How to solve common workflow pain points
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.
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).
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).
- 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?