December 19, 2019
“If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing”
-- W. Edwards Deming
For most of my career as the owner of a small firm, I used few if any formal processes. I believed formal structure to be a form of micromanagement that hinders opportunities for developing skill sets or accountability in my employees. Detailed process seemed like a crutch to compensate for a disability rather than a tool to expand capability. Recently, in a workshop conducted by Jacquelyn (Jackie) Tracy, CPA, my viewpoint changed radically when she showed how process isn't for the staff’s convenience but for the owner’s. She emphasized the consistency, confidence, and efficiency that process creates. I took a careful look at my practice and realized that in the limited areas where detailed process did exist, all the positive elements she described were there. I saw that where I had no process, I had problems.
With this new perspective on process and my excitement to test the benefits it might bring, I jumped in the deep end and set out to develop process for every facet of my office. Eager as I was, I struggled at first and soon realized that in a small firm process often exists only in the habits of those who understand it as natural or intuitive. For me, as master of my routine for many years, I knew at a glance how things should go. But as soon as I started to develop a support team, I realized that I had a lot that needed to be set down and formalized.
I immediately felt overwhelmed, convinced that no one has time for this sort of thing. (Perfectionism hindered me too, but that’s another matter.) But I also knew that my people needed the process. I reviewed my notes from Jackie’s workshop, and found solace in her recommendations:
Starting with an outline of the ‘big steps’ and communicating the desired process outcome, I had staff help fill in the small steps. We met and discussed the basic, important elements, and created a basic process. Once we had a basic process created, we could consider the other steps:
The team drafted process documents, then tried them in their workflow and modified them as needed until they came up with good, working proofs. We introduced broad-spectrum guidance (daily process) as well as specialized project guidance (tax return, payroll, and bookkeeping processes). We had staff use the new processes and note steps they believed needed to be changed (removed, rearranged, additional steps added, etc.).
Process development is a dynamic, inclusive endeavor. It provides a chance not only to practice delegation but brings additional benefits from teamwork. In my experience, total team involvement encouraged collaborative communication and emphasized individual ‘ownership’ of the processes which a staff member would use in practice. It also provided an opportunity for feedback in topics where an employee was working for the first time. I found that the development of process helps to encourage pride in ownership for tasks accomplished as well as creative team investment in the overall growth and development of the firm. My firm values a culture of communication, and I found that process development, rather than dryly micromanaging individual behavior according to an algorithm of to-dos, really enhances and bolsters our culture of communication.
I found the greatest difficulty in developing process is getting started on it at all. If you're interested in developing process – and I really think you should be – I recommend that you sit down and look at the things you need to get done that you would like to delegate, or things you can identify as recurring events in your office that are a matter of routine. Document the steps you take to complete them. Have your staff review the steps by following the document and encourage them to share any thoughts or questions that they have. Look for and fill in any gaps they have in understanding how the process is supposed to work. Institute the process as a matter of necessity and check in routinely to see what's working and what's not. Encourage people to make notes and recommendations, and to discuss how the process is going after it’s been in play for a while. Diversity of use is also important: Design it with the goal that someone unfamiliar with the process can sit down and follow it with a high likelihood of a good outcome. Validate the process by noting closed gaps, reduced error, and more efficient output, as well as improved team morale.
I discovered that Jackie was right: Process is for the owner, especially in a small firm. I continue to develop process as an opportunity to encourage good, constructive communication and to create a culture where my staff can comfortably share ideas with confidence and make a personal investment in the structure and growth of the firm. The development of process, as a team endeavor, provides avenues for staff to develop professional confidence and creative problem-solving skills. This is especially true for new staff or those beginning unfamiliar work. It also creates an opportunity to define and satisfy team or company expectations, which is necessary for clear and effective feedback. The most important take-away may be this: As fundamentally firm-changing as process development is, the users of the process should take a leading role in its development.
“… managers and their people, together, manage the processes – the systems – that comprise your business. Management is less about who gets things done in your business than about how things get done.”
--Michael E. Gerber, The E Myth Accountant
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