[IMGCAP(1)]Accounting firms try to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their processes in all kinds of ways.

Some research and study what other firms do and try to implement their best practices. Others rely on best practices from technology and software partners. And some use a small management team to make changes that are then driven down into the organization.

Which of these approaches has your firm used? How effective has it been? You should be looking at more than just being effective. The real question is how effective are you at servicing clients in an exceptional way?

• Exceptional client service requires exceptional processes. There are flaws in many of the traditional process improvement measures firms have tried in the past. Can you see the common theme that exists in each of the following situations?

• Implementing best practices of other firms. Granted, there are things we can learn from each other. However, what works optimally in one firm does not automatically work perfectly in another. Every firm is different and has unique situations to address. It is very difficult to apply a multitude of best practices across your firm and call it an effective process. Plus, you have no buy-in from the people who have to implement the changes.

• Using software best practices as your firm’s procedures. Technology best practices are often one-size fits all, littered with added steps to help you maximize usage of the software. But they don’t take into account your firm-wide processes and how the software integrates with other technologies. This method still doesn’t help you get buy-in from your team. Some may see new steps as cumbersome bureaucracy not absolutely necessary to utilize the program.

• Driving down process improvements from management. No one knows the work like the people doing the work. So why do some firms have people making decisions about process changes who haven’t been involved in the details of an audit engagement or tax return in years? These people don’t know or understand the root cause of inefficiencies in the current process, yet are recommending a solution. This is a recipe for failure.

So, what’s the common theme?

If you said that the people doing the work aren’t the ones developing the process, you’re on the right track. In each of the situations above, issues with your current process, your foundation, were never addressed. The only way to address and understand these issues is by using a cross-functional team consisting of representatives from different areas of your practice — the people who walk the walk every day.

It’s also important that your team include people from different levels within the firm, as well as individuals outside the function where you’re trying to improve the process. For example, include someone from your audit team on the tax process team, or add an individual from your tax segment to your audit process team. As the saying goes, sometimes you can be so close that you can’t see the forest for the trees. By including people who aren’t as close to the process, you’ll ensure that the team concentrates on the big picture.

One side benefit of using a cross-functional team is that the resulting process changes, when rolled out firm-wide, will have more authenticity and credibility with staff members who weren’t involved with the review. The staff members know that those “in the trenches” helped develop the new processes, but also know that others around the firm were able to provide input. The cross-functional team approach helps take away resistance that might be based on personalities or departmental issues.

An objective, outside facilitator is another important element in successfully improving processes within your firm. A trained facilitator can help the team stay on task, work through any stumbling blocks and summarize the team’s progress and decisions.

To reach truly effective results, the team must walk in the shoes of your clients — both internal clients within the firm and external clients outside the firm’s walls. As the team members look for the root cause of inefficiencies or flawed processes, they must concentrate only on those processes in which your clients see value.

A cross-functional team, combined with an objective facilitator, will identify problems in the current process. They will tell you where work is being done at the firm that doesn’t add value to anyone in the firm or the client. By having this group focus on the “voice of the client” (both internal and external clients), you truly can deliver exceptional service.

It isn’t rocket science, but it’s a surefire way to see gains in realization, profitability and ultimately client satisfaction. Focus on adding value to clients, not cumbersome activities that bog down your process.

Dustin Hostetler of Rea & Associates Inc. is a certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt. He specializes in management consulting and Lean Six Sigma implementation and training. He can be reached at (330) 264-0791 or dustin.hostetler@reacpa.com.

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