibilities that lie ahead. Now it’s our first week of having to live with each other.

It’s worth noting firstly, for the uninitiated, that WFM is job based. What you’re trying to do with it is manage and monitor jobs in your system.

The complaints at this early stage have been:

  1. It’s slow – It’s web based, and we all know how sometimes your browser can just pause for a little while, as it thinks and processes. So each time you enter a time, you have to wait for it to save, and that can be slow going compared to a locally hosted system when you’re entering a bunch of items.
  2. Entering time should be tabular – This is really an extension of the above. Because each entry must be saved individually, not only can you not enter multiple line items in at once, but reviewing and editing is a little cumbersome too, especially if you’re used to just being able to click on a field and change it. With WFM you must first click on the line item in a list, wait for the page to render, then edit the item, then save again, and so on. Bottom line we think is that it would be great to be able to see all time for the day in a table where any field could be freely edited simply by clicking it, instead of having to go to a separate page for each item first.
  3. Job focus can make managing a day difficult – There is a real upside to tracking jobs in terms of workflow management. But the downside here can be that an accountant’s day is not always so easily divided into ‘jobs’. There are all sorts of interruptions for a manager during the day, often unrelated to jobs they are working on. You can’t quickly record that time. There must be a job in the system. And some of the work we do is better categorised as an ‘odd-job’. That quick phone call from a client where they have a question unrelated to anything that you’re currently working on for them. This can be fiddly to manage. There have been occasions where it has taken as long to set up the job as it has to actually do it! We need to get the balance right.

The obvious solution to this is to move away from the traditional accounting model of recording every second of time. That’s a great goal and one we hope to work towards eventually. I guess the difficulty is that WFM is supposed to be able to handle both the old way and the new, and it does. But if you do use a traditional timesheet model it’s a little more cumbersome. I guess that’s a motivation to change!

There is one final gripe with WorkflowMax, and that is security. Gasp!

We sat in on a Xero Essentials training video on Wednesday just to help the familiarisation process. One of the first things covered by the presenter was security. Very reassuring. It was emphasised during the demo that when logging into Xero, the browser would not prompt you to save your username and password like ‘some other sites’ because of the big security risk this poses.

‘Some other sites’ it seems includes their own product. WorkflowMax does in fact allow you to save your login credentials. As accountants, we’re a little nervous that all our data is out there in the cloud. But we’ve been reassured (and rightly) that when executed correctly, the cloud is more secure than any office. Amen! When executed correctly…

The reason remembering passwords is a security 101 no-no for any site that contains personal identity and financial data is because anyone can come along behind you and log straight in if those details have been remembered. Xero/WFM prides themselves on providing ‘anywhere access’ to your data, which means you can use a tablet or other portable device, or (God forbid) a public computer. So all it takes is for that portable device to get lost, or for someone to accidentally click ‘remember me’ on a public computer, and it’s potentially all over. This is a feature that’s intended for membership of TV show forums and the blogs of 15 year old kids, not for sites that host sensitive identity and financial data. Obviously Xero agrees, since the Xero site does not offer to remember your login credentials, and this was specifically emphasised in the Xero demo.

When I asked WorkflowMax support about this last week, the response was:

“…the ‘remember me’ functionality is a heavily utilised function by our users and therefore they will not consider removing it.”

“We could have had a no smoking policy around the chemicals…but our employees just really like to smoke.”

This seems to suggest in this case that convenience trumps security. I’d love to be able to walk straight into the office every day without unlocking the doors and turning off the alarm. Unfortunately if I can do that, so can anyone else! The price of security is some inconvenience – you have to fiddle with the keys a little and jiggle the lock every day, which can be annoying.

We love the guys at Xero and WorkflowMax (now owned by Xero). They’ve been incredibly helpful and they really do ‘get’ how users work and how this translates into the features of their products. To their credit, WFM have since said they’ll consider it further. But every day that goes by without this being addressed is one that puts sensitive data at needless risk.

By the way – if we’re wrong on any of these things, or we discover a workaround or change in practice that can actually make it work better, we’ll let you know. And hopefully you can do the same for us. At the moment, these are all just first impressions.

And that’s not the note we should end on. For the most part, we can see why we chose to spend the rest of our lives with these guys. Sure, they leave the toilet seat up sometimes or forget to clean up after a shave. But the one percenters shouldn’t overshadow the 99. Right now, we feel like we’ve got a keeper. Once again, the most significant thing to note this week has been the relative sense of calm and normality that has prevailed. Normal is good. We like normal. It’s different, of course. But we can already see that with some minor adjustment to our practices there is a wealth of great management information at our fingertips.