Reviewing and improving your process management

Every recurring task or job carried out in your accounting firm has a method and order to it—a process that needs to be evaluated regularly if you want to keep up-to-date and running at your most efficient.

Revising your process management might seem like more work than you can handle, but doing this in an ordered fashion will be worth every effort—increasing efficiency across the entire firm and ridding you of some of your biggest headaches.

Refining and standardizing your processes will increase your efficiency, ensure that quality is always maintained, and makes it infinitely easier when training a new hire.

The following steps outline how you can improve your process management one-by-one.

1. Select your process

Consider what core processes need to be improved, starting with what bothers you. It might be a task that takes longer than it should, somewhere mistakes consistently occur, or something that requires input from too many team members. It doesn't matter if at first you know exactly why it bothers you. The fact that it does is enough to indicate that something isn't working as well as it can.

2. Discuss the existing process with your team

As a Partner or Manager, you may be removed from some work, so process improvement needs to involve your team. Those doing the work will have the best knowledge on the specifics, so you should involve them in any refinement of the creation of a new process. Speak with your team, or a select few who know the tasks in detail, until it is clear what's being done.

We are never satisfied to keep the same process in place if there is 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. 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 — Bordeaux & Bordeaux CPAs

3. Set metrics to measure success

You need to be able to determine if any new process is actually an improvement. This is only possible if you decide on metrics of success early on—the time it takes and the quality of the work are often good measurements. Thinking about your reasons for refining the process—your objectives—should give you a pretty good idea of what to measure. 

If you can measure something as its repeatedly performed, and track your progress each time, you should see patterns of what changes have the biggest impact on efficiency.

4. Map out the current process 

Mapping out a current process is the best way to visualize it and break it down into individual steps—something that will become key as you make improvements.

An easy way to do this is to write down every individual activity associated with the process on its own sticky note. The order you write them in doesn’t matter, so long as you write down every step, including any variants to suit specific clients or any other workarounds. Once you’ve written these all down, stick them on a whiteboard in the order they're performed. 

If you want to take it one step further, add a grid on the whiteboard, noting each person or department on the left, and interfacing systems along the top. This will help you to see the input and output from each system and area of your practice. You can also map any parallel activities or decision nodes along the way. 

If you’d prefer, for this step you can instead use mind map software like MindMeister or Visio to create digital maps.

5. Get to the bottom of all variants

With your complete mind map, sit down with your team and discuss why each variant exists and what its purpose is. Is it correcting for something? Is part of the process breaking down? Was it a one-off fix or it fixing something that is systemically wrong? 

By looking closely at these variants, you may be able to find tried and tested efficiencies that can be documented in the next variation of the process, or identify bottlenecks or roadblocks that weren’t immediately apparent.

6. Review each individual step

Look at each step in the process and question it. Why do we do this? Can it be done differently? Is it needed at all? 

While you may need to add steps to the refined process, you should try to cut it down in size wherever possible. Try to look at the steps with fresh eyes and no bias—think differently about what you're doing and why you're doing it. Just because something has been done a certain way for a long time, doesn’t mean it’s still the most efficient.

Visualize the process from start to finish, then think about it in reverse order, beginning at the final step. Does it make sense? Thinking about it backward will help you to consider whether each step is absolutely necessary for the one that succeeds it.

7. Map a new process

Now comes the time to think about changes. This isn't simply a matter of rearranging the sticky notes, you need to rework and remap the process from the ground up. Framing the process without thinking too closely about how it has been performed in the past will lead to new approaches or articulations, which might help you find significant efficiencies. 

Developing this new method independent of the existing process will show you any gaps between the two. Identify those differences so that you can measure the changes that drive the biggest overall improvements. 

8. Test the reworked process

You should have a relatively new process by now, but that doesn’t mean that it's better than the old way. Before you roll it out throughout your team, test it with a smaller group—preferably with anyone involved with the review. 

Ensure the process is used at least 3-5 times in real-world applications to see if it works and is an improvement on your ‘old way’. If it doesn't or is falling short, you may need to revise, repeat and test it again.

Some individual changes may not lead to better results, or might actually be a step backward. Rethink and test every change to ensure you’re defining the ultimate method for your process

9. Document and implement broadly

Throughout every step outlined here, you should be noting your progress and any revisions. If not, then at the very least you need to document your finalized process. This is what will be used to roll out and standardize this new process throughout the team. 

A process is going to be effective if it is adopted across your firm. This documentation can be used to train, educate, inform, and remind your staff of what they need to implement it broadly.

10. Repeat, review, rework 

Once you have refined one process, you’ll want to move on to another. But remember that accounting—and most likely your team—evolves quickly, so what’s the most efficient way today, may not be the most efficient tomorrow. 

This is doubly true if you are making changes to processes that overlap with others. Make an effort to go back and re-evaluate each process at regular intervals. Over time, the optimization process will become easier as your processes get more and more efficient.

To get every procedure written down, we put together a team with the end goal to develop a template for each process. We would draft it, then put it into practice with the next new client, while continually improving it along the way.
Jessica Daley — Xcelerate Business Solutions

Bonus tips

Create shared, living documents for each process

Shared, living documents that you store online will ensure everyone knows where to go if they need to be reminded of the steps in a process. It also means those doing the work can document any changes they make for specific clients and why. These notes will help you evaluate a process and make further refinements in the future.

If your team uses Karbon, you can store your standardized processes as Templates, where anyone will be able to access and quickly create Work from.

Ask questions

When mapping out a process, don’t assume anything is the correct way—question everything, asking what the reason for each step is. What does it achieve? Does it need to be completed to get to the next step? This will help to decide what the vital tasks are, and what can be removed.

Some additional questions to ask, that will help you review any process, can be found here.

Aim for improvement in every step, no matter how small that improvement might seem. Think about how many times each step will be repeated each time the process is implemented across different clients and periods. Even the smallest improvements will add up to huge savings in time, effort and resourcing. 

Karbon has compiled more than 30 templates of best practice processes tailored to major global regions. Choose what templates you would like uploaded into Karbon, or if you are new to Karbon, you can start a 14-day free trial with access to these templates. Complete this 30-second form to get started.