6 steps to fine-tuning your business workflows and processes

Workflows exist in every business — including accounting firms. Some are tremendously complex and intertwined, while others are simple and direct. For most firms and their clients, there are workflows, and business processes, that can be improved. In many cases, improving workflows starts with examining the business processes that underlay them.

oftentimes, processes are designed and implemented haphazardly over the years to meet needs as they occur. And in many cases, business practices have been created based on expediency, not efficiency or productivity.

Improving workflows, and the business processes that are embedded in them, is not an impossible task, but it does require an analytical approach to examining the way things are done and how well or poorly they work in your practice or your client’s business.

Before processes can be improved, they need to be identified and evaluated. Practitioners can use techniques such as flowcharting, The 5 Whys, and Swim Diagrams to map out the way a process currently operates; and with this information in hand, determine if and how it can be improved.

It’s not magic, and it can be labor-intensive, but it can also teach you a lot about the way your business operates, where it shines, and where it can be improved. What’s great about learning process improvement techniques is that they can be the foundation for providing a similar process to audit and improvement service to your clients and additional revenue to your bank account. Keep in mind, though, it’s not an instant process. You need to become familiar with the methodology and analytical tools used in process improvement, work closely with the people who actually perform the processes, tasks, and workflows, and perform periodic reviews and tune the processes as may be necessary.

There’s a method to the madness

Unfortunately, there currently isn’t an overall technique for improving every process and workflow in a business. You have to examine and analyze each process stream and workflow separately, which is often a daunting task, and in some cases, impossible due to budget, lack of manpower, and other reasons. In this type of situation, start with what you know is broken or functioning poorly. These workflows and processes are often fairly easy to identify. If there’s a process or procedure that’s garnering complaints from staff and clients, or where the workflow just seems to bog down, that’s a good place to start.

Here’s a six-step process to get you started:

Map processes
Before you can fix a problem, you need to understand how the process should work. Document the process and workflows using available tools such as flowcharts, Rummler-Brache (Swimlane) diagrams, and Ishikawa (Fishbone) diagrams. These techniques, and others discussed below, are explained in detail on the Internet, you don’t have to go back to school to learn them. Be sure to include the staff that actually perform these tasks in your mapping efforts. They often have “insider knowledge” of what’s actually going on.
Analyze the process
Once you have your process maps, use them to analyze the process. Again, there are tools and techniques to accomplish this including Root Cause Analysis, Cause and Effect Analysis, and The Five Ways. These are designed to help you find the factors that are introducing undesired outcomes and problems.
Redesign the process
Identify solutions that will produce better outcomes than those processes currently in place. Be careful not to introduce new problems as you solve the old ones. And again, use the people resources you have in place during the implementation of new workflows and processes.
Acquire resources
Depending on what you find, you may be able to make small changes, or require a major overhaul. The result might require additional staff or other resources such as new or additional software. Make sure that you have the support of those in the practice who can authorize these resources.
Implement and communicate change
Once you’ve figured out that changes are necessary, and what they are, you need to actually implement them. This can be a project in itself, so allocate time and other resources properly so as not to introduce problems larger than the ones you’re solving. If possible, you might want to run the new procedures in parallel with the old ones for a short time to make sure that the changes function and produce the expected results. And you are probably going to want to broadcast the changes in process and procedures to those in the firm who are affected by them.
Review the process
Once the new processes and workflows are up and running, its’s a good idea to benchmark the new systems and procedures against the ones they’re replacing. Do the new processes fix the problems they were intended to improve? Involve the people directly involved with working with the new procedures, tasks, and workflows. Do they feel comfortable with the changes? Have the “improvements” really accomplished what you and your team set out to do?

Keep in mind that improving business processes and workflows isn’t a one-time-and-done event. Performing a workflow/process audit periodically is a good idea to keep your practice at its peak performance.