There is a lot of information out there about improving business workflows. However, the process of the systems analysis that’s required to map and improve workflows in your practice doesn’t get enough focus.

Most of the time, it’s assumed that people understand the process of flowcharting a workflow, and don’t quantify the steps to take to uncover problems and address inefficiencies. Here, I’ll endeavor to cover some of the tools and techniques available, and give you a starting place to extend with your own research.

Flowcharts are just the start

I’ve usually maintained that the first step in understanding the workflow is to flowchart it out — where the data enters the system, who uses it (and how), and where it goes from there. The limitation with this approach is that in most practices, the workflow is seldom this simplistic. Information flows through multiple departments and staff and on different levels of the office hierarchy.

One approach is to use a multi-level type of flowcharting called a Rummler-Brache or Swim Lane diagram. This type of flowchart diagrams processes in a vertical or horizontal format, with major workflows each in its own horizontal or vertical lane (though there is frequently crossover between these lanes). These lanes can be organized by department, person, or type of task. Tasks are indicated by boxes connected by lines and arrows, which often depict the flow of data and/or documents. A typical accounting process Rummler-Brache diagram might have “lanes” for tax prep, write-up, and research, with crossovers where write-up flows into tax prep and tax prep requires research.

There are several tools, such as Microsoft’s diagramming tool Visio, that can be used to produce Rummer-Brache diagrams. The one I’ve used most often is SmartDraw. SmartDraw 2017 Enterprise is the newest version, and includes access to a cloud-based version. I like it because it’s easy to use and has hundreds of different charts and diagram templates such as flowcharts, process charts, network diagrams, and even floor plans. It’s not inexpensive, starting at around $300, but it’s been invaluable to me over the years in creating charts and graphics. It also has some great tutorials on how to use it to create Rummler-Brache and other useful diagrams in workflow, process flow, and cause-and effect analysis. I’ve been using SmartDraw since it was introduced years ago, and it’s my go-to application for pretty much any kind of charting or graphing. A free trail is available for downloading, and if you do any amount of charting or graphing, it’s very much worth taking a look at.

It’s not my fault!

Once you’ve flowcharted the workflows, you can begin to apply other tools to find and correct processes and tasks that are problematic and/or inefficient. While there is no single method to do this, in many cases a six-step methodology is a good first step. This methodology starts with mapping the process that seems troublesome. You can do this with a Rummler-Brache diagram, or another type of diagraming tool called an Ishikara or Fishbone diagram.

The second step is to analyze the process. A popular method here is a root cause analysis. This method attempts to identify the factor or factors that resulted in the undesired condition. Root cause analysis, cause-and-effect analysis, and The Five Ways are all helpful tools in determining root cause. Details on these methods are easily found via a Web search.

Once you’ve identified processes that aren’t working as expected or desired, the third step is to redesign the process. The steps to accomplish this are usually not immediately obvious, and the staff that work with these processes should be included in finding the solution as they generally have a good insight in what works and what doesn’t.

The final three steps are to acquire the resources and support to make the necessary changes, implement and communicate the changes, and review the process.

General considerations

There are a few things to keep in mind. The first is to listen when people, both staff and outsiders, complain. A complaint usually signals a problem. This could be as simple as a rude response to a client question, or something more systemic. When you get multiple complaints about a specific process item, it’s time to look deeper. Also keep in mind that you shouldn’t be looking to assign blame, but rather to find and fix a problem.

Consider, too, bringing your staff into the process of improving the ways that your practice operates. They are the ones who have the close day-to-day experience with the workflow, and that up-front experience is valuable. And keep in mind that they are also the ones who will have to work with any updated workflows and processes. Having staff and management buy in to changes and improvements in the workflows is critical to the successes of the process.

Finally, keep in mind that process improvement isn’t a single, one-time task. Periodic assessment of workflows and processes should be something that you build into the backbone of your firm’s practices. If you keep your finger on the pulse, improvements and fixes are likely to turn out to be minor ones rather than major overhauls.

Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman has been covering technology for more than 30 years, writing frequently on software, hardware, and related subjects. He was previously editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology.