[IMGCAP(1)]The awareness and focus on process improvement within CPA firms is growing by the day.

Tax season is nearly over, when inefficiencies in processes become elevated from minor nuisances to major crises by the workloads and demands of the season. When you have more work than you can handle, you can’t afford for that work to take longer than it should. With leadership in CPA firms becoming more aware of the importance of processes, it is now critical to understand the best way to improve internal processes.

Too often, firms try to take the easy way out by doing one of the following:

• Relying on the software company’s best practices and not customizing /optimizing to fit within their firm.

• Every time software is added and/or new steps for compliance purposes, no one takes a look at removing unnecessary steps. Your process becomes bloated over the years.

• Having an administrative and/or partner group decide on the new process.

• Relying solely on a manager-level person or group to adopt “process improvement.”

These techniques don’t work as well as they should precisely because the entire process is not represented in any of these methods.  It’s important to start out measuring and analyzing the current state of your processes with a detailed value stream map. You can’t fully develop that unless you have some of the following people in the room:  staff, seniors, managers, senior managers, partners, administrators and IT.  Skip any of those people and you’ll miss a key internal customer group.

As an experienced advisor in the area of Lean principles and process improvement within CPA firms, I can’t overstate the importance of understanding the process before you set out to improve it. Part of the recipe for success of our projects is in engaging a cross-functional team to analyze and improve their processes.  It sounds so simple, but too often I see firms fail in their process improvement efforts (including new software implementations) because they fail to have representatives from the various steps in processes.

When we engage and facilitate a cross-functional team to measure, analyze and improve a process, we are confident the results will be tremendous.  The feedback is always the same: “we never looked at our processes that way before”; “it was great to learn more what they were doing in the process”; or “I didn’t know our process went through that many loops.”  Any and all of these comments mean the project team understands the pitfalls of their current process and are already committed to and buying into new ideas to improve the process.  And buy-in is absolutely critical to success.

So, it’s simple.  If you want to improve, engage a cross-functional team of your people.  Invest the time.  If you don’t, if you stick with the status quo or try and shove in a new process at your firm trying to save the time of your people, it will not be as successful.  With engagement comes understanding, and with understanding comes commitment.  Once you get that commitment from your cross-functional team, watch them get their peers on board!  And the results will follow.

Dustin Hostetler is the founder of Flowtivity. He manages the Lean4CPAs practice and works closely with CPA firms on process improvement initiatives. As a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with extensive experience working inside a large regional CPA firm, he has taken proven Lean techniques and tailored them to bring value to public accounting firms.