The steps to standardize your processes (plus increase efficiency and grow your accounting firm)

Bigger isn’t always better. And by that same token, the growth of your accounting firm may not come down to size.

There are many ways to measure your firm’s success beyond your staff headcount. Instead, your growth might be defined by the types of services you offer or the types of client industries you service.

Or, on the other hand, you may value how big you can grow your client base, how many staff members you have, and how many different services you offer. And of course, how much profit you are generating.

However you define growth and whatever you use to measure it, there is one non-negotiable: it needs to be driven by efficiency.

If you can’t be efficient, you simply can’t effectively grow your accounting business.

A huge reason why some firms are unable to take that next step in growing their practice is because they cannot use their time efficiently. And often, it’s because their processes are convoluted, inconsistent and unclear.

This is why standardizing your firm’s operating processes and workflows is critical in your ability to grow—no matter how you define it.

Taking the time to review your processes allows you to scrutinize them. You’ll gain an understanding of their faults, strengths, and areas of improvement, and then use that information to refine and standardize them across your firm, ultimately increasing your efficiency.

Standardizing your processes is a journey. Use these steps as a guide to effectively take your current processes and refine them so you can grow your accounting firm.

Understanding the benefits of standardizing your processes

Standardization involves taking each of your firm’s workflows, finding the best way of performing them, and drawing a line in the sand. Behind that line, you (and your team) need to leave the old way of doing things, and in front of it, is how each of your processes should be performed from now on.

When you have one, optimized way of performing each task, you:

  • Increase productivity and efficiency

  • Have a greater understanding of if and when you need to hire

  • Enable your firm to grow

The journey of standardizing your processes

This project isn’t a quick fix. It’s important that you understand that it’s an involved process that will require input from your entire team. 

But, even more importantly, you need to understand how this short-term pain will result in a powerful long-term gain.

Here is an overview of the process of standardizing your procedures:

Step 1: Review your current situation

Before you can do anything, you need to understand your current landscape.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the current processes we complete?

  • Who is completing them, when, how and why?

  • Are each of these people completing each process differently from each other?

  • How long are each of these processes currently taking to complete?

Chances are you will need to work with your team to answer these questions. So, set aside dedicated time to find your answers. 

You may consider beginning this process with a whole team meeting to simply gather the names of each of the processes currently being completed, plus the owner of each process. 

You can then have separate 1:1 meetings with each of these process owners so you can gain a better understanding of how these processes are completed.

The goal here is for you to understand, from a high level, the tasks being completed day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month at your practice.

Once you understand this, you can then prepare a plan to consolidate and refine your processes.

Step 2: Consult with your team

The most effective way to refine and standardize your firm’s processes is by involving the people that actually complete the processes.

You need to understand:

  • What currently works well?

  • What are the current issues causing bottlenecks, delays, missed information, double-ups, etc.?

  • What are the tools and systems that benefit the processes?

  • Are there tech gaps that are slowing down the processes?

  • What are the workarounds that your team currently use?

  • What is the most ideal way to complete each process?

And the only people that can provide you with these answers are the people performing the tasks.

You might have a specific type of work—a business tax return, for example—that is touched by multiple team members. Although that work is owned by the Accountant, other team members, such as your Client Manager and Administrator, are performing tasks as part of that work. So it’s important that you consult every person who is involved in each process.

Once you have this information, you’re in a better position to consolidate and standardize.

Step 3: Consolidate and standardize

Now that you have all the information around each process, i.e. the what, who, why, when, how, you can consolidate the information and create clear, streamlined processes that are standardized across your firm.

Much like this process so far, involving your team is critical. Because they are the people performing the tasks, consider empowering them to standardize their own processes. 

Perhaps you assign a process owner, who oversees each process assigned to them, and works with the other contributors to create a refined and standard way of performing each process.

You can still be involved here—in fact, it’s important that you’re there to support and provide guidance. But it’s unrealistic to expect you to:

  1. Consolidate and standardize every single process yourself (there are likely thousands of procedures performed at your accounting firm)

  2. Tell someone else exactly how they should be doing their job, step-by-step (an autonomous firm culture is more productive than an authoritarian culture that is driven by micromanagement).

Step 4: Document everything

It’s impossible for anyone to remember every single step they need to take to perform every single task. Even moreso, it’s impossible to immediately remember completely new ways of doing things.

This is a major reason why you need to document your new and standardized processes.

By creating and sharing this documentation with your team in one, centralized location, you:

  • Ensure everyone has access to the information they need to do their job

  • Save time with new hires (rather than stepping them through each process, you can provide them with a high-level introduction, and then empower them to follow the documented steps)

  • Increase efficiency (staff members won’t waste time trying to remember how or where to perform certain tasks because all the information they need is documented for them)

  • Ensure everyone is following the best practice methods of each process at your accounting firm

Not only that, but when you’ve documented your processes, you’ll find it much easier to review and further refine them.

Karbon handles this step seamlessly. Templates can be created that outline every step in your common workflows, and you can add customizable statuses, checklists, job roles and automators to make these workflows even more powerful. You can learn more about Karbon templates at the Karbon Template Library.

Recommended reading: A guide to documenting your accounting firm's processes

Step 5: Test your new processes

Once you’ve documented your new standardized processes, it’s time to test them.

Empower your team to take notes along the way of any roadblocks, issues, or particularly successful parts of the new processes.

It’s critical that you’re able to measure your success, so remember to have your team time how long these processes are taking to complete so you can compare them with how long they were originally taking.

Consider setting an initial testing period—say, six months—where your team trials these new processes, making notes of what works well and doesn’t. This will give them time to settle into a new way of doing things before making any major future changes.

Step 6: Refine your processes

Once you and your team have had time to perform each new process several times, it’s important that you address any feedback.

During their testing period, your team may have noticed errors, double ups, missed steps—likely things that can only be found once actually performing these processes.

So, take this opportunity to fine-tune them, as well as the relevant documentation, to reflect this feedback.

This step is an ongoing process—you should always be working to refine and improve your processes to continuously find better ways of performing them.

Your employees should feel empowered to update the process documentation on a day-by-day basis and share the ways they’ve improved their tasks.

On top of that, consider implementing a recurring process review, where every quarter or every six months, these processes are scrutinized and updated accordingly. 

Invest the time now to reap the rewards later

This process is not a quick-win to growing your accounting practice. Frankly, no such quick-win will give you the success you’re after.

But once you understand the power of standardizing your firm’s processes, it will be a no-brainer.

And once you go through these steps, you'll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.