Practice barrier #5: standardizing your firm’s processes

Processes, templates, workflow management, standard reports and other forms of directing work probably get mentioned in your firm regularly.

Usually these phrases pop up when there is an issue—there might be confusion around who is responsible for a certain task, a new staff member might not know the expected format for a monthly report, or you may find yourself completing the same task for the tenth time this quarter, when most of it could be automated.

How often do you wonder, “why don’t we have a standard process for this?”

By documenting current best practice that must be implemented throughout your firm's workflows, standardizing your processes will make tasks more efficient, consistent, easier to manage and higher in quality. It is undisputed that standard processes are a good idea, but putting them together—and doing it right—is not easy.

Standardizing processes take time and require ongoing effort to sustain. Without self-discipline from yourself and your team, it can be easy for staff to fall back on old ways of doing things.

How does it impact you?

Without standard processes, simple tasks can be difficult and time-consuming. A new staff member will need to be physically shown how your firm does certain tasks (often over and over again). It may take them months—or longer—before they get a handle on your firm’s ‘way of doing things’.

Your firm may have some standard processes, but if they’re not well-defined and adhered to, they are practically worthless. It’s not simply a matter of jotting down some notes on each task and then filing them away—all processes need to be continuously reinforced and followed by everyone.

Accounting firms struggle to standardize their processes because the effort and resources required aren’t invested. It may not be viewed as a priority right now, but the longer this is put off, the harder it will be—not to mention the consequences of not having them in place will be dire.

To ensure your firm is well-equipped to grow—and operate at its most efficient—it’s essential that processes are standardized and documented in detail, ensuring everything is repeatable and following best practice. The initial investment this requires to set up to will continue to repay your firm for years to come.

What can you do about it?

Make it clear who owns what
All staff members have ownership over something. A manager may own the client relationship, but junior accountants might be responsible for certain tasks for that client. Before documenting any processes you should look at who already owns what.

A standardized process needs to clarify the ownership of work, and bring this together—defining where one staff member’s responsibility may end, and another’s begins. Any staff member must not only be aware of what they own themselves but also what others are responsible for. If your firm has a transparent work culture already, then you have an advantage—if most of this is already known by your whole team, it’s just a matter of documenting it.

If you’re unsure of what tasks are best suited to certain members of your team, look at the finders, minders and grinders model to explain your firm’s different roles.

Make use of checklists
Checklists are an accountant’s best friend and there is nowhere they are more useful than the standardization of your work processes. Being able to develop accurate checklists that detail every individual task for a certain piece of work is one of the most important steps your firm can take to standardize a process.

To build them well, you must engage your entire team. Those doing the work, often the grinders, must be able to contribute and explain how they complete a task. They may have experienced issues or know shortcuts that others haven’t thought of. The minders and finders are the ones who need to coordinate the whole exercise, and eventually approve what will become your firm’s agreed way to complete a particular piece of work.

Any checklist must also be flexible—think of its items as guidelines rather than rules. Not every client or job is the same, while most tasks might still need to be checked off, you must always be prepared for anomalies. You need to have the ability to adjust a checklist or item within it, to suit any scenario that may occur.

Constantly review and update
Standardizing your firm’s processes is a task that will never end. Your documentation must be continuously revisited, reviewed and adjusted as your firm and the industry evolves. Issues and obstacles must be attended to as they arise, rather than waiting until the end of the quarter (or later) to review what caused them.

Remember that the objective of standardization is to improve efficiency, quality and consistency. Improvement requires constant evaluation and refinement. After any task is completed, make a habit of asking yourself and your team what could have been done better.

If you are struggling to grow your firm, we challenge you to implement at least one of these ideas. If you do, we’d love to hear the progress and result. You can also reach out so one of our advisors can help you out.

Also, if your firm has implemented any other strategies to standardize your processes, we’d love to hear from you.

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