The Art of Determining and Developing Standardization Processes

It used to be that you could get by with updating your processes once a year. With advancements in technologies, competitive pressure and clients’ growing need for immediacy, however, these days you need to evaluate each process at least every six months – if not quarterly – to remain up-to-date and efficient. The task of going through all of your processes to improve them may seem daunting at first. Be patient. By doing it in an orderly fashion and continuously over time, you can increase efficiency across the entire firm and rid yourself of some of the headaches that your current processes may induce. The following steps will help you improve each process, one-by-one:

10 Steps to Process Improvement:

1. Determine the First Process to Optimize

Start the standardization process with what bothers you. It doesn’t matter if, at first, you can’t quite put your finger on why it bothers you. The bother, itself, indicates that something isn’t working right, or isn’t fitting, with your firm. This irritation will help motivate you through to success. If nothing immediately jumps out at you as bothersome, look to what seems to be the most inefficient, or what isn’t working as well as it could. Or, even better, ask your team members. They can likely tell you right away what is working well and what is woefully inefficient.

“Documenting and refining processes is an ongoing effort that provides the pathway to reaching our goals for business growth.” – Kim Hornsby, founder of SingletrackBookkeeping.com

2. Discuss the Existing Process as a Team

Process improvement needs to be a practice-wide effort. If you try to change how things are done unilaterally, your team will likely resist and feel that you aren’t taking everything into consideration. Those doing the work have the best knowledge and insight on it and should be closely involved in the creation of new processes. Set aside time with the team – or a representative subteam – to get to the bottom of what’s actually being done.

In larger teams, there are doers, managers and partners. When doing process improvement, each of these people will take on a different role and responsibility. The doers are the ones identifying the pain points and offering up ideas on how to fix the processes. The manager is making sure they have the time required, facilitating the discussion and owning what the new process should be. Finally, the owner is simply approving what new process has been presented and owning its outcome.

“Change is an important and consistent part of our practice. We are never satisfied to keep the same process in place if there’s a better way to do something. We routinely ask our team members to tell us three things that they see that we can do in a better way. Our team knows that we value their opinions when they see that we implement those processes. They see things from a different perspective than I do as an owner, so it usually helps shed light on issues that would have gone unnoticed.” – Donna Bordeaux, owner of Bordeaux & Bordeaux, CPAs PA

3. What is Success, and How is it Measured?

Without agreed upon metrics of success, you won’t be able to tell if the new process is any better or worse than the last. The time it takes, and the quality of the work, are often good measurements. Knowing what you’re trying to achieve with the process will give you insight into what to measure. Being able to plot your progress as you go may reveal patterns of what has the biggest impact on efficiency.

4. Map Out “as-is” Processes and Their Variants

Get a whiteboard and a stack of sticky notes, and write down every activity associated with the process. It doesn’t matter what order you write them in – just that you write down every one. This includes any variants that people have used to better meet the needs of specific clients or their own workarounds.

Once you have all activities down, order them from left to right. The idea is to make “swim lanes,” where you have each person, department or role on the left (across the y-axis).

Next, document your process from left to right, placing the process and/or decision nodes in the swim lane of the person who is responsible. Also, across the bottom, where applicable, show the input and output of each system interfacing with a given process.

Lastly, map any parallel activities or decision nodes along the way as well. You can use mind map software, such as MindMeister or Visio, to create a permanent map, but it’s often easier to start on paper with the sticky notes.

5. Discuss All Variants and Why They Exist

Once your map includes all of the variants, sit down with your team and have a deep discussion about why each of those variants exist. What was it correcting for? What part of the process was breaking down? Was it a one-off fix, or was it something systemically wrong? By looking closely at these variants, you may be able to find efficiencies that can be used in the next iteration of the process, or uncover bottlenecks not readily apparent.

“Make sure the discussion is around today’s process, and not what was written down three years ago, nor what the manager thinks the process is. Discuss what the doer actually does. The discussion has to be real if you want to improve.” – Jody Padar, CEO and principal of New Vision CPA Group

6. Review All Steps for Inefficiencies

Ask yourself, why do we do this? Can we do it differently? Do we even need to do it at all? While you may, in fact, add steps in the new process, you should be looking to prune it down, wherever possible. Really try to think differently about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Question whether the way you have been doing it is actually the most efficient. Think of the process from start to finish and see if it all makes sense; then, think about it backwards from finish to start. Thinking about it backwards can help you see if each step is absolutely necessary to the one that follows.

7. Create a “to-be” Process with a Subteam

This isn’t just rearranging the sticky notes from before; this is a re-envisioning and re-mapping of the process from the ground up. When you reframe the process, your approach may be refined, or the tasks may be articulated differently, which could lead to significant efficiencies. You’ll want to develop this “to-be” process independently of the “as-is” process so that you can see the gaps between the two. Study those gaps so that you can measure which changes are driving the biggest improvements on the outcome. Some of the changes may not create any improvement. You may want to rethink those changes and double down on those that do drive improvement.

“Make sure you are thinking about the customer side as well. Just because you post it to the portal doesn’t mean your client knows how to use the portal. Make sure you communicate to your client the changes—a lot of time it is just reframing and sharing the communication with your customer and not actually changing the process. Focus externally, not just on your internal team. Your efficiency is worthless if your customer doesn’t feel an awesome experience.” – Jody Padar

8. Test the Process – or, at least, its Logic

Remember that the new process is not automatically better than the old one. Before you roll it out to the entire firm, test it with the subteam that helped you create it. Have them use the process a few times in real-world applications to see if it works as designed. If it doesn’t, or if it’s falling short, you may need to refine and test it again.

9. Document and Implement Broadly

You should be documenting throughout the entire process – ideally in “living” documents online. At the very least, you need to document after testing. This documentation is what you are going to use for your rollout strategy and for building your checklists. The process is only as good as its adherence across the firm.

With the documentation, you are going to train, educate, inform and remind your staff so that you can implement it broadly. In conjunction with that, you are going to take those steps and develop checklists for repeating work. This can be done in an online spreadsheet, or even better, in a task management or workflow program such as Karbon.

These checklists and workflow programs let you attain economies of scaling and transparency on where projects stand. They also help ensure proper completion of the work and, ultimately, that nothing falls through the cracks.

“We tried many other practice management apps over the last few years. Karbon is the only one that feels like it was designed for our business model – a QuickBooks Online Firm of the Future. I love the approach of starting with email Triage and the intuitive User Interface. We are using Checklists in deeper ways than we’ve ever done before. This is our game changer.” – Kim Hornsby

10. Iterate and Optimize

Congratulations, you have successfully standardized a process. But, you are far from finished! When satisfied with one process, you may want to move on to another because things can get out of date quickly. This is especially true if you are making changes to overlapping processes.

In fact, you need to consistently go back and re-evaluate each process. You may be able to open up other areas of opportunity as the surrounding processes are updated. This should be happening every quarter. This isn’t an activity to do when convenient, but rather a mindset required to grow and thrive. Over time, the optimization process will become easier as your processes become more and more efficient— but never underestimate the importance of change management and how much work it will be.

Additional Tips and Tricks

Create “Living” Documents Online

Documents that live online allow everyone to get back up to speed at a moment’s notice with a single click from a checklist. They also allow those doing the work to propose changes that can improve the processes, based on what is happening with specific clients or projects. Those changes can be quickly evaluated as possible broader changes for everyone. Lastly, by linking the living documents to your checklists, you only need to update one place and have all the related checklists reflect your latest and greatest processes.

Ask “Why?” for Each Step or Section

When mapping out the as-is process, question every step and section. You really need to dig deep and ask yourself what the reason for each step is. What is it ultimately going to enable? Is it simply providing information, or is it necessary for the next step? This will help trim the process down to only necessary tasks.

Train Staff on the Processes

Everyone from the top down needs to be trained. If you don’t get buy-in and good habits concerning what should be done and how it should be done, you won’t get cohesion and your processes will be thrown away.