Obtaining and Maintaining Visibility Across Your Firm
From client data, to project statuses, to internal and external communications, the average accounting firm is inundated with information. It can be hard just to stay afloat, amid everything we need to keep track of. The answer lies in efficiency. Standardized practices and transparency lead to visibility across not only the work, but also all of the information your firm uses.
The first step in managing your information efficiently is asking yourself a few questions every morning. The specific questions differ, according on your role: doer, manager or partner. Depending on the size and organization of your firm, you may play one or more of these roles. However, when wearing a specific hat, you should ask yourselves these questions:
- What has changed since I last checked my projects/clients?
- Are there any urgent issues with my clients?
- What are my priorities? Have they shifted?
- Are my projects coming along as expected?
- Will I meet my deadlines? On time? And with the desired quality?
- What has changed across the team since I last checked?
- Are we on track to hit our deadlines and meet our goals?
- Are we servicing our clients? Are our processes sufficient?
- How can we do things more efficiently as a team?
- What cross-sell or up-sell opportunities exist?
- What is happening across the practice?
- Are our clients happy?
- Do we have the resources and tools we need to be successful?
- How do we drive more business from new or existing clients?
- Are we profitable? What should we change, or double down on?
What differs most from role to role is the focus. For the doer, the focus is on specific projects, tasks and clients for which they’re responsible. The manager’s focus is on the team and its progress, and what can be done to help the team better reach its goals. The partner focuses on the firm as a whole, specifically whether it’s meeting its metrics, and what needs to be done if it isn’t. These standardized sets of priorities for each role in the firm are necessary for people to know what they own, and where they should be focusing.
Step 1: Consistency of the work. The first step in being able to manage work holistically and obtain visibility is having consistency across all of the work undertaken by the firm.
Step 1A: Standardize your processes and tools – as a team. That last bit is important. Many firms understand that they need to standardize their practices, but are unsure of where to start. Start with your team. Go to those who are doing the work and have them articulate exactly what they are doing, and ask them to propose how it could be done in a repeatable fashion. By comparing what each person says, you can then document the pattern, which can become the basis for a step-by-step, standardized practice.
Step 1B: Document your processes in living docs, in a proper repository. Your new standardized practice should not be set in stone, however; it must be a living document that can be updated as needed, and kept in a place that is easily accessible to anyone wanting to edit or review it.
Step 1C: Build checklists with links to your detailed processes. Checklists should flow naturally from your processes. These checklists allow those doing the work to easily see what needs to be done and in what order. Ideally, the checklists will link back to your original detailed processes so that they can all be changed at once. That said, you don’t want to become too rigid in your checklists. Leave room for any customization that clients may require. What’s important is that even when customized, the checklists link back into the original overarching framework. It takes a bit of getting used to, but checklists and task are easy to master with practice.
Step 1D: Train staff on the processes. This may seem like a no-brainer, but often, a firm will create a process and not train its staff on it. If you don’t take the time and effort to train people on your new processes, they won’t use them. Everyone must use the standardized processes for them to be effective. If even one person does not use them, your visibility is ruined because you will need to take extra time to understand what is being done, which will take away from the time required to manage things correctly.
Step 1E: Review processes and checklists frequently. Your processes and checklists should be updated at least every six months and, ideally, every quarter. Make sure to set aside time for the firm to take a step back, make the change and transition into the new practice.
Step 1F: Application.
These guidelines apply to each role in the firm differently:
- Own the as-is/to-be processes.
- Speak up about what isn’t working.
- Customize as needed.
- Update when appropriate.
- Own the processes.
- Collect feedback from the team.
- Continually improve processes.
- Work with doers to build/review.
- Own the outcomes.
- Question the status quo.
- Give the team time to review.
- Review and approve what is proposed.
As the one with the most context, the doer must own what the processes are now and what they need to become in the future, and must also speak up when things are in need of revision. The manager, on the other hand, must own the processes as a whole, making sure that they are actually being used and are as efficient as possible. Furthermore, the manager’s job is to collect that feedback from the team to facilitate the review process. The partner owns the outcomes overall, which means questioning whether what is being done is in the best interests of both the firm and the clients. Finally, it’s the partner’s job to review and approve the new processes, so, in the end, the responsibility for that decision rests on their shoulders.
Step 2: Firm-wide accountability and transparency. Now that you have some consistency and some predictability in your firm, the next steps are to achieve firm-wide accountability and transparency. But, how do you make sure everyone will follow the standards set? Additionally, how do you make sure they will tell you when things are going wrong or right?
Step 2A: Everyone must have clear goals, objectives, and ownership that ladder up the firm. This is pretty straightforward. Everything everyone in your firm does should ladder up to the main goals of the firm as a whole. If not, they shouldn’t be doing it.
Step 2B: Everything has a single owner. With a clearly defined owner, no task, project or anything else ends in finger pointing, or falling through the cracks.
Step 2C: Op mechs are critical and have a cadence. Operating mechanisms, such as daily stand-ups, where everyone in the firm lists three things they are working on, contribute to day-to-day or immediate transparency. They allow everyone, from top to bottom, to know what’s going on right now and where everything stands. Other op mechs, such as weekly summaries, monthly reviews and quarterly overall reviews, allow for more in-depth transparency, as they are a means for the partners and managers to communicate more broadly what is happening across the entire firm.
Step 2D: Transparency is, and must be, a two-way street. If you want those doing the work to let you know what they are doing, you need to let them know what you are doing – and, ultimately, where things are headed. That is how trust is built and how transparency grows organically.
Step 2E: Delegate with the risk of failure. Micromanaging exists where trust does not. You need to trust those you hired. Use the tracking tools at your disposal, and the op mechs you have put in place, to catch anything that is going south before it becomes a real issue – but, don’t do the work for your staff. If they do make a mistake, or things do start to fall apart, catch it early, help everyone learn from it and change how things are done to make sure it doesn’t happen again in the future.
Step 2F: Application. Here is how this applies to each of the three roles:
- Own your clients and your projects.
- Provide weekly updates on where projects/deliverables stand.
- Speak up about what has been learned and what is needed.
- Champion the needs of the client.
- Own the outcomes of the team.
- Establish and maintain team op mechs.
- Dig into the work only if needed.
- Champion the needs of the team.
- Foster an environment of sharing.
- Own the outcomes of the firm.
- Monitor customer satisfaction, profitability and firm capacity.
- Ensure a positive work environment.
- Remove barriers quickly.
Most of these actions are pretty straightforward, given what has been said about each role so far. One that might require a little explanation is the partner’s need to remove barriers quickly. This means that partners must actively remove obstacles, or resolve issues that are preventing their managers and doers from getting their work done. This enables the rest of the staff to feel supported and contributes to a positive work environment.
Step 3: Visibility across the work. This step has more of a technology aspect to it than the other steps. If you are going to have consistency, transparency and accountability, you require a way to track that information so everyone can see where everything stands.
Step 3A: Eliminate information silos (like the inbox), wherever possible. Repositories of information, such as your inbox, are private and separate. What you see and do is completely separate from what anyone else in your firm sees or does with their inbox. To maximize transparency, you need to remove these silos whenever possible, in order to keep information flowing through your firm.
Step 3B: Leverage modern team collaboration tools that keep an open and active dialogue. Instead of using information silos, move your internal communication to an active transparent technology, where it is easy for anyone to find the context, and the content of anything that they are working on. A couple of tools that currently do this are Slack and Karbon.
Step 3C: Track everything, especially external and internal communications, in relation to work. Create an environment where people do not share information internally via email. By using one of the above tools for all internal dialogue and tracking of external communications, everyone wins. It will dramatically decrease the time it takes to get on the same page to help someone with their work.
Step 3D: Everyone must be diligent as a team to consistently create to-do’s, raise projects, complete checklists and flag issues. If anyone isn’t diligent about the protocols, it makes those who are following protocol feel as if they are wasting their time because so-and-so isn’t putting in the extra effort to do so. Even worse, it can lead to information being lost, as well as confusing and conflicting messages being sent to your clients, which is clearly bad for business. You need to be a consistent, standardized unit.
Step 3E: Lead by example – partners/managers need to model what is expected. Everyone must be in it together for the same shared outcomes. You can’t expect your staff to embrace what you aren’t willing to do yourself.
Whether you are in a small or large firm, understanding your specialized role and what you own helps you know your place in the firm and where your energies are best focused. Through making the processes in your firm consistent and transparent, and making everyone accountable for their work, everyone can have visibility across the firm and know what is happening at all times. This is exactly how you keep from being lost in a sea of information.