How to solve common workflow pain points

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Bobby Chadha identifies and solves a number of common practice management inefficiencies when observing a small Paddington firm.

If you ever want to know how efficient your firm is with calling in client work, completing tasks and working under time pressure, consider how you operate under pressure.

I watched a small firm with 11 employees in Paddington during Jan 2017 and then again in April, and what I found was very interesting.

Having observed this firm and by speaking with accountants, below are the common problems I came across which are emphasised during a period of significant time constraints:

  • Team falls behind on their work to complete by X date. 
  • Team not having a clear target/understanding of what work to complete by X date
  • Lack of collaboration within the team (e.g. if Bob worked on that client last year, he's too slow to offer his help to Ben). 
  • Ben not raising his hand early enough to ask for help.
  • Lack of prioritisation of jobs. 
  • Not being able to flex if there are one off requests from clients or new clients.
  • Not celebrating our wins when we completed large tasks.
  • Sitting on some work for a long period of time.
  • Too many manual processes which became a time and energy drain

What caused some of these issues?

  • We wanted to build better relationships within the team, you have to remember, many employees in the firm come from firms where it's a heads down, don’t talk, don’t ask, just do atmosphere.
  • This is, in my opinion, a toxic environment which typically focuses on timesheets rather than output. There also tends to be a culture of working in silos and not as a team. Help is often not provided by other team members who are worried about their own work completion and due to the toxic nature of such a place, a person in need of help rarely asks.
  • I noticed in some hires the traits of the 'Persian messenger syndrome', where they didn't want to share bad news such as 'I don’t think I'll get my work done in time'. This is not the fault of the person it's typical of an environment of fear and lack of openness within the firm they have come from which has forced them to adopt such a mindset.

My challenge was to change people’s mindsets and I started by providing opportunities for each team member to work together. 

How we solved it 

I called upon a basic principle when building software: fine-tuned the agile development principle to work for a small accounting firm.

To do this, I set up a Trello board and took an old TV from home and placed it in the office where the team sits. 

Trello

Picture: a colleague admiring the Trello board or looking worried because he has a lot left to do by Friday.

We introduced a 20 minute stand-ups every Monday morning and 10 minutes every Thursday. We as a team stand around the TV with the Trello board open. Each team member gets access to Trello. You can use your white boards and draw columns instead. You could do this daily (recommended if your job turnover is high during payroll yearend or January tax returns) or every other day.

Each team member talks through what they’re currently working on, what they have just completed and if they need any support. Each team member spends a few minutes each talking through their work. If you have a large firm with a distributed team, nominate someone to ensure this happens at an office level or team level.

How it works

We have four simple columns: Jobs to call in, jobs to do, jobs in progress and done. We do have a fifth column with instructions on using the board. Each colleague is assigned a job and a due date. It's the responsibility of each team member to do the job assigned and move the 'job' through the columns to 'done' (example below).

Trello

Benefits we instantly noticed

  • Collaboration within team was amazing to see: colleagues were openly asking for help and were more than happy to help.
  • Reality check for us. When you divide out the work for each staff member and visualise it on a board is it realistic to do the amount of work you're allocating within the week where you have a huge amount of payroll related tasks to complete? It helped us become better at planning.
  • Breakdown of tasks within each job, so each job is digestable and none are forgotten. By breaking down the job within the card, you can allocate elements of a larger job to different employees to ensure the work gets done within the timescale you want (example below).
Trello
  • Prioritisation: time bound jobs are prioritised (placed higher up the Trello board and given a colour tag) so you can't miss a pay run or a tax return. It helps immensely if you get a request out of the blue (we all do) which was not planned but taken on. You can have a quick look at the board, assess if it’s realistic to take on this new request and make a trade off against another job.
  • Everyone knows what they have to do – no confusion, clear goals and jobs assigned and it brings to life the reality of your time constraints that exist in all firms.
  • Focus on output (jobs completed) not time spent per job.
  • Feedback and review every Monday - were you able to do what you planned to do last week? If not, why? Did you underestimate the work required to do the jobs or were there too many out of the blue requests? What can you improve or change this week? The open dialogue and trust built by coming together to solve these common goals (jobs) was brilliant to witness and each team member provides feedback when looking back at the completed week.
  • Identified slow progressing jobs - why has job X not progressed by the due date? Why is job Y still under the to-do column? Does employee X need help with that work? What do we need to do to complete this job?
  • Praise and recognition - we celebrate when we see jobs under the done column at the end of the week. Just telling the team well done and thanking them for their efforts creates such a positive environment.

Collaborating and working together as one team against a common goal is a natural trait in us all. How you manage the workflow within your firm?

 

 

About Bobby Chadha

Bobby Chadha

Product Innovation at Deloitte

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08th Aug 2017 10:07

Great article, Bobby.

We have a Trello-type system too. Putting it on a screen where everyone can see it (rather than checking it on your own PC) is a great idea. We have an old monitor which could do the job!

Thanks (1)
08th Aug 2017 10:23

thanks Cardigan, thats great to hear. I've even seen people re-purpose the customary white board with hand drawn columns and it works well.
The science around the team huddled around the board together is to promote team work and the sense of 'we're all in this together'. It also forces people to share what they're doing and what they need support with.
I've also used apps such as Appear.in and Zoom if you're working with an outsourced/remote team where you can share your screen and switch on the laptop camera, it's the next best thing to being there in person. Enjoy and let me know how you get on. Bobby.

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08th Aug 2017 10:39

Very interesting observation, Bobby. Are there simple ways to integrate a generic "kanban" style system (like Trello) into existing practice management solutions (and does this Paddington firm use other PM tools) or would you recommend using a PM solution that is itself based on kanban principles?

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08th Aug 2017 12:15

Fantastic post Bobby.

Although we use PM software, we use it mainly for CRM billing and timesheets. We dont really use the deadlines module as its not very versatile, and the workflow module is harder to use than doing the job itself.

So I'd like to start a shared spreadsheet for deadlines.

Would a deadlines spreadsheet be separate from a Trello chart or could it be integrated?

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to yaakovgrant
08th Aug 2017 13:31

Thanks Yaakovgrant, Its a very good question re:Google sheets/shared spreadsheet for deadline mgt and I've come across this many times with firms. Whilst it solves the pain of job awareness and management within a firm its not as effective to use as something like Trello. Here is a list of some differences I've observed when faced with Shared spreadsheet vs Trello question-

* you can quickly lose control with spreadsheets. your team WILL end up adding additional 'phases' which will make life difficult when managing the workflow. Phases such as 'Called client but didn't pick up the phone' is one such example.
* Collaboration in Trello is very good. You can literally add specific people to specific jobs so they understand what they personally have to do which helps immensely. The chat functional and alerts too are fantastic in trello.
* Mobile app for Trello is great. you get alerts on your phone/email when there is movement on a job or when you have added a comment.
* Its made for project management. So a job may have multiple smaller aspects to it, trello allows you to create sub tasks within a job card whilst looking neat and not too overwhelming.

I'm sure there are others but I hope this helps. P.s Trello is free to use, just sign up and play with a demo 'board' and see if it works for you.

Cheers, Bobby

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to Bobby Chadha
09th Aug 2017 12:41

ok, points (2) - (4) have won me over! As my firm says to me about Xero "are you on commission for Trello?" :)

Looking forward to seeing the pics, as sign up and play usually convinces just me, as you need some foresight to visualise the fully populated/ functioning version.

Is the free to use version fully functional?

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to yaakovgrant
09th Aug 2017 14:11

hahaha I wish I was on commission from them. It's just a great tool to use. It's free and its fully functional for the needs I've encountered.

I've made the example board public and visible to all - https://trello.com/b/qyiMOSrG
You can make a copy of this rough and ready board I created and start populating your own info. Enjoy and let me know how you get on. Cheers, Bobby

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08th Aug 2017 12:23

hey Charlie, this particular firm uses Iris with the tax / stat / open docs modules and they pull the job list from Iris and then enter it in to Trello. I have yet to come across a good practice mgt solution which allows the flexibility of Trello with all the modules of tax / stats etc built in.

I've also seen firms who simply use Trello or similar kanban style software whilst using Taxfiler/VT for their tax and stat accounts. You can simply add a card with a due date in trello (which in effect is the job you want to call in at X date). You can then allocate your colleagues to the job (job mgt) and then seek updates and collaboration around the progress of the job (workflow mgt).

For you, I recommend using Trello or QBOA (which recently started to look more like Trello) but doesnt yet have the flexibility of Trello. If you get the time, check out the trello integrations too.
Cheers, Bobby

Thanks (2)
to Bobby Chadha
09th Aug 2017 09:24

Thanks, Bobby. Great advice. I was discussing the new QBOA kanban workflow option with my staff today.

Thanks (1)
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08th Aug 2017 14:29

I am an aging accountant with one employee, my wife, who does the admin. For many years we have used a simple 24 x 68 T-card system on the wall of her office - each slot is one client with four coloured T cards.
The T-cards display just the name on each:
white, nothing from client yet; yellow, books-in; orange, work in progress; green, all done. We only have around 70 clients now.
Dead simple, no electronic complexity, no upgrades, on-going costs nil. We can stand together in front of the display, the whole client base on view, and chat through who or what's next best to do. It gives an instant WIP picture and visual sense of where you are as the whites turn to yellow then to orange then to green. And therefore often an instant prompt to contact a client.
Frequently we'll call a client there and then as we're looking at the board; perhaps they've promised something, or we need just a simple bit of info to turn an orange into green. I wouldn't change it for an e-system of any kind.

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to accountsman
08th Aug 2017 16:00

Hi accountsman, what you describe is fantastic. I've seen some firms draw columns on their whiteboards too and use coloured magnets from Amazon to indicate exactly what youe coloured cards do. It doesn't haven't to be hi-tech but just understanding the WIP with in your case colour indicators is also a great way to manage jobs and workflow. Thanks for sharing,
Bobby

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08th Aug 2017 15:00

Thanks Bobby, very interesting article.

Shame I can't see the detail of the trello boards you have included as examples

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to Kent accountant
08th Aug 2017 16:02

Hi there, yup Richard from AccWeb has just asked me for a high quality version of the images. I'll update the pics shortly. Thanks for your comment, Bobby

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to Bobby Chadha
10th Aug 2017 15:36

*The article has been amended to enlarge Trello images.

Thanks (1)
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16th Aug 2017 10:12

I'm not in practice but this is a great article and the advice can be adapted for other areas too.

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