5 Things You Really Need to Know About Workflow

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5 Things You Really Need to Know About Workflow
October 30, 2014

By William Hamilton

Over the past 5 years working exclusively with tax pros, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything talked about as much as workflow.

If you’re like me, you get at least 3 invites a week to webinars on the topic, have read all the white papers in the industry that promise to explain best practices, and have seen the countless articles and posts that try to address it.

The simple fact is, workflow is really not that complicated, and it shouldn’t be that much work to implement it in your practice.

Here are the top 5 things you really need to know about workflow.

1.   Workflow isn’t the same for everyone

This is the biggest issue I have when reading the majority of stuff out there about workflow.

People assume that you should approach workflow the same way if you are a small 1-man “team” or you are a large regional firm. That can’t be further from the truth.

The truth is, workflow should totally be approached and defined by how much time you can designate to managing the tasks in your practice. I don’t mean the time it takes to actually preform the task, I mean how much time you can spend managing the tasks.

Let’s explore that thought for just a minute, I don’t want you to miss it…

If you are a “boots on the ground” worker with client responsibilities at a large regional firm, you probably have at least a partner, a department head, a manager, and an office administrator all involved in prioritizing and defining the work you’re doing.

If you work in a small firm (10 total employees or less) or you are a solo practitioner, then the work you’re doing is probably defined by yourself and maybe the owner of the firm (if you’re not the owner).

The time that can be spent prioritizing, defining, and managing each task that gets worked on is totally different in each scenario.

Workflow for a larger firm means: Managing a complex system of resources and team members in order to most efficiently use those resources, and to process work to maximize profits.

Workflow for a small firm or a 1-man/woman practice means: Making sure we account for everything that needs to get done, and making sure it gets done completely and on time.

The two approaches to the same concept are totally different. And they should be.

Understand that workflow for you should be defined by what you need to get done, specific to your practice, in the real world. Not what workflow means in theory.

When you really internalize this, you can move forward and actually start using the concept of workflow for your benefit.

Since we are only concerned about small firms on this blog, (no offense, big firm readers) from here on out in this post, we’ll define workflow as:

Having a system to manage all the stuff you need to get done every day.

2.   Workflow doesn’t have to be a pain in the assets to implement

Can we be real with each other for a minute? It’s human nature to always look for the path of least resistance when it comes to work. If there is a faster, easier way to do something, we’ll go that route 99.9% of the time.

The key to success when implementing a workflow system in your practice is realizing up front that you’re going to do a little more work 5% of the time, to make your life 95% easier and less stressful every single day.

You have to recognize the benefit of taking the time to create a system once - that can do the heavy lifting for you for years to come.

So how do you create your workflow system?

You need to do 2 things:

1) Categorize/Tag the different types of work/projects that come through your door.

2) Document the steps/tasks & time frames it takes to complete each category.

Categorizing your work and project types is all about sitting down, brain storming, and jotting down your answers. 

Think about the criteria most of your work shares and feel free to think outside the box a little.

Here are some ideas:

  • Sure, tax returns are a “type” or “category” of work that you do, but how can you get more specific?
  • Can you further categorize by how complex the return is?
  • Can you handle returns differently based on if the client is an early filer vs. a late filer?
  • Can you handle the return differently based on how you hold the client interview (i.e., in-person/phone-in/mail-in or skype)?

The key here is to accurately identify the different ways you manage the work that comes through your door so you can set up an accurate workflow or project for each different category.

The power of a workflow is to have documented steps and systems in place so you and everyone in your office knows exactly what do to when this “type” of business or “project” comes through the door.

If you don’t take the time to accurately account for the different types of business that you process on a regular basis, it will be hard for you to create accurate steps and timeframes for the workflows/projects you implement for each category.

Documenting steps and timeframes for each category of work you wrote down is all about thinking through how you process business now.

Here is where you might need to involve other members of your staff (if you have staff) to help you identify key steps in the overall project of tackling that category of work that you might not even be aware of.

When you think about the steps of a project, before you jump into the minutia, you might want to first try and identify “blockers” or things that cannot get done until something else is done before it.

If you identify all the blockers in a project first and document all the key steps around those blockers, you may want to start there and edit your workflow overtime as you identify more efficient ways to get all the little steps done.

Sound like a lot of work? It doesn’t have to be.

Below is an Excel document we use to help identify all the key components of a project or workflow. Download the template and modify it for your needs. It’s that simple.

Running around stressed because you’re late for a deadline or because someone missed a key step in your process isn’t fun.

By taking the time to fill out this template for each category of business you came up with, you will have identified all of the key workflows for your practice and now all you have to do is manage them.

3.   You can manage your workflow different ways

Creating the system for how you process the work in your office is really simple as you just saw, but being determined to use that system day-in and day-out until it becomes a habit is where most people drop the ball and never see any benefit from their work.

The benefits are there, you just have to use the system enough so you can realize the value.

There are two ways you can manage your workflow:

1) Electronically, using a workflow or task/project management tool

2) Manually, using spreadsheets and transmittal forms

We recommend an electronic method.

We believe it’s the easiest to modify, the easiest to make a habit out of using, you never have to worry about someone’s awful handwriting, and you’re not at risk of losing any data to a fire, flood, theft, or simple misplacement.

If you’re looking for a great online workflow tool, we make one and we’d love for you to check it out – www.getsmartcenter.com.

Everybody is different, though. Some people need to do things on paper. If that’s your case, here are two templates you can use to help manage the workflow in your office on paper.

This first one is a transmittal form that helps you log each step of your file as it travels through your office. This is the actual form our co-founder, Chris, used in his tax practice before we started working on SmartCenter. It is currently set up for managing the workflow of a tax return, but feel free to modify it for use with any project.  

The second one is an Excel spreadsheet you can use to create a report and analyze the time it takes you to process each piece of business. Doing this analysis will help you identify sticking points in your workflow and show you which steps you need to modify to increase your efficiency. 

4.    Benefits of establishing a workflow in your office

You probably wouldn’t be reading a post about workflow if you didn’t think the concept was valuable, but I want to highlight what you can really gain (in the real world) by taking the time to implement workflow in your office.

If more people truly understood that these benefits were available and how easy it was to get them, workflow would see a much higher adoption rate in small firms.

Here are the real sticking points of what you will gain if you implement workflow systems in your practice:

1)   No one in your office will have to spend time thinking about what to do when a new piece of business comes through the door. Everyone will have documented steps of exactly what to do.

2)   Knowing these steps will give you and your staff added confidence in doing the work, because you’ll have a built-in “cheat sheet” to make sure you’re not forgetting anything.

3)   If you do have staff, you can spend less time managing them and they can become more comfortable completing their own work without your involvement.

4)   No steps in the process of handling a project will be missed, because each step and timeframe is documented. This will lead to a better end-product being delivered to the client.

5)   You’ll have confidence to charge a premium for your work because you’ll know each job will be done right and on time.

6)   Implementing workflow will decrease the stress and struggle you feel at work each and every day.

5.    What to watch out for when setting up your workflow

Ever hear the phrase, “You don’t know what you don’t know”?

Sometimes when you’re looking at a new concept to implement in your business, there are questions that you don’t even know you should be asking. 

Here are a few things to watch out for when implementing a workflow system in your practice.

Are you realistic about your goals?

There is no system in the universe that will help you get more organized, get more done, and make your life easier if you don’t use the system. Having a great tool is the first step, but realizing you’re 100% accountable for using it will help you to not have unrealistic expectations.

Does your workflow system integrate with everything else you’re doing?

A workflow tool is great to help you keep track of the business you’re processing, but having to maintain and update one software for workflow, one software for the documents you need for the project, and another software to keep track of your client touches is really defeating the purpose. Make sure whatever workflow solution you implement can integrate with everything else you need to manage.

Are you willing to accept that there is an easier way? 

Many times as adults, we’re hesitant to change the way we do things because making a change would mean admitting that the way we were doing something was wrong. Making large changes to how we manage our businesses is no different. We have to be courageous enough to look at what we’re doing honestly and admit to ourselves that sometimes there is a better way. And just because we switch the way we do something, doesn’t mean we were a bad person before. Allow yourself to feel the freedom that comes with being willing to change.

If you want to learn more about How to Make Next Tax Season Easier, check it out our last webinar here. We spoke in depth about implementing workflow systems in your practice.

I hope you enjoyed this post and will share it or let us know in the comments if you did.

About William Hamilton William is the co-founder of SmartCenter and a huge Lakers fan. All about finding ways to do things faster & better, he loves discussing anything that helps make life easier. Follow Will on Twitter - @Williamh4La